Is there any value in reviewing books that have been out for a long, long time? I don’t know. There are probably several hundred thousand reviews on the web for The Eye of the World (Book 1 in the Wheel of Time series). This is true for many old books, but given the history of The Wheel of Time, it’s even more likely to be true.
The Wheel of Time is a series of books that grew up with the Internet. It was really the first time I’d seen a community (rec.arts.written.sf.robert-jordan, or rawsfrj) form around a set of books, grow, flourish, expand and then collapse again. The politics, emotion and inquisitiveness of that community is forever tied to my experience of reading the books themselves. The community was almost bigger than the books. That community was all over the Internet, web pages, ftp sites, usenet, irc, and so the web is littered with reviews, polemics, papers and discussions of the series ad infinitum.
So, is there any point? No, probably not. But it’s not going to stop me.
You didn’t think it would, did you?
Of course, that doesn’t make reviewing it easy. I’ve read the book at least twice, maybe three times before my current re-read (which at the point of starting this review, I haven’t quite finished). I know what’s coming up, both in terms of the story and in terms of the quality. The Wheel of Time is famous for many things, but not least among them is the debate about the quality of the books in the middle of this long, long series. Greatest among them of course, is the untimely and tragic death of Robert Jordan himself, and then eventual completion of the series by Brandon Sanderson. So while I have not yet read all the books in the series (and starting with book 1 is my attempt to fix that), I have read many of them.
Reviewing a book you’ve already read is hard enough, reviewing it objectively when you know how later books turn out is problematic, and this is further coloured by the question of who cares now anyway, and why am I reviewing a book that’s so old?
Is this a review then, or a retrospective? It’s both! I promise, and I’ll try and be at least a little bit entertaining.
The Eye of the World will feel familiar to anyone with a love of epic high fantasy. Queens, wizards, farm boys with prophecy in their veins, Kings, ancient evils and quests abound from start to finish. The world is rich, filled out, complex, political and deadly. The story is engaging, interesting, and feels as though it’s grounded in a solid mythology that can only bode well for the following books.
The Eye of the World tells the story of a small band of would-be not-quite heroes from a small village, guided in their journey by a powerful magic wielding woman and her powerful warder companion. The pace is pretty solid, despite the size of the novel, and the adventures take the characters through many places and cultures, before culminating in what all good epic high fantasy books culminate in, a fight, and a cliff hanger.
It’s not all roses. Jordan has a tendency to use the same phrases over and over again, and you will constantly hear about how two of three of the boys in the group are much better at talking to girls than the others, and the girls will constantly rail about how the boys are wool headed. There will be braid pulling, and there will be repetition. If you can deal with that, then there’s a lot to be found in the book.
If you get into it, and start feeling like it’s familiar, you’ll be forgiven if you’ve ever read Lord of the Rings. A quest, an evil artifact, a powerful wizard guide, a stern taciturn warrior of noble heritage, and a collection of young farmhands, at least one of which likes to get into mischief will set off alarm bells. Jordan himself said he ‘styled the first 100 pages on Tolkien to give people something familiar to get into the story’. I suspect he actually styled the entire first book on Tolkien, but have no fear, it’s a homage not a rip-off, and he wouldn’t be the first, or the last (The Sword of Shannara <cough>).
If you like epic fantasy, if you like prophecy riddled rich worlds, then read The Eye of the World, you’ll enjoy it.
I try and avoid actual plot spoilers in this section, but I do reveal some of my frustrations with the overall series to date, so you may want to read carefully if you’ve never read the books.
The Eye of the World is a bitter-sweet experience for me. It’s really quite good, as far as epic fantasy goes. It has some lovely mythology, some careful and clever connections, and the characters, magic and places are engaging. It clips along at a fast enough pace, and loads of stuff happens (seriously, loads).
But in that regard, it’s like watching the first Police Academy movie, knowing the steaming pile of shit they turn into. Are the later books steaming piles of shit? Probably not quite that bad (read later reviews to find out) but certainly I know in my heart (from memory, I may change my mind) that Jordan loses his way. His tight story becomes flabby, his characters become caricatures, and the world gets too complex for its own good.
So reading it, I found myself longing for 10 more books like it, knowing it’s not to be. But I was also surprised at just how good it was, and just how much happens. The later books had skewed my memory and left me feeling sad about The Eye of the World, when it fact, it’s a very good read indeed.
The Angry Spoilers
There are spoilers here, for the book and possibly for the series. Stop reading if, somehow, you’ve never read these books before.
Argh! Jordan! Why? So so much happens in the first book. I had forgotten how much of the world is revealed to us. We learn more in the first half of the first book, than in all of books 4 to 8 (as far as I can remember). In book one we have, in no order (excuse my spelling, I’m writing these through the red haze of anger in my eyes),
steddings, ogier, saidin and saidar, the taint, the ways, warders, aes sedai, fades, trollocs, draghkar, Aiel, travellers, the ages, forsaken, dream walking, darkfriends, red ajah, blue ajah, black ajah, the heroes of the horn, the horn, machin shin, shadar logoth, mashadar, loads of ancient place names, loads of history, plenty of prophecy, false dragons, wolf brothers, old skills, angreal, gentling, whitecloaks and so much more.
There is so much promise in the first book, so much content, so much to interest you, and yet within 4 or 5 novels Jordan will have utterly lost his way and the story will become flabby. New characters turning up well past the point where we need to start resolving threads. I know it’s coming. It’s hard to read the book knowing that is around the corner.
Why Jordan!? Wwhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!
But seriously, read book one, it’s good.