This is the third and final part of the conversation I had with Jackie at Death by Tsundoku about The Eye of the World, the first book in Robert Jordan’s series, The Wheel of Time. This book was published in 1990, just shy of thirty years ago. The fantasy genre has changed a lot since then, and The Eye of the World often shows its age. In this post, we compare and contrast this part of The Wheel of Time with other fantasy series (and I get a bit salty about gigantic series that wander off to examine this, that, and a million other things).
Understanding The Eye of the World as it connects to Modern Fantasy
Kim: My impressions of the book are that it’s a well-crafted and interesting story, but I long for something… deeper, I suppose. Sure, there are a LOT of callbacks to Tolkien and Arthurian legend, but I want my stories to say more than, “Here’s a cool story!”, and it feels like that’s all I’m getting with The Eye of the World. Perhaps the later books get deeper. I remember a lot of things, but I don’t remember what books they happen in. It’s all jumbled up in my head. But, for example, I’m reading Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier right now. It’s a retelling of an Eastern European fairytale set in a legendary version of Ireland, and it has a lot to say about family, the different roles men can have in life, and about women’s work and women’s sacrifices. That’s all by page 125, and it comes in a beautifully written story. So…. I don’t know. I want to continue, for sure. I see the appeal of the work overall. It’s a fascinating story, but it sits very lightly on my mind. I think your experience with the books has been more recent than mine. Do the later books have deeper stories?
Jackie: I think that depends on what you’re looking for. The weaving of the Pattern becomes more and more complex as the series goes on, Jordan explores the different cultures across Jordan’s universe (because he never names this world; fans call it Randland), the politics and intrigues come to a head, and prophecy, prophecy, prophecy! My brain recalls most of the future books being quite different from The Eye of the World. But to be honest, I don’t recall many details. It’s been over 15 years since I’ve read these! I do recall the whole deal with the Seanchan Empire and their magical slavery and the Aiel to be complex and fascinating explorations of politics and culture.
The real question is does Jordan’s universe, crafted in the 1980s, still meet the needs of modern-day readers? With saidar and saidin as the crux of the whole series, we can’t have any gender binary characters. I never thought of that when I read this in the 90s and early 00s. But now? Every time Moiraine explained something about the One Power I kept thinking about how dated this concept seems.
Kim: That’s not something I had thought either time I read The Eye of the World, that the binary magic types leave out non-binary characters. Gender is a complex idea, regardless of what era you’re in. As much as we like to try to diminish previous eras and say, “The laws said women could only to thus and so, and so that’s all that women did” is a reductionist mindset, because it’s not that difficult to look back into history and find examples of women (or men) doing the exact opposite of what you’re expecting them to do. People have always been people– complex beings who don’t always follow society’s rules. The notion of magic that is based on a strict gender-binary ideal does seem outdated now that I look at it. Does it meet the needs of modern readers? Perhaps. It’s still an extremely popular series, so a lot of people are not bothered by it. Or they just don’t notice it, like I hadn’t until you mentioned it. Given that, here in the West, we tend to have cultural defaults of a binary gender structure, I would guess that a lot of readers don’t give it a second thought. Or if they do think about it, it doesn’t bother them enough to stop them from reading it.
Jackie: What always keeps me reading The Wheel of Time are the characters. Their relationships and experiences are vast and complex. They are fascinating. And they are always full of hope — too much fantasy is grimdark. I crave storylines with hope and the nobility that results from it.
Which reminds me, there are so many series-long important characters we’ve been introduced to in this book! I’m shocked. I had no idea at the time how important these people would all be. Elyas and his wolves, Bayle Domon, Elayne and Gawyn, Gareth Bryne, Morgase Trakand, Padan Fain, Loial, Geofram Bornhald, and Jaret Byar just to name a few. Each time I read their names my brain had a lightning strike of memory flash in with all the ways the Web of the Pattern connects them all. A re-read is showing me Jordan knows his craft.
Kim: I had forgotten a lot of the series-long characters. I remembered Elayne but had forgotten about Gawyn. I remembered Elyas but had forgotten about Gareth Bryne. That sort of thing. And reading about them again didn’t bring back any memories. It’s funny how you remember– or don’t remember– things in books.
I do like the characters– at least the core group. Later on, when Jordan starts adding a zillion more of them, I started to find it tiresome. Especially when you’d spend what felt like pages and pages and pages with one character, and then they’d up and be killed, which was incredibly frustrating and one of the things that drove me away from the series.
