Decades ago James Oliver Rigney Jr. wrote a book. That book allowed him to break into the publishing industry. He sold it several times. It established his working relationship with Harriet McDougal, who would become his wife. It led to his first published book, The Fallon’s Blood (as Reagan O’Neal). It led to a gig writing (eventually seven) Conan pastiches for Tor, this time as Robert Jordan, the pseudonym he would make famous. It also heavily foreshadows themes and elements from The Wheel of Time, his landmark work of epic fantasy. It was not, however, published before his death.
Draw near and listen, or else time is at an end.
The watering holes of the Plain are drying up, the fearsome fanghorn grow more numerous, and bad omens abound. Wulfgar, a leader of the Altaii people, must contend with twin queens, warlords, prophets and magic in hopes of protecting his people and securing their future. Elspeth, a visitor from another world, holds the answers, but first Wulfgar must learn to ask the right questions.
But what if the knowledge that saves the Altaii will also destroy them?
Having read both The Wheel of Time and Jordan’s Conan pastiches, I thought I knew what to expect. Warrior of the Altaii surprised me a little bit. It bears less in common with the pastiches put out by Tor than with earlier sword and sorcery books. The Tor pastiches had somewhat of a disadvantage. Writing his sword and sorcery yarns in part because they were quicker to write than historical fiction, Robert E. Howard could be light with his fantastical worldbuilding. When the Tor writers depart from that—including Jordan in his first pastiche—it usually showed a little too much Dungeons & Dragons influence and detracted from the work both because it jarred with Howard’s work and because of the paleness of the derivative worldbuilding. There was another tradition of sword and sorcery, though, later than Howard and before the Tor Conan pastiches.
The 70s produced some very fine sword and sorcery overflowing with the best kind of craziness. Warrior of the Altaii very much fits within that tradition, to an extent that surprised me. Jordan, though, was open that Howard was not a major influence on him as a writer. Writing as the 70s closed, it should probably come as no surprise that 70s sword and sorcery influenced Jordan. There is a lot of worldbuilding stuffed into what is (for Jordan) a short novel, much of it weird in the best way. And while Jordan used his physics background to do some incredibly cool stuff with fantasy in The Wheel of Time, here he introduces openly science fictional elements. One group uses technology sufficiently advanced as to seem magic. A character crosses over from what appears our dimension. This is the sort of thing that was once common in speculative fiction but largely disappeared after the 70s.
Most people, though, will be more interested in comparisons to The Wheel of Time than to Conan. Harriet mentions two things that surprised her when she reread Warrior of the Altaii: that it was good and that it actually foreshadows The Wheel of Time heavily. I was even more surprised by the latter given my familiarity with the Conan books. Many things Jordan set aside to write those are heavily present here. The proud warrior race Altaii of course have a lot in common with the Aiel. Although they are horselords of the plains, not desert warriors, and differ in many other ways. Nor are they nearly as developed and distinct. Of particular interest is how the events of the novel will change and maybe destroy the Altaii. Jordan would return to that idea with the Aiel, albeit in a different way. But the kernel is plain, I think, for the The Wheel of Time fan to see.
Gender roles play an important part. Magic is here, too, a thing of women, although by norm instead of by the Dark One’s counterstroke. The effect is more muted, sometimes to its benefit.
Wulfgar, like Lan (or many other characters from The Wheel of Time), is a supremely skilled and respected warrior. The role of Vietnam in shaping Jordan’s views shows: battle offers no glory but much potential honor (older and from a proud warrior race, Wulfgar is considerably more at ease with killing than the kids from the Two Rivers). Jordan loves a big battle, and he squeezes in a few (and, yes, the longbow makes an appearance).
So, then, is Warrior of the Altaii worth picking up? For The Wheel of Time fan, certainly. If you didn’t make it through The Wheel of Time, that remains his opus. Lest you be suspected of some defect in your fandom, you should pick it back up. But for the fan who has only read the main series and the prequel New Spring, this is the next book I would recommend. It isn’t nearly as dry as the Big Book of Bad Art or the Compendium. And it ties into The Wheel of Time much more so than the Conan pastiches (which I recommend, but start with Howard’s original stories first). Jordan has not yet reached his stride here. The worldbuilding can be clumsy at times, with Jordan committing the rookie storyteller mistake of throwing out too much too early and with too little reason. There is a psychological torture-filled captivity sequence that stretches on far too long. His characters are the equal of your average fantasy book, meaning they lack the vibrancy of his own, later characters. Jordan’s work benefited tremendously from the massive canvas The Wheel of Time came to offer; it is pinched a bit here.
But, in the end, Harriet’s verdict after rereading is more accurate than her earlier, somewhat embarrassed recollections: this book is good. It isn’t The Wheel of Time good, but it made for a more than enjoyable read, enriched by my knowledge of The Wheel of Time, and I am glad Harriet chose to publish it after all these years.
4 of 5 Stars.
Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub on Warrior of the Altaii.