Let me start with complete honesty, here. The Wheel of Time series is the main reason that I’m writing today. It’s my favorite series, and I tend to read through at least my favorite books every couple of years. This is not going to be an unbiased review of the first book in the series.
What it will be is a post describing some of my impressions of reading this book for the first time in several years. The things that I notice or think about differently, having read the last book, having developed as a writer and editor. Me rambling, basically.
That said, I figure I’ll just start.
The style of the first book is radically different to all following books. It’s a poorly-hidden secret that Jordan intentionally aped Tolkien’s style to a degree, in order to give readers familiar ground to start their journey on. You see it in Moiraine’s tales of Manetheren, the history of Shadar Logoth, and Lan’s past (The fall of Malkier), and in other odd places throughout.
I, for one, feel that he succeeds too well in this. As someone who was never able to make it all the way through Tolkien (aside from The Hobbit, which hardly counts), I found some parts very hard to get through. I can only imagine what it was like for twelve-year-old me. But even aside from these parts, there is sometimes a sense that this is more about the grand world and epic scope and awesome magic than it is about the characters. Thankfully, these moments are relatively rare.
I also noticed that the first four chapters are unbearably slow. I knew this from my first read through, more than ten years ago, and it’s even more true now. When I read it the first time, I saw the purpose behind it. I though it brilliant. I still do. But there must be a way to accomplish it without making these chapters a struggle to read.
Last among these complaints is the “early-bookisms” as most fans of long series call them, or EOTWisms, as Wheel of Time fans might know them. That is, flaws in continuity where the author develops canon after the first book, so that the first book is not consistent with the rest of the series. They’re all over the place in The Eye of the World. They’re hardly a big deal, and can largely be explained away in “head-canon” among fans. But it’s worth mentioning.
Do all of these complaints mean The Eye of the World isn’t a great book?
Don’t be silly! It’s absolutely a great book!
Even in this early novel, Jordan is already showing the seeds of the best parts of the series. He’s writing an unreliable third person limited, with the occasional expertly-worked omniscient/cinematic passages. He can suggest in one sentence both what the PoV character thinks, and that it might not be the truth of the matter. He sets up mysteries that have satisfying conclusions books from now. And he gives us characters to care about, to root for, from page one.
His prose is for the most part fantastic, and he has all but mastered the art of “show vs. tell”. What little we see of the magic system is exciting and almost completely consistent with the rest of the series. And while his plotting at times is similar to the meandering trek that Rothfuss is infamous for, Jordan keeps a single, strong line leading us from beginning to end.
Robert Jordan continues to provide lessons for me as a writer: how to use tight third person narration to create unreliable viewpoints, how to use description to evoke emotion and build tension, how to create characters that, while flawed, still try to be good, still get us to cheer them on. However, as a more mature writer, I can see other lessons he’s taught me. Don’t imitate the style of others to your own detriment. Don’t allow the backstory to overshadow the main plot. Don’t allow your reader to be bored during the introductory chapters.
A part of me, the part of me that was inspired by The Wheel of Time series to become a writer in the first place, is saddened by the fact that there are aspects of The Eye of the World that set examples of what to avoid. But there are, and I will, and I’ll become a stronger writer for doing so.
The Eye of the World comes in near the bottom of a series full of my favorite books ever written. On to The Great Hunt; let’s see how that one holds up, shall we?