Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: The Eye of the World (Book 1 of The Wheel of Time)


The Eye of the World (1990), Robert Jordan. Paperback, 688 pages. 

Summary: A young man and his companions flee their backwater town after discovering that a terrible and mysterious dark spirit seeks them with demonic minions. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:
     Below them, just starting up the slope, marched Trollocs carrying poles tipped with great loops of rope or long hooks. Many Trollocs. The line stretched far to either side, the ends out of sight, but at its center, directly in front of Lan, a Fade rode.
     The Myrddraal seemed to hesitate as the humans appeared atop the hill, but in the next instant it produced a sword with the black blade Rand remembered so queasily, and waved it over its head. The line of Trollocs scrambled forward.
     Even before the Myrddraal moved, Lan's sword was in his hand. "Stay with me!" he cried, and Mandarb plunged down the slope toward the Trollocs. "For the Seven Towers!" he shouted.
     Rand gulped and booted the gray forward; the whole group of them streamed after the Warder. He was surprised to find Tam's sword in his fist. Caught up by Lan's cry, he found his own. "Manetheren! Manetheren!"
     Perrin took it up. "Manetheren! Manetheren!"
     But Mat shouted, "Carai an Caldesar! Caraian Ellisande! Al Ellisand!"

STATS

Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 3/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 5/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 3/10
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Overall Recommendation: 4/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 4/10. Compared with other writers, Robert Jordan is not great. But at least he doesn't trip over amateurish mistakes as often as Terry Brooks, or even worse, Terry Goodkind. Still, it's not hard to find silly descriptions like "her voice held the sound of cold tears" or "her eyes twinkled with amusement, though she gave no other sign of it." Both are lazy ways of describing someone's attitude without showing it through any behavior or style of speech. You'll also see a lot of frilly and useless little fancies, like that someone's eyes are "as cold and blue as a midwinter dawn," or one of my favorite dumb descriptions, that the "pale sun" was "crisply dark, as though mixed with shadow." I'm sure Jordan had a vision for what he was trying to convey, but this last phrasing is almost nonsensical. More than anything, though, Jordan seems to suffer from an inability to edit his work down to the parts of the story that really matter. He'll throw in paragraphs mundanely describing the contents of a room or a desk, never intending to have any character interact with those items. They're just there for "show." And this is the reason the book is so long, and why he never finished the blasted series. It's too bad, because if he could have tightened up his prose (if only he'd modeled the beautiful sparseness of Cormac McCarthy's The Road!), he probably would have avoided a lot of the stupid repetitions and silly frills that show up all over the place. This novel could easily have been half as long, and it would have been much better.

Depth of Concept: 3/10. Much as I described in my review of Terry Brook's The Sword of Shannara, most of the interesting interpretations in this novel about embodied good and evil are simply borrowed from Tolkien or other masters like him. The only area where Jordan is perhaps slightly more interesting is that he sets up several of his characters to seem mysterious and/or manipulative, even though they're on the "good" team. He allows some of his characters to struggle with choices that may not be perfect "goods" the way Brooks does. And the basic characteristic of men who wield magic is that they always risk succumbing to a sort of "dark side." But even if the moral ambiguity is somewhat present, it's still not particularly original, and in the end, the ambiguity seems not really to be ambiguous after all.

Rounded Characters: 4/10. The characters in this series are marginally more interesting than some other bestseller fodder, like that of Terry Brooks and Terry Goodkind. But it's frustrating when characters do or say silly things, as when Mat turns to Rand "with a grin," after narrowly escaping death by a horde of Trollocs, and convinces his two friends to go exploring in a mysterious city without telling their protectors (again). It starts to feel that Jordan wants his characters to get into a certain situation, but doesn't always know how to get them there or present realistic motivations. There's also the boring use of interactions between men and women. Several love-interest types disgustedly exclaim "Men!" every few pages, setting up a silly and cliche war of the sexes. And then there's the cliche coming-of-age feelings of a youth towards the opposite sex: "He did not want to dance with her, but at the same time he wanted nothing so little as the uncomfortable way he was sure to feel while he was with her. The way he felt right then." If you're going to bother with this sort of thing, at least try to make it feel a little more fresh or insightful and not the typical "I'm starting to have strange feelings when I'm around her" bit.

Well-Developed World: 5/10. Eh. It's better than some "epic" fantasy novels, but still not particularly interesting. The magic system might be engaging for some, but I find it sort of obnoxiously explained, not very organic at all. And the fate "woven in the pattern" mumbo-jumbo that sort of rips off the Eastern concept of yin/yang doesn't feel like it has the rich mythic back-story that you get a sense of when you read Tolkien, for instance. But, in terms of the actual geography of the world, it seems a lot more thoughtfully planned than Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, for instance, or Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule. And there's legitimate political intrigue, even if it's a little tangential to the plot, which neither Brooks nor Goodkind succeeds in doing in their first novels.

