The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.
Why I read it
Why did I read it? Excellent question. I asked myself the same thing over and over as I struggled through the prologue. ‘Why am I battling through these triple-barrelled, apostrophe’d, agnominal names?’ I’d ask myself. ‘Why am I still reading a book where every other word is ‘motes’, ‘rents’, ‘gilt’, ‘heaved’, ‘sinuous’, ‘pitiful’, ‘wracked’, or something else heavy and over-earnest? Why am I still reading something that needs Capitals for so many Normal Things, like the Wheel, the Shadow, the Light, Healing, the Voice, the Singing, Sisters, Companions, the True Source, Traveling, the One Power? Why am I keeping my face in front of this firehose of fantasy cliché when, in the space of a dozen pages, it’s already blasted out The Ring of Tamyrlin, The Nine Rods of Dominion, the Hall of Servants, the Gates of Paaran Disen, the World Sea, the Dragon, the Kinslayer, the Great Lord of the Dark, and a laughing man in a black cape wearing thigh-high boots? Is there really a need for all that screaming? Or the phrase ‘Remember, you fool!’?’
And all that before I even got to what’s labelled Page 1.
The answer, though, was simple: I was reading it under duress. J grew up with this series and loves it. He forced me to read at least the first book, even after I explained in detail why I find fantasy the most boring and frustrating genre in the world.
Why I find fantasy the most boring and frustrating genre in the world
It’s true the only fantasy I’ve really read has been the Hobbit and the first few Thomas Covenant books. There’s a reason I stopped after those and never looked back.
The Hobbit seemed like an endless, featureless journey with so many interchangeable characters that I never could picture in my head who was there at any given time. All I remember of it now is the bit where he meets Gollum.
Thomas Covenant was a creep who raped a woman at the start of book 1 and spent the next three thousand pages pitying himself for it. There were lots of forgettable journeys and I gave the whole thing up around book 4 when suddenly the story jumps to a totally different country and all the characters and geography you’ve spent time getting to know are thrown out the window. Blech.
Since then, any story that needs a map or more than four hundred pages has turned me off.
A little bit more seriously
Maps and journeys aside, I think some people are just naturally predisposed to fantasy and others aren’t. A guy I once worked with called this sort of thing the ‘diamonds and compost’ theory (he was a biologist, so ‘compost’ isn’t the negative term you might assume). ‘You’re either a diamond person or a compost person,’ he’d say. ‘You either like everything complex but crystalline, or you like it juicy and messy and full of life. If they were sent to Antarctica, the first type of person would choose a mainland location with its minimalist icy landscapes. The second person would want to go to Macquarie Island with its mud and plants and animals and smells and noises.’ He was a compost person. At the time I was so much a diamond person that I didn’t even realise some people thought differently until he told me.
The fiction equivalent of diamonds and compost might be sci-fi and fantasy. I’m reducing things to a shaky generalisation here, but I think I like sci-fi because it often takes a single idea and explores it. Fantasy, on the other hand, annoys me partly because it gives so much time and attention to the ‘messy’ details along the way – the different places and customs and people and languages and conversations – whereas they make me impatient; to me they’re just wasting time. Yes, I’m interested in languages and places, but only if they’re part of the ideas that are being discussed. In other words, I want the author to shut up and get to the point.
What I thought about Eye of the World
So – imagine my surprise when I started getting really engrossed in this book.
The characters are all kind of interesting, and not only are there women, but they are skilled and adventurous. I was a bit worried after the first chapter which was all braided hair and maypoles and traditional gender roles, but Nynaeve and Egwene (NYE-neeve and eg-WEEN – yes, this is a book that needs (and has) a pronunciation guide and glossary at the back) turn out to be pretty awesome. They still live in a world where everyone (including the main male characters) have the enlightenment of the nineteen-fifties, but given those constraints it’s pretty good.
The journey, for once, was pretty cool. The main characters are from a tiny village in a corner of the world, and as they venture out and pass through grander and grander places you, too, get a sense of continued awe.
There are good moments of suspense, and sections of sustained unease, and exciting revelations, and hints, and evocative descriptions of scenery and people and so on. And it actually has a climax and conclusion at the end of the book – it doesn’t do that thing where it ends on a cliffhanger so you have to get the next one in the series. It’s a good story. I was carried along and entertained.
One more thing: it’s a story of good versus evil, but for now (at least) it’s a benign division. Important people so far have been unambiguously Good or Bad. There may be some in the middle who are just unthinking and reactionary, but there have been no moments of real, crippling moral uncertainty, or existential angst or whatnot. As complex as the Wheel of Time universe is, this makes the story (so far) basically a kid’s book. It’s also why I enjoyed reading it (if I’m going to read 800 pages of anything, I want it to be pleasant and not too harrowing).
This is such a popular series* that you can’t go anywhere on the internet without reading a spoiler. Even in the process of finding the cover image at the top of this post I accidentally saw a spoiler for a major negative event that happens to the main character in thirteen books’ time. Holy crap. It’s like being told, say, you’re going to move into a concentration camp in twenty-fourty-four. Big event, something clearly distressing on a large scale has happened there, and it’s so far in the future it’s not going to affect you now – but holy crap, now that knowledge will be hanging over you for thirty years. Or thirteen books.
Problem is, there are some great commentaries out there, by smart and interesting people, and I really want to read them because fragments I’ve seen have increased my appreciation for the book. But they too have big spoilers.
This, though, might be one of the factors that’s making me want to read on. It seems to be suggesting that the story is smart and interesting enough to be intertwined in complex ways, and is more than a ‘he saw, she saw’ linear narrative. That exciting revelations and explanations might be coming.
I think this is the first ever fantasy book I’ve ever read where I’m starting to develop real affection for the world and characters. Good grief, I think I’m even going to read Book 2.
If A is for Ox was one of the most beautiful books in the world, my copy of Eye of the World is one of the least. It’s a paperback with a cheap spine that flakes around the creases, cover art that’s not my kind of thing (maybe a diamonds/compost thing here again), terrible word spacing on the front cover (mine is slightly different to the image at top), actual yellow type on the blue back cover, yellowish paper, mottled print, bland and unnecessary clip art at the start and end of each chapter, and amateurish hand-drawn maps. But parts of this also give it a kind of best-loved bear feel, which can be worth a lot more than glossy design.
Edit: I’ve since changed my mind about the above statement. I know not every book has an unlimited design budget or puts a priority on quality materials. But crappy quality just shows disdain for the author and the readers. Seriously, there’s a whole profession dedicated to making books nice. Use them.
This book was mostly read indoors while wearing tracky dacks.
*The series even has its own annual convention, JordanCon.