Most of you are probably at least aware of WOT, even if you've never read it--the first book came out in 1990, which is notable for me as the first year that I was aware what year it was. These books are old, given that the series only finally ground to its conclusion quite recently. This brick of a book I'm staring at warily is 814 pages long and has a cover with one guy wearing vaguely samurai-ish armor on horseback (with a pair of vaguely Celtic swords strapped to his back in a questionable manner) next to a woman on a much smaller horse, carrying a staff and looking like she is small enough to curl up inside his ribcage. If I hadn't already guessed, it became apparent to me on the first page that this book is sort of a fantasy Poe: if I were to make up a random phrase that was meant to sound like an absurd parody of sword-and-sorcery mythos, it would be indistinguishable from actual text in this book.
I am not necessarily opposed to this.
If I wanted to try to come up with objective criteria on the quality of storytelling, I guess I'd have two questions: 1) How well does the story achieve what it set out to do and be, and 2) What are the real-world implications of the story? The works of Orson Scott Card do questionably on both these counts, because people act like they got something completely different out of the book than what is in there. What little I know of Robert Jordan's works, and his immense, Card-eclipsing popularity, suggests to me that they succeed immensely on Criterion the First: if you want this kind of unabashed over-the-top megalomagical Epic Fantasy, they will fulfill your needs.
This blog, of course, is much more focused on Criterion the Second: who gets walked all over in the service of the story's ends? Women? People who are disabled? People who aren't straight? People who aren't cis? People who aren't white? Some beautiful and terrible Voltron of more than one of these demographics?
What I know in advance about WOT suggests that it's going to be heavy on the gender-essentialism and the heteronormativity. Dunno yet about the racism, ableism, or anything else. Dunno what kind of politics it pushes or values it assumes. I am leaping into the unknown here. Your fates are now bound to mine. Let's bounce.
(Content: death, ableism, binarism. Fun content: the phrase 'Nine Rods of Dominion' is used unironically.)
(Content: death, ableism, binarism. Fun content: the phrase 'Nine Rods of Dominion' is used unironically.)
Eye of the World: p. ix--xviii
The first thing that leaps out at me is that this prose is hard to read. In my own fiction, I've been debilitatingly bare-bones about description in the past, and I think these days I still tend towards sparse narrative. Jordan does not. Jordan's prose is the purple of a twilight sky in the eyeblink past sunset when the reds have faded but the black of night is not yet swept over the world. It gets distracting. We're inside a ruined palace and I'm piecing together what's going on with the help of phrases like:
Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air.Did you parse that sentence on the first read? I did not. I'm also a little fuzzy on the nature of the devastation in the palace,since "scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals", but also "colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed". What kind of fire hits every surface of the room but misses all the art? Is that supposed to be indicative of something?
Also there are corpses everywhere, all sorts, all kinds, and through it all a dude cheerfully skipping along looking for his wife. (She's dead on the floor among all the others, naturally. Fridged Women Tally: 1.) He spots himself in a mirror, looking mussed, and cracks up. There's more tons of description, including a blatant taijitu (yin-yang symbol) on his cloak, although his name is Lews Therin Telamon and his dead wife is Ilyena. Samurai armor on the cover, taijitu on the white dude; is this a secret weaboo fantasy and no one told me?
A dude pops into existence behind Lews, wearing all black and thigh-highs, so it's safe to assume he's evil, I guess. (Thigh-high boots, that is, but I wanted y'all to consider a different mental image first.) He's described as "fastidious" about not wanting to touch the bodies, and I begin to wonder if this is going to be a series that requires frequent consideration of queer-coding. He calls Lews "Lord of the Morning", and we are into Poe territory immediately, because Lews asks if the stranger has "the Voice", because it's almost time for "the Singing".
All-Black Dude immediately determines that "the taint" has taken Lews (no Significant Capitalisation?) and I'm fuzzy on whether he's the devil's lieutenant or not, because he says "Shai'tan take you" in a snappish way, but also calls Lews "Light-blinded idiot". Shaitan is straightforwardly the Islamic take on 'Satan', though sometimes a whole class of spirits rather than one single adversary. Guessing Shai'tan is going to just be the embodiment of evil for this world; easier to stab that way.
All-Black introduces himself as "Elan Morin Tedronai", now called "Betrayer of Hope", and I wonder why we don't get titles like that more often in real life. We never get to say stuff like 'This is my friend Eileen, the Jailor of Infinity'. We should start doing that. Elan says that he's embraced his title, and it's no different from people calling Lews "Dragon", though he suspects that Lews will have some public relations problems once word gets out about the massacre--apparently Lews is the one who murdered everybody, including the wife he keeps calling for.
Let me again make the nature of this text clear:
"Once you stood first among the Servants. Once you wore the Ring of Tamyrlin, and sat in the High Seat. Once you summoned the Nine Rods of Dominion. Now look at you! A pitiful, shattered wretch. But it is not enough. You humbled me in the Hall of Servants. You defeated me at the Gates of Paaran Disen. But I am the greater, now. I will not let you die without knowing that."I was so unprepared for this I cracked up. THE NINE RODS OF DOMINION. This book is amazing and I regret nothing and everything.
