It is a tribute to the importance of The Wheel of the Time to the fantasy genre that, like The Lord of the Rings, just how good it is sometimes isn’t recognized because it has done so much to redefine the genre (including doing as much as any work to break fantasy away from its human/elf/dwarf rut). The Eye of the World is book 1 of 14 (with the final book released in early 2013) in the massive The Wheel of Time series, one of the most important and influential fantasy series ever. And one of the most massive fantasy series ever, clocking in at over 10k pages and 4MM words. I suppose the relevant question to anyone considering whether to start a series over 4MM words is: is it worth the large investment of time? Now that the series is completed, I feel completely comfortable answering that with an emphatic ‘Yes!’
The Eye of the World is in many ways the most traditional and the least “Wheel of Time” of all the Wheel of Time books. This is in large part because it hews closely to the plot of The Lord of the Rings. It is also, unlike a lot of the other books in the series, self contained as a book. It unfortunately lacks much of the great stuff for which Jordan later becomes known.
THE WORLD OF ROBERT JORDAN
As in much fantasy, but unlike the bulk of the series, the protagonists are kids (well, teenagers). A trolloc (misshapen monsters serving as the evil mook for the series) attack at the beginning of the book sends them running from their very secluded village life.
The magic system is based on a fairly straightforward concept—its use (called channeling) consists of some combination of the five elements (the fifth being Spirit). Some people are born with a “spark” and will channel eventually no matter what; other people have the ability to learn; the vast majority of people have neither. The immediate difference from more typical magic systems is that male and female channelers draw from different halves of its source. Keeping with one of Jordan’s favorite themes, the greatest magical works were accomplished by men and women working together. There is one hitch—when male channelers re-sealed the Dark One’s prison at the end of the last Age, his counterattack tainted the male half. Now all male channelers are doomed to go mad and die. Female channelers have formed an association thousands of years old influencing kings and meddling in politics across a continent. Men found to have the ability of channel are hunted and “gentled,” or cut off from the source, which has the minor added side effect of death in a few months. There is a lot more to it than that, but Jordan purposefully keeps magic relatively mysterious in book 1.
The above has led to a matriarchal world that allows for a host of strong female characters without forcing them to don chainmail bikini and grab battle axe and broad sword. Jordan has been oft-criticized for his female characters and views on gender roles, some of which I think is well placed, but I very much appreciate his willingness to populate his world with strong female characters and think seriously about them as female characters and about gender roles. Female characters play a smaller role in The Eye of the World than later in the series. Nynaeve is the only female character to get a POV, and then only a few chapters.
JORDAN AS A WRITER
Jordan is the type of writer that has a very definite and recognizable style. It is perhaps best described as ornate—little is left unsaid, although there is much to stir the imagination. His prose rarely soars, but I’m not sure if in 11 books Jordan ever wrote an awkward sentence. It accomplishes so much in its simplicity packed with rich detail. His style shows us just how well and fully drawn his world is, and it allows him to put in an immense amount of symbolism, but it also results in a high word/plot ratio. The Eye of the World is longer than the entire Lord of the Rings series, but it only covers about as much plot as The Fellowship of the Ring. I like a book with lots of description and don’t mind a doorstopper; to me, Jordan’s style only becomes problematic in the latter books (7-11) when the plot threads have proliferated to the point that each book doesn’t push the overall story forward far enough.
Jordan is a writer with distinct strengths and weaknesses. A Vietnam vet, Jordan expresses the value of human life and the seriousness of taking it better than any other fantasy author I have read. Jordan understands human relations, or at least their difficult parts, well in general. Rand’s reaction to Tam’s feverish ramblings and his confusion over his relationship with Egwene have a deep emotional resonance. Jordan’s world- and myth-building rival Tolkien’s and are far more integrated into the story (albeit with far more pages to work it in). Looking back now after the completion of a 14-book series, his vision from the very beginning of the myth is incredible. This is no haphazardly slapped-together tale. Jordan knows where he’s going from the beginning (not that it stopped him from taking his time getting there). And it’s woven from thousands of sources into an incredibly deep and rich tapestry of myth that feels authentic. Jordan has a finely tuned sense for suspense, both within the story and without (such as his timing cutting between POVs).
It was the cover of The Eye of the World, along with the cover of The Dragon Reborn (book 3), that attracted me to The Wheel of Time in the bookstore (book 4 had just been released at the time). The vision of the party filing out of the corner of the world that is all most of them have ever known as home captures something central to the story (if you look at the blog’s banner, you will see that it is one of the few dust jackets I kept on my hardcovers).
I love this book and The Wheel of Time, but ultimately I had to give this book 4 stars. It is missing too much of what makes The Wheel of Time great. Most of the characters barely begin to scratch the surface of their awesomeness. Most importantly, the plot of The Eye of the World has far too much in common with The Lord of the Rings.
But all of that does little to detract from the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it the first time I read it, and I couldn’t wait to read book 2. I think I enjoyed it even more reading after having read the first 13 books in the series, and I couldn’t wait to read book 2 again. Yes, Jordan borrows heavily from Tolkien in The Eye of the World, but after completing the series it’s obvious he had a VERY good idea of where he was going (not that he didn’t, ahem, take his time along the way). There is foreshadowing for EACH of 13 books, as well as for the final book.
Original or new cover? Original.
Original 1, New 1