Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Great Hunt” (Book 2)

Well, I’ve now finished The Great Hunt for the umpteenth time, and I find that I enjoy it more each time I read it. While the first book set out the terms of the quest, now things get a bit messier as the full enormity of the task before Rand becomes enmeshed in a far greater set of plots and counterplots than he had ever imagined possible.

This is the first part of the series where things start to get really dark. People are brutally murdered in the middle of a fortress, a horde of soldiers with leashed Aes Sedai launch attacks on the western coast of the continent, and there is a villain that is truly evil enough to make your skin crawl (I’m looking at you, Padan Fain). This novel has all that I love the most about epic fantasy, and it doesn’t yet show the most egregious signs of repetitiveness and sloppy prose that will mar some of the later entries in the series.

So what specifically this installment so compelling and so unsettling? Well, to begin with there are the Seanchan.

I have always found the these invaders incredibly strange and alien, since they are so unlike any of the characters are cultures that we have met so far. Their collective willingness to enslave those who possess the inborn ability to channel the One Power always makes me feel gross, and this feeling is heightened by the fact that they use other women who could learn to channel to do the controlling.

There are also those aspects of the novel that make it stand out from the crowd, particularly its ability to weave together the particular pleasures of a variety of other genres. For example, who doesn’t feel a thrill of horror when Padan Fain nails a Myrdraal to a barn door or feeds one of the Darkfriends in his train to his pack of Trollocs? Who doesn’t find Fain in general to be one of the most terrifying villains to emerge in the annals of epic fantasy? Who doesn’t love the spinning wheels-within-wheels of politics as Rand finds himself sucked into the Great Game?

And of course, who doesn’t love the presence of the Forsaken Lanfear, who makes her first appearance in her attempt to sink her claws into Rand and use him for her own ends.

Lastly, there are the great characters that we meet. This is where we met the redoubtable Siuan, the Amyrlin Seat and leader of the Aes Sedai. While she plays a fairly limited role in the novel, it is still a substantial one, and it reveals a great deal about just how deep her plans with Moiraine run. They both know the enormous stakes with Rand, and they are determined to do everything they can to save him, though they might destroy themselves in the process.

And can I just say how very much I love Moiraine? She has always been, and will always be, one of my favourite characters in the whole series (and I always feel her lack once she disappears). Unlike the other characters in the series, I actually identify with her.

If I have one major complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing seems a little off. When I first began re-reading it, my memory told me that Egwene is briefly captured in the middle of the novel, but it turns out this doesn’t happen until very close to the end. What’s more, she doesn’t stay captured for very long, and so we don’t get a really in-depth glimpse of what it’s like to be a captive of the Seanchan. A similarly rushed feeling accompanies Rand’s duel with the Lord Turak and Mat’s blowing of the horn. These are two huge events, but the novel rushes through them with breathtaking speed.

I’m speeding through The Dragon Reborn, so hopefully I’ll get around to posting my update on that book in the next couple of days or so.

Cover note: I have to say, this is without a doubt the worst of the Wheel of Time covers. I’m not really sure Sweet thought he was doing, but this one is a major fail (who thinks that Ogier really look like that???)

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Reading The Wheel of Time: “The Eye of the World” (Book 1)

So, in addition to all of the things I’m working on–dissertation, novel, short story, this blog–I’ve decided to undertake a truly mammoth project: the re-reading of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time from beginning to end. So, I began, as one should, with The Eye of the World.

Though I’ve read this novel countless times since I first started the series in around 1998, I always find something new to enjoy. In this case, it’s looking for clues that point the way to some of the plot developments that will unfold in future books. And, of course, I always enjoy revisiting one of my favourite characters in this universe: Moiraine, the cunning yet altruistic Aes Sedai (I almost said Bela the horse, but thought that would be disingenuous).

I’ve always been in awe of the way that Robert Jordan was able to craft a plot that really brings out the most exciting aspects of the epic genre. Sure, things start getting a little twisty and windy as the series progresses, but in The Eye of the World all of that is still in the future. It’s hard not to feel caught up in the breathless excitement that hurtles these young people from a backwater village into the maelstrom of cosmic events. True, it’s a plot that’s basically the definition of the epic, but somehow Jordan makes it feel fresh and exciting.

But if we’re being honest, the main characters of Robert’s books are truly insufferable and almost pathologically juvenile. While one might excuse this in the first book (I wouldn’t, but some might), that excuse starts to wear thin as you go on. The women tend to come out better in that equation than the men, which reveals a great deal about how Jordan seems to think about the world, and I will say that both Egwene and Nynaeve are both likable, particularly the latter’s tragic love affair with Lan. And of course there is Moiraine, who is arguably Jordan’s finest fantasy creation.

However, when it comes to world building there is no one who can compare to Robert Jordan. The sheer scope of the world that he has constructed is almost overwhelming in its vastness and its complexity. This is true not only of the various cultures that inhabit his world–which are less straightforwardly based on our own world’s history as, say, George R.R. Martin’s-but also the vast expanse of time that it encompasses. Rand and company are not just engaged in a fight for their world, but for time itself. Ultimately, if the Dark One is able to shatter the Wheel of Time, he might be able to remake the entire span of past, present, and future in his image.

There is, I think, something deeply horrifying about this threat. We are always encouraged to see the threats of epic fantasy as grand, certainly, but rarely are they about the destruction of time itself. That is truly an end from which there can be no redemption, for there is no escaping from the toils of time. I’m sure there’s a lot more that I want to say about the way in which the series engages with questions of temporality, but for now I’ll just say that this dramatically raises the stakes and it is this, in part, that makes this series stand out from the epic fantasy crowd.

I’ve always really enjoyed Jordan’s ability to weave in bits of horror into his epic fantasy. Both the Myrdraal and the Trollocs are truly travesties, and there is something viscerally unsettling about their presence in the novel. And while his villainous creatures are certainly the most horrifying part of this novel, there is something equally unsettling about Perrin’s newfound ability to communicate with wolves.

In the end, though, the novel is also tragic, in that it is undeniable that there is much that will be lost as these characters begin their journey toward their destiny. The death of the Green Man is just the first death of many that will afflict our heroes as they make their way through the world, confronting uncomfortable (and sometimes downright terrifying) truths about themselves in the process.

I’m going full-throttle through The Great Hunt, in which things begin to take a very grim, and even more horrifying turn, as the scope widens and the true epic quest begins. Stay tuned!

Cursory note: I have always thought that The Eye of the World has the best covers of the entire series, and I stick to that claim.