Binge Project: ‘The Wheel of Time,’ Book 1

Welcome to the Binge Project series! These Binge Projects will feature me reading or watching an entire run of comics, books, TV shows, or other media in rapid order, then writing expansively about the experience. This installment will be a slower process, as I work my way through the lengthy “The Wheel of Time” book series.

wheel of time generic

I love fantasy fiction, but I’m very particular about it. I’ve tried numerous fantasy series that I struggled to get into, for any number of various reasons. Too derivative. Too simplistic. Too small a worldview. But there are some I have fallen for, two especially. I’m eternally obsessed with Tolkien, forever the gold standard of the genre. I adore George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, especially how big and complex it all is. I love that type of world Martin uses, with numerous intersecting characters and plotlines and subplots, especially the various hints of mystery. Unfortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien is dead, and his son Christopher (who has done a heroic job of finishing his father’s incomplete works, often from unsorted scraps of paper) seems to have run out of posthumous Tolkien works to publish. And Martin, while immensely talented, is not a quick writer; who knows when his next installment will come out.

So recently, I began searching for another worthy series. In an ideal world, I hoped to find something with hints of Tolkien’s epic scale and Martin’s complex world-building, but preferably with a heavier emphasis on magic. It didn’t have to be as good as either (and I’m not sure I could admit something was better than Tolkien even if I ever did find it), but I hoped to find those elements at least. Toward that end, a friend’s recommendation persuaded me to finally try Robert Jordan’s classic series, The Wheel of Time.

I was aware of the series for many years, of course; most people with a strong familiarity of fantasy fiction are. For years, I said I would just get to the series when it was completed. That became an especially understandable view when Robert Jordan died before he could finish what he’d intended to be the final book. But Jordan left behind extensive notes, allowing his publisher to to tap longtime fan and fellow noted fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to complete the series over three final books. With the final installment coming out in January 2013, that excuse was removed. Yet I still hesitated for well over a year. I had plenty of other things I wanted to read (and still do), and starting a 14-book series sounded daunting. Even after finishing the first book, it still feels daunting.

But obviously, I’ve taken the plunge, and I’m glad I did. Because the first book in The Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World, was one of the most engaging and enjoyable pieces of fiction I’ve read in years.

After an intriguing prologue that hints at much but reveals little, The Eye of the World gives us our main protagonist, Rand al’Thor, and introduces us to his sleepy farming village of Emond’s Field on the eve of a holiday. The opening chapters reveal practically every major character for the rest of the book, though in a casual way; among the rest of the scene setting of Edmond Fielders, I was left pleasantly uncertain which characters would continue to matter once the adventure inevitably began.

These early chapters feel highly reminiscent of Tolkien and the Shire, a connection that the internet tells me was very much intended by Jordan. Nor do the Tolkienesque elements end there. There’s the reluctant protagonist who often wishes he could just leave the quest behind and go home. There’s an evil object that corrupts its owner (though far less central to the plot than the One Ring). Jordan’s Trollocs are given a unique physical description, but their mindless destruction and status as the base footsoldiers of evil makes me think that an Orc by any other name is still an Orc. Yet these similarities felt intentional, even before I found confirmation of Jordan’s intent online. Given how many of us view Tolkien as the father of (modern) fantasy, most fantasy series are bound to have some influence from him, even if small and/or subconsciously. The key to avoiding the “too derivative” label is to create something that feels as vibrantly “new” as possible. Jordan’s homages never distract from his success in doing so.

eye of world comic

When recommending the series, my friend gave special praise to how well done the magic system is. In The Eye of the World, we get a feeling for that without ever glimpsing its whole. There’s the interesting male and female division in the One Power coming from True Source. The particularly intriguing gift that Elyas opens up to a major character. There’s a clear big bad in Ba’alzamon the Dark One, but Mordeth is at least as appetizing as an alternative (possibly main) antagonist. There’s a well-ordered hierarchy of lesser villains, as well; even if the Trollocs’ menace wore a little thin to me after the first encounter, I never stopped feeling creeped out by the Myrddraal.

And there’s the sense of mystery I was hoping for. The Aes Sedai are an order that’s almost universally feared, yet we almost only see helpful works in this book. All but a couple of the hints at its darkness under the surface are vague, leaving much to explore in future books. The animosity toward Aes Sedai also leads to the interesting dynamic of warring factions within the ostensibly “good” side, thanks to the Whitecloaks. Also present is the big worldview I wanted. I felt most confident about finding that; any series that supported 14 books would have to feel big enough to explore. But it was still a delight to see cities, order, races, events, etc. that clearly will have significance down the road only hinted at here. There’s obviously still so, so much to come. The Wheel of Time itself gives both a sense of timelessness to the greater scope of the epic, yet still surges through with the urgency of fate.

Rand and Mat’s part of the journey can drag a little, and the book’s climax felt perhaps a bit rushed, but those were faults easily enough forgiven. The characters are already just a lot of fun. Rand could be a little plain at times, but I can’t wait to see what impacts this book’s events have on developing his character. My favorite character alternated several times, caught between the mystery and cold badassery of Lan; the deceivingly layered but always fun Thom; and the peaceful ferocity of Elyas. And of course, there’s Moiraine, a character whom I somehow still feel completely (but delightfully) in the dark about. Really the only major character I could never quite latch onto was Mat, whose arc in this book never fully resonated with me.

There was so much intrigue and such an intricate system to explore that the possibilities really seem endless. I know it won’t all be high points over such a long series; my friend warned about Book 10 being a drag, and I’ve seen other online commenters who say they lost interest around Book 7 or so. But The Eye of the World is an undeniably great hook to very big, complex world. After such a long search to finding a series that hits this many marks, I can’t imagine not being in for the long haul.

So stay tuned. We have a long way to go.

NEXT TIME: The Great Hunt, Book 2 of The Wheel of Time

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