When I started my re-read of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, I initially planned to read all 15 novels (including the forthcoming A Memory of Light), and do a single, if lengthy, review at the series at the end of it all. Since then, a few things have happened to change my mind about my approach.
First, Bubbawheat of Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights suggested I give updates a few times during the course of the reading. Which got me thinking on whether it was really valuable, blogging-wise, to write a post announcing the start of the reading project and then not say anything else on it until it was finished several months later. I’m thinking no. Secondly, a few books down, I realized that if I were to review each novel individually, even if I gave only a paragraph to each, in addition to the quite-necessary overview of the series and how the novels interconnect that my final post will have to have… that’s going to be a staggeringly long blog post. Besides being difficult to write, a long post can sometimes be hard for people to read, even if well-formatted (and I’m pretty long-winded as it is) — and I did just have one of my longest posts ever essentially “air ball” in terms of garnering comments. But most importantly, I realized I had forgotten to account for just how quickly I can actually read. I’d allotted myself about three weeks per book. Three weeks into it, I’ve read two beyond the one I had just finished when I started the post. When I first read these, it was at a rate of about one a week. I had thought other activities — such as the more frequent movie watching I do as an adult — would slow me down, but it doesn’t seem to have had as much of an impact as I had thought. I may need to space things out and deliberately slow myself down some to keep from having a situation where I’m waiting months between the penultimate book and the ultimate one. And in that situation, even though I’m taking a lot of notes, it’s possible I’d forget what I meant to say about each individual book.
So, slight amendment to the plan. I’ll still have the big overview post at the end of it all, but before then, I’ll be making a post every three books. Starting today, with the prequel New Spring: The Novel, and the first two books, The Eye of the World, and The Great Hunt.
New Spring: The Novel: Prequels are a bit of an oddity when reviewing an entire series, especially if it’s a series that you are in the process of re-reading. I started reading The Wheel of Time around 1991, 1992, thereabouts; between the third and fourth novel, anyway. New Spring was first published in novella form in 1999, after publication of the 8th novel; the novel version was released in 2004, after the 10th and just before the last novel that Jordan completed before his death (after which Brandon Sanderson has been working from Jordan’s outlines.) So the series was more than half over before even the novella was released, let alone the novel; yet it’s billed as a good starting point for the series. So, since I was re-reading, I thought I would take things chronologically this time around.
I actually re-read the novella first, before remembering that it had been expanded and I should check out the novel as well. This meant the novella was fresh in my memory at the time, so I was able to see that the novel is indeed an expansion and not a re-write of the novella; not only is there nothing in the novel that contradicts the novella, but certain sections are copied verbatim. This isn’t a criticism, just a note; it seems that Jordan felt he got it right the first time, at least as far as the details shown, and I cannot disagree. What the novel offers over the novella is additional details. The story concerns the Aes Sedai sorceress Moiraine, and her initial journey out to find the Dragon Reborn, prophesied savior/destroyer of the world while he’s still an infant, and so be able to protect him and guide him to his proper destiny. It also covers the meeting of Moiraine and her Warder — a sort of super-humanly gifted knight linked to the Aes Sedai — al’Lan Mandragoran. Moiraine and Lan don’t often serve as viewpoint characters in the main series, so New Spring is worth a look just on that account for fans of the series, especially since the characterization here is actually pretty tight and the interaction between the two is entertaining. New Spring also serves pretty well as an introduction to the world of The Wheel of Time; the reader is introduced to the structure of the Aes Sedai, the basics of how magic works in this world, some of the political cultures, and the prophecies of the Dragon, particularly why the world both fears and awaits his Rebirth. Short answer: The Dark One broke free from his prison ages ago, and the Dragon sealed him back in, but the Dark One’s counter-attack tainted the source of magic that men use (but not the source women use). All male magic users went insane, and the Dragon in particular laid waste to the world. Prophecy says the Dark One will break free again, but the Dragon will be Reborn to fight him again — but will also break the world again.