Elan blasts Lews with "Shai'tan's healing" which wracks him with fiery agony but finally leaves him lucid, and he notices his murdered Ilyena. (Blonde, obvs.)
"You can have her back, Kinslayer. The Great Lord of the Dark can make her live again, if you will serve him. If you will serve me."There go my hopes that Elan was a third party or something. He's just our evil god's field agent. Oh well. Lews says the big bad has terrorised the world for ten years, Elan snaps back that it's happened since the beginning of time, and it sounds like there's a reincarnation cycle or something, "You and I have fought a thousand battles with the turning of the Wheel, a thousand times a thousand, and we will fight until time dies and the Shadow is triumphant", so I'm vaguely intrigued by this.
Elan finally makes it clear to Lews that the big bad mind-whammied him into murdering his entire family, in revenge for Lews' last attack. Killed his wife (Ilyena Sunhair, she's even named for being blonde), his kids, his friends, his servants.
Desperately he reached out to the True Source, to tainted saidin, and he Traveled.One of the things about these kinds of fantasy novels (Jack Vance also reads like this) is that it can be very hard to guess when a mythical thing is plot-relevant and when it's just magibabble, since references to big arcane things are getting tossed around all over the place. Are there a lot of False Sources? This is that same sort of 'tell the reader nothing and let them figure it out by deduction' style of worldbuilding, which I generally like, but I'm still back wondering what the Rods of Dominion are used to Dominate and why there are Nine of them, and in fact why it's so important that there are Nine of them that the word Nine is in their name, and why they have to be summoned rather than kept in a secure closet or something.
But Lews has Traveled to a huge broad plain, where "he could sense there were no people within a hundred leagues", and begs the Light to forgive him, though he doesn't believe it can.
He was still touching saidin, the male half of the power that drove the universe, that turned the Wheel of Time, and he could feel the oily taint fouling its surface [...]Oh. Joy. Our magical Source is split into male and female, in turn making those universal concepts. Betting there's no room in there for non-binary genders (and probably not intersex people either, regardless of their gender)? If they've determined that the Source has male and female sides, would they even be looking for one? I predict that I will spend much of this book suggesting that each plot point would be a good time for an androgyne person to bust in with new magic and save the day.
Lews blames himself and his pride for making whatever attack provoked the big bad's revenge, trying to "mend what the Creator had made and they had broken", and he overclocks himself on magic until he turns into a colossal pillar of incandescence that raises up a huge volcano in the middle of the plain, shoving the river aside and splitting it around a new island. Elan finally catches up and mutters about how the Dragon can't escape him so easily, et cetera.
Then we get a couple of excerpts from historical texts, talking about the end of the world, when "the living envied the dead" and the only enduring memory is of "him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And they named him Dragon", while the second excerpt calls for "the Prince of the Morning" and the "Lord of the Dawn", and then we get what I know is this series' catchphrase: "Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time."
To sum up: big bad, eternal war, hero tried to seal big bad, fucked up, slaughtered everyone, world kind of ended but probably not really because there are fourteen books to go, and everyone is waiting for said hero's return.
Ooh, then we get a huge convenient map:
Will you look at the 90-degree angle those mountains take? I would normally bet massive quantities of cash that nothing plot-relevant will ever happen more than an inch beyond the borders of this map, but surely with the millions of words that make up this series I'd be wrong about that? Please?
I also have some huge questions about the borders as defined above. Why are they where they are? We have a lot of weirdly-bounded territories in the world, just look at the eastern US or Europe, but there's a reason for that--they're following rivers, or mountains, or some other significant geological feature. When we don't need to do that, we end up with things like Wyoming and Saskatchewan, boxes imposed on the boredom of the ground. Why in the world is Tear's curvy border swooping through that field? Who owns the ground between Tear and Illian? There are actually an impressive number of unlabelled swathes in there--is the lack of claim there going to be explained, or are they just international territory for some reason? These are the questions that will trouble me for months to come.
That's followed by this magnificent creation:
Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but this appears to show three rivers coming out of the mountains, and somehow the middle one shatters like a river delta in the middle of a field and branches out in dozens of different directions without ever meeting up with the other two rivers that are arcing together. And eventually all those little streams just die out, in a presumably-damp region called 'the Mire', which I could sort of accept if not for the way there are still two massive distinct rivers bordering the Mire and cutting cleanly through the land.
I realise most fantasy authors aren't hydrologists, and if an actual hydrologist wants to correct me on this, please do because I love new knowledge, but I'm like 35% sure that is not how rivers work.
This is a bit of a short post, but that's all I can handle for now. Come back next week for chapter one, in which we meet Our Hero, who at first glance looks to me like he's going to be a humble farmboy. I should make so many bingo sheets.