Page Turner: 6/10. For all its faults and flaws, this series-starter still had enough "oumph" in it for me to read 50 or 100 pages at a time. Magical action can be fun. But when characters start getting separated, the momentum bogs down, I think, and I usually ended up putting the book down when I found myself hankering for something better paced or better written. And I always found it daunting that since it was seeming to take forever to get through this novel, I might never make it through the series to find out how everything turns out.

Kept Me Thinking: 3/10. Yeah, not really. Completely diversionary. Sort of an easy read in between better reads.
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Overall Recommendation: 4/10. It's not the worst fantasy out there, but there are so many good things to choose from, why begin a series that you'll have to slog through for years? It does come to my mind, though, that a student might write an interesting paper comparing some of the bestselling fantasy writers, and exploring their obsession with massive novels, far longer in fact than The Lord of the Rings. I can think of two reasons: the more books, the more money, so why try to wrap things up neatly? And it can be hard to write cleanly, to edit out the crap to make your story better. Many of these bestselling authors have probably never been forced to do that kind of thing in creative writing classes, and most probably never wrote a thesis or dissertation. But then the question is: why do readers gobble this stuff up so eagerly, when there's so much better stuff to choose from?

Books To Compare: You'd obviously need to take a look at the source material, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring. Beyond that, there's not really any quality work of literature that really merits a comparison. For a more intelligent effort at multiple perspectives and epic nation-building, take a look at George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Eye of the World on Amazon.

5 comments:

  1. I've actually read most of this series - but many years ago. I have yet to complete it, even though I feel a obligation to do so, some day. We(hubby and I) enjoyed the story. But it is extremely long and a little tedious. Have you read any Brandon Sanderson(he is the author chosen to finish WOT, but has several of his own books). Elantra was the first one I read and I found it a good read - maybe not thought provoking, but a good relaxing read(and onely one book)

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    1. Yeah, I've read Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker and I started the first Mistborn book but didn't get very far into it. I think he's a more capable writer than Jordan, frankly, although he's still not my favorite. I've actually taken two college creative writing classes from him, and they were great. My style may not be quite in line with his passions (massive world-building, complicated magic systems), but his frank discussions about trying to make it as a writer were really refreshing, and I'd take another class from him again if I could.

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  2. This is my wife's favorite series and I know people who have read the ENTIRE thing all the way through more than once. I found it incredibly boring with the occasional flicker of interest. For real intrigue and interest, try Sean Russell's World without End and Cloud Gatherer books. Thankfully, from your review and my wife's horrified reactions, I'll never have to endure the Sword of Truth books. I hate those generic names too, Sword of Truth, Song of Ice and Fire. No personality, no emotion. It's like the fight of Red versus Blue, or Up versus Left, who cares?

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    1. I liked A Game of Thrones well enough, with a few reservations, but I agree that it gets a little tedious to name fantasy novels after weapons.

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  3. This book was recommended to me by the manager of a brick and mortar store nearby. I have read a great deal of science fiction/fantasy, and after a while, it all starts to feel the same. You know what I mean: how many times can we revisit Tolkein-esque charcaters like elves, dwarves, and orcs? I was very pleased to discover an entirely new world.
    Robert Jordan has created a landscape of magnificent proportions. Accents, legends, superstitions, politics...His amazing attention to detail allowed me to become fully immersed in the story. Even more surprising is that the quality of his writing is maintained throughout the book's length of 782 pages. I couldn't put this novel down, with the result that I finished it well inside of a week.
    This is the first book of a series, and the reviews for some of the later books aren't as glowing. However, I feel that this book is a great read, and can stand on its own. It is not uncommon for series to degrade over time -- take a look at "Wishsong of Shannara"by Terry Brooks, "The One Tree" by Stephen R. Donaldson, or "The Sorceress of Darshiva" by David Eddings. All three of these books fail to live up to the quality of others in their respective series, but that doesn't mean you should avoid the series altogether.
    "Eye of the World" provides us with an epic that is also refreshingly new. Robert Jordan presents us with a world that is the most richly colorful since Tolkein. If you're a fan of fantasy, then don't miss reading this book.
    For more comments and reviews...
    http://www.storebit.com/Books/The-Eye-of-the-World-(The-Wheel-of-Time--Book-1)-[Mass-Market-Paperback]9780812511819/

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