The novel is entertaining, and a much “tighter” novel than most of the books in the series. It’s about half the size of most of the other novels, and it’s smaller (but still full-length) size results in it having a brisker pace than the others. It doesn’t feel padded, and there aren’t a lot of different threads to get lost in. The one criticism I have about the book itself is that it introduces Lan early on, but then abandons him until the latter portion of the book; the impression is that there just wasn’t much for Lan to do in the novel until that point, which may be so, but it does mean there’s the feeling of a dangling plot thread for much of the novel. In regards to its place in the series, I have to say that the prequel does mostly work as an introduction to the series. It sets up the world, the basic premise, and a couple of the major players — although this does have the side effect of prematurely removing the “Can the main characters trust her?” element from Moiraine that was present in The Eye of the World. There’s also a fair amount of attention to detail; The Great Hunt has Moiraine and Lan reminisce a bit about their initial meeting, and those events are indeed covered in New Spring (written over a decade later). While the gap between the prequel and the series may lead to some readers wondering how various characters got from where they were to where they are and what happened in the mean time, I’d have to say that New Spring is a pretty good start to the series.
New Spring: The Novel Rating:
The Eye of the World: This is the true first novel in the series, and, obviously, the first one that I read originally. Back then I hadn’t had a lot of experience with fantasy fiction at the time — I had read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, but on the other hand I had also read Xanth, and Dragonlance, and very little else. So I didn’t have enough reading to have acquired a lot of familiarity with the tropes of the genre, nor, it must be said, much taste in the genre yet. It was knowledge of that immaturity of my taste that gave me some concerns with re-reading the series; would it still be as good and as fascinating to me as an adult as it was as a young teenager? It actually holds up pretty well. I have to admit that even if I didn’t remember a lot of the details, which I do, most of the twists wouldn’t surprise me a lot; it’s obvious enough from early that Rand is the Dragon Reborn that I don’t feel like I’m spoiling it to say so — even without the big setup from New Spring that today’s first-time readers may have, not to mention the third novel being titled The Dragon Reborn.
Since it was the beginning of the series, The Eye of the World also has to do some world-building. Interestingly, New Spring and The Eye of the World are written in such a way that they mostly build different aspects of the world. Both cover the existence of magic, and the separate nature of male/female magic, the prophecy of the Dragon, the insanity of male channelers, etc. But they establish different areas of the world to begin with, and The Eye of the World establishes its monsters and threats as new concepts to the protagonists, since being from a small village distant from everywhere, the monsters have long since faded into legend for them. The novel also pulls a slightly different twist in that it’s not a single protagonist taken out of his hometown on an adventure to discover “who he really is”; not only is that kept from him for most of the novel (though as I said, the reader gets a lot of big hints), but there are actually three protagonists who are uprooted, as well as some side characters (some of whom later become protagonists in their own right). Rand al’Thor, Mat Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara all fit the timeline that Moiraine is seeking, and each of the young men seems to be of crucial importance, even if only one of them has their importance explained in the first novel. Rather than a single young man going off with a mentor, this leads to a larger feel to the adventure; less Star Wars, and more The Fellowship of the Ring.
The book got me hooked as a teenager, and I have to say it had me entertained again as an adult. I do have two criticisms of it, though. The first is that it starts to feel really rushed at the end — there’s an acceleration to the pace of events that suggests that there’s an attempt to get the book finished before it got any longer. To his credit, though, Jordan does at least tell a complete tale within the book, while still leaving it clear that the overall story is far from over. In fact, one of the things that really impressed me was the inclusion of some newer prophecies and visions — particularly from side character Min — that have a really long “hang time” between when they are uttered and when they come to pass. A lot of times in fantasy series, prophecies are given and resolved in the same novel; the next novel comes along, new prophecies are given and resolved. Some of Min’s come true in the same book, but many don’t; in fact, if memory serves, there are some that take many novels to be fulfilled. It helps strengthen the feel that it’s one continuous story and not a linked chain of episodes that the writer is trying to make into a series as he goes. Robert Jordan clearly knew he was writing for the long haul, even if he didn’t know exactly how long.