I have a better sense of its age, too. Fantasy has changed a lot since The Eye of the World first came out, so it naturally feels like it’s older, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s the tone, which is reaching for the epic but is a little more down to earth than that. Does that make sense?
Jackie: Yes! This makes complete sense. When I think of epics, I think of books more poetic, with more focus on a single character (despite a gigantic cast) and more purple prose. What I love about Jordan’s writing is that this series is so readable.
I get what you’re saying about Jordan’s characters dying off. And yes, some of them do die, and it’s heartbreaking and frustrating at the same time because we spent so much time with them. But I also know that Jordan cares for and respects his characters. I tried to read A Song of Ice and Fire and couldn’t get I to it. I feel like Martin doesn’t particularly care or respect his characters (other than maybe Tyrion) and that comes across. So I don’t care either.
Kim: I do think Martin cares about his characters. He’s just more realistic about their chances of survival, given the things they go through. In A Song of Ice and Fire, actions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are deadly. With WoT– especially later on– it seemed like Jordan would introduce a character, spend a bunch of pages talking about this or that from their point of view, and then kill them off because “Oh, a Forsaken shows up, and that newly-introduced characters saw something they shouldn’t have”. What’s the point of that? What drove me nuts about that later books is something that other readers adore about the series: Jordan massively expands his world and introduces a zillion characters and has them doing All The Things, when all I’m concerned about is the core group, and later on there are entire books where core characters don’t appear at all. It was immensely frustrating.
Jackie: You know, I must be in the latter group of people. I feel if Martin focused on a core group for one or two books, then expanded to his zillion characters, I would have been more engaged. I never know who the protagonist is in A Song of Ice and Fire— which leads me to care about no one. Wah wah. But by the time a zillion characters are introduced in Jordan’s universe, I’m committed to the ta’veren. When new characters die off I’m less concerned as I understand how they do or do not impact the ta’veren storyline. I know who to root for. I’m set with my alliances.
Kim: I think both Martin and Jordan started with a core group and then expanded and expanded. I always want to remain with the core group an author starts with, and I find it frustrating when they devote more and more time to other characters that have only recently been introduced or one-off characters who end up having little impact on the story. When you have entire books that don’t mention a core character or two, I lost interest. That’s my current problem with Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series. You get a few chapters with Geralt, and then the story wanders off to a political discussion between a group of people you’ve never heard of before. It’s aggravating.
Jackie: I haven’t read many great Fantasy epics, but I get the impression authors to get lost in their works. It seems that the greatest authors, such as Tolkien, focus more on the world their story takes place in than in the story itself. Which isn’t a bad thing! But I wonder if this is why authors lose themselves. You’re right, we don’t need to hear all about the endless characters away from the core group. They enrich the story, I’m sure, but that’s not why I’m reading this series.
In reading the Valdemar books with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels, we’re just about to wrap up The Mage Storms. What I appreciate about the Valdemar series is that each trilogy (more or less) stands alone. Lackey can leave Elspeth in the background for a while and that’s okay because this trilogy isn’t about her. But I do miss Elspeth…
Kim: I didn’t care all that much for Elspeth… Does that make me a bad Valdemar fan?
A lot of authors do get lost in their worlds, and I think it’s sometimes a detriment to the stories. Yes, it can be cool to see all the amazing places, but it often makes the story far larger than it needs to be. For example, in the centenary edition of Lord of the Rings, the story itself is 1,069 pages. My hardback edition of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer is 1,231 and it’s only one of ten planned books! We get a wide array of intricate details about nearly everything in Sanderson’s world and long, drawn-out character histories as well as stories from other parts of the world that are peripheral to the main story. All the flashbacks and side adventures in the Stormlight Archive didn’t make me more interested in the world of the story. It made me less interested in it. I think that was part of my problem with The Wheel of Time on my first attempt at it. The world was so big that I often lost sight of the core group. I kept having to read about all these other characters I just didn’t care about.
When I see these big books and massive series, I wonder if the author needs so many pages to tell the story, or if they’ve done so much research and planning that they can’t bear to cut a lot of extraneous things out. That said, I am willing to give the big books and long series a shot, but I approach them with a lot more skepticism than I do with a trilogy of 400-page books.