I’ve been very ruthless over the past couple days, and weeded out over 100 books which have gone to Barrington (a local National Trust property with a book barn) or The Honeypot (an even more local secondhand book seller – my Mum in our garage, for the church!) I haven’t been quite as ruthless as Rachel, but I’ve been stern with myself and certainly managed to make a bit of room… and then immediately filled it with the books I sent home with Mum and Dad when I moved house. But, whereas I’d usually keep books I’ve read unless I hated them, now they’re out if it’s unlikely that I’ll want to re-read them for years.
One book which probably won’t be finding its way back onto my shelves is The Eye of the World (1990), the first novel in The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, which I finished on the train home. In early 2010, my brother Colin and I set each other a reading challenge. Our tastes our not similar at all, as you’ll remember from his My Life in Books interview, and I wanted him to sample the wonder of Virginia Woolf. Since she writes normal, sensible length books – and Robert Jordan first volume OF FOURTEEN comes in at an astonishing 782 pages – Colin had to read Orlando and To The Lighthouse, and would still get off far easier in terms of length. As it turned out, he struggled with Orlando and called it the worst book he’d ever read. Read more here (scroll down to August 25th 2010 entry). I was sad but not surprised, and let him off reading To The Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf is too brilliant to be everyone’s cup of tea, so we’ll sweep that under the carpet.
Well, The Eye of the World isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but it did take me 2.5 years to read it. I actually read over 500 pages on a trip to and from Paris in March 2010, because it was the only book I took with me, but I only read in dribs and drabs until, determined that it should feature on A Century of Books, I took it with me on a 3.5 hour train journey, and blitzed the final 200 or so pages.
Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve live in a jolly place called The Two Rivers, which is attacked by Trollocs (wolf-type creatures), and Rand’s father is killed. I forget quite how this leads to the quest, but it does…. in fact, looking back, I can’t really remember ever being told what the quest actually was. It certainly involved walking a very long way, outwitting Dark Forces, and seeking the elliptical wisdom of an Aes Sedai – prophetess-type – called Moiraine, who is rather pretty, if memory serves. They wanted to get to The Eye of the World, but I don’t really remember it being mentioned until they actually got there. Perhaps they’re just on the run from the Trollocs and sundry evil things?
And on they go. And on. And oooonnnn.
I will mention, before I go on, that The Eye of the World was better than I thought it would be. At no point was the writing laughably bad, although for the most part it was pretty pedestrian. It doesn’t hurry particularly, and one of the reasons the book is so. very. long. is that Jordan doesn’t have any sense of economising. Here’s an excerpt chosen entirely at random, to give you a sense of the pace:
The stone hallway was dim and shadowy, and empty except for Rand. He could not tell where the light came from, what little there was of it; the grey walls were bare of candles or lamps, nothing at all to account for the faint glow that seemed to just be there. The air was still and dank, and somewhere in the distance water dripped with a steady, hollow plonk. Wherever this was, it was not the inn. Frowning, he rubbed at his forehead. Inn? His head hurt, and thoughts were hard to hold on to. There had been something about… an inn? It was gone, whatever it was.
He licked his lips and wished he had something to drink. He was awfully thirsty, dry-as-dust thirsty. It was the dripping sound that decided him. With nothing to choose by except his thirst, he started toward that steady plonk – plonk – plonk.
So, as you see, nothing dreadful, nothing in Mary Webb territory. But since we’re comparing Jordan with Woolf (which I can’t imagine has ever happened before)… well, you can’t imagine anybody reading prose like that simply for the joy of reading beautiful writing, can you? It’s serviceable, though, and unobtrusive, which is no mean feat. Plenty of novelists would give their left arm for that.
A book’s merits can be considered in terms of plot, character, and writing style, broadly speaking. What The Eye of the World lacks in writing style it almost gains in character. Although it took me the first hundred pages to disentangle Mat, Rand, and Perrin (and that gap of two years in my reading entangled them all over again) I was impressed by the complex relationships between the central characters – with jealousy, admiration, affection, rivalry, loyalty, and frustration all playing their roles. It’s not always the most subtle character delineation, but it’s a good deal more subtle than I was anticipating. As usual, there are forces that are plain Evil, without redeeming feature or clear motivation, but the Good characters weren’t annoyingly bland in their pursuit of all that is pure. They did all seem as though they were about 15 years old, whereas the cover suggests they’re a decade or so older than that…?
So, the plot? It didn’t grip me, to be honest, because it seemed just to be walk, obstacle, overcome obstacle, walk, obstacle, overcome obstacle, repeat as needed. The heroes are trapped! Will they die? Er, no. The heroes are lost! Will they find their way? Er, yes. The heroes are trapped again! Will they escape? Can you guess? When there are another thousand books in the series, you know that the main characters are going to live for at least another few books.
I love books where not much happens, as you know. I love To The Lighthouse, for goodness’ sake, and bar a death and an argument or two, nothing really happens. But The Eye of the World is so fixed on its quest plot, and its up-and-down attempts to heighten tension, that when it doesn’t grab a reader the foundations of the novel must collapse. I think I’m just allergic to the artificiality of any quest-plot. And – not that it’s relevant – covers like this. Why do fantasy books so often have covers like this? And silly names? I’m put off when writers make up gibberish languages. I think writers should be able to be creative within the bounds of the English language (or, y’know, whichever language[s] they speak.) I don’t see how ‘Aes Sedai’ brings anything that ‘prophetess’ doesn’t, other than making me think (for some reason) of Anais Nin.
And while I’m moaning, goodness me, it’s slow. Colin tells me that it’s the most pacey novel in the series – but no novel of 782 pages can claim to be fast-paced. I think it could all easily be condensed into 300 pages, max. I suppose part of the appeal to the sort of people who like lengthy fantasy series is that length. Perhaps it makes you feel like you’re on the quest too. (It did make me chuckle that one of the cover quotations was “I read it in three days” – for most books, an indication of compulsive, compelling reading would be “I read it in three hours.”) I was never hugely curious to find out what would happen next, partly because it was almost always glaringly obvious what would happen next and partly because it all happened at a glacial speed.
So, summing up… neither Colin nor I have converted the other to our much-cherished writers, but I fared better with Robert Jordan than he did with Virginia Woolf. I shan’t be reading any other books in The Wheel of Time series, but I liked The Eye of the World more than I thought I would. I just wish someone had hidden Jordan’s pen after 300 pages.