My other complaint is one of communication. One of Robert Jordan’s themes in the novels is the difficulty men and women have communicating, but there are a couple places where Moiraine — the wise mentor figure, remember — really fumbles the ball by not coming out and saying what she means. The separation of the group would have been much easier to resolve had she, at any point, told the boys how she would find them again. A little “by the way, those coins I gave you allow me to find you again, do not use them to pay your barge fare” would have been a wise and helpful statement. Worse yet is the way she handles Shadar Logoth. She tells the boys it’s dangerous, but doesn’t tell them why until after they’ve already gotten into trouble. Had she told them before entering, or during entry, or while they were setting up camp, or literally any time before then, it could have saved a lot of trouble for the protagonists. Even when she does explain she manages to leave out a crucial “and don’t pick up anything”. Now, these plot elements are essential to the story in a lot of ways, but it does irritate me that they spring from ridiculously bad communication from the one character who is supposed to have something resembling a handle on things.
The Eye of the World rating:
The Great Hunt: The second novel picks up with a small gap in time after the first one ends, and is largely driven out of events from the end of the first book. (It is, of course, difficult to discuss things without giving away some spoilers, but I’m going to err on the side of “too vague” rather than “too specific” as much as possible here.) When a plot-crucial item is stolen, the three young protagonists have to set out to reacquire it, despite all of them really wanting to just go home or go somewhere in seclusion. The plot in this novel is, it must be said, simpler than the first novel; it’s title is The Great Hunt, and about 95% of the novel is indeed one extended hunt. And unfortunately not all of it is particularly interesting. It drags in places, and there’s a sense that a lot of it could probably have been trimmed without losing much. And scenes that are separate from the hunt have a very strong feeling of just being setup for the later novels; we see Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve studying in the White Tower of the Aes Sedai not because it’s a particularly interesting scene in and of itself, but because their presence there needs to be established for later events (one of which, granted, does occur in this novel, but even it is mostly establishing a future threat.) That pacing problem manifests in another way as well; the chapters with Egwene, etc., wind up having a slight feel of anachronic order due to a skip in time, and it could have been handled a bit more smoothly. Just a paragraph or two taken from the chapter before the skip and inserted into the chapter after, and the novel would have read in a straight chronological order; as it was, there’s a feeling of getting a rewind and “Oh, here’s what the other characters were doing while that was happening”. Granted, I’m biased against anachronic order, but it still marred things a bit.
The one other thing that bothered me was a particular move that Rand pulls at the end. It’s foreshadowed far too unsubtly in the beginning of the novel, to the point where a reader with any degree of awareness is going to be expecting it. But what’s worse is that the novel doesn’t really sell it as being a necessary move — and that’s critical, because by any other measure, it’s a really dumb move. It’s dangerous, it’s not something that would generally lead to success, and there’s no reason to think the same goal couldn’t be achieved in other ways. It just doesn’t work for me.
There are, however, some other parts that are handled well, I felt. While most of the characters’ motivations are fairly clear, there is one in particular who I’ll admit to having been fooled by… and yet it’s properly foreshadowed. Had it been totally out of the blue, I’d cry “foul”, but as it was, it was simply that I thought it was going down one direction, but it was really coming from another. It’s always a good thing when a novel fools me — especially if it’s one where I could have theoretically remembered it. Still, although The Great Hunt has some good surprises in it, I felt that for the most part this novel was setup for the later books. It doesn’t hold up particularly strongly on its own.
The Great Hunt Rating:
Some thoughts on the re-reading experience so far: As might be gathered by the fact that I’ve gone through three books in about four weeks, I’m actually enjoying this re-read. While none of the books have been great, they’ve mostly been pretty good. Wordy, yes. Bloated, even. But not bad, for all of that. And it has been interesting to see what things I remember, and what things I forget or misremember. I’ve been having to pay careful attention to the descriptions of different characters to get them properly illustrated in my mind; the first edition covers had terribly inaccurate artwork, and in my younger days I often went by those as a guide. The thumbnail for New Spring, above, is one of those covers; the woman in blue is supposed to be Moiraine, but Moiraine is not a red-head in the novels. I’m also noticing how many of the genre conventions that Robert Jordan is deliberately invoking; since I’m far from being the newbie to the genre I was when I first read them, I’m catching a lot of the references more easily. So far, at least, I’m having fun reading these again. I don’t really expect to bust out a 5-star rating for any of them, but 4-stars might be fairly common.