Born among black, knife-edged peaks, where death roamed the high passes yet hid from things still more dangerous, the wind blew south across the tangled forest of the Great Blight, a forest tainted and twisted by the touch of the Dark One.
Why I read it
That whole rollercoaster ride of fantasy genre contempt and redemption is recounted here.
Excuse me, I have something in my eye
Something really interesting happened in this book: the series grew up all of a sudden. When I wrote about Book 1 I said it had such a simplistic morality it was basically a kid’s book. While The Great Hunt is still no philosophical blockbuster, it’s gained a bit of meat on its bones. Whereas the personal challenges faced by the characters in The Eye of the World were Enid-Blytonesque things like homesickness, identity crisis, jealousy and the occasional crush, in The Great Hunt they’ve become things like seduction, manipulation, hopelessness, enslavement, manipulation and betrayal.
At the end of the book I was actually in tears. Me! While reading a fantasy novel! Yes. It’s true.
How did things come to this
There were two bits in this book that really stood out for me. I’ll call them the ‘Trousers of Time’ and ‘Big Brother’ bits.
The Trousers of Time happens when one of the main characters steps through a magic portal into a no-man’s-land between different bifurcated parallel universes. He whizzes between lives that Might Have Been. He sees himself as an adult who never left Emond’s Field with Moiraine, for example. Happy, but about to get involved as a minor player in a war he doesn’t understand. I was amazed how confronting these scenes were. It was far more heartwrenching to contemplate these lives half lived, than to confront, you know, a black figure of pure evil spewing fire out of his eye holes about to try and kill our hero with a burny spike. (This also happens.) What’s more, it made me look at my own life. Am I in one of those side-universes right now? Did I take a wrong turn down the universe-bifurcating Trousers of Time myself at some stage? Is there some higher purpose my alternate self is striving for while I am sitting here writing lonely paragraphs about fantasy novels into the electronic void? And so forth, until I wanted to push my knuckles into my eyes and went and made myself a snack instead.
The Big Brother bit involves a different main character getting held prisoner by the enemy. But this is no comfortable shake-the-bars-and-wait-to-be-rescued type captivity. This is true, 1984-style horror, with all the helplessness and violence and violation that comes with it, and it leads to a situation where good characters really, really want to do bad things. For me this was the climactic episode of the book, much more so than the ‘true’ climax that involves people (sigh, spoiler alert) fighting while standing magically in the sky. It made me actually want them to do bad things to the bad people, and for that reason I think it makes a point about morality and evil and choice better than other classic fantasy: better than Luke and Vader in Star Wars, better than Frodo and Gollum in Lord of the Rings, better than Harry Potter and Voldemort. Because in those, there was really never any question about what they should have done. Right?
Anyway, because of that, even a fighting-in-the-sky scene was able to tip me into teariness at the end.
The boring bits
There were boring bits.
In Cairhien, not even the interesting premise of the political Game was enough to keep me interested. Mostly, this was just because I wanted to find out what was going to happen, and instead things get stuck in a place with not much plot progression. To get through it, I called on the fantasy reading technique that got me through the first Thomas Covenant books: reading inertia. I just plowed through them like someone running up a sand dune – you know that if you stop you may never get started again.
The bad bits
Robert Jordan’s sentence structures trip me up. In the first few chapters of both books I’ve had to re-read sentences over and over before they make sense. And they’re often completely over the top, like the quote at the top of this post. I think the solution is just to get into the reading zone where you don’t notice the words, just the pictures they paint in your head.
And then there’s something that’s every writers’ nightmare: that your favourite word morphs into slang that means something else entirely. Like how with Enid Blyton everything was ‘gay’, or how the attacking aliens that drove the whole story in Ender’s Game were called the Buggers. For Robert Jordan it’s the word ‘taint’. Rand Al’Thor felt the taint… From the Blight, the wind carried the smell of taint… Just like in Ender’s Game, it’s a matter of keeping a stiff upper lip, saying a prayer it never happens to something you write yourself, and ploughing through.
I’m still not sure whether the effect this book had on me was mostly because it is great, or mostly because of my super-low expectations. In any case, the series has really picked up from the first book. If it keeps up at this rate, Book 14 is going to blow everyone’s minds.
This book was mostly read near a cat.