Welcome to the first of what I’m calling Quick Reads: a close examination of the first few chapters of a book, after which we’ll move onto a new
target subject. Once I’ve done a few of them a poll will go up and we’ll get a good feel for what people want to see given the full Let’s Read treatment.
In order to cut down on clutter I’m lumping all of these posts into the same category; however, once these start stacking up there’ll a link up top that leads to a master post, which will list every book covered and link to each individual post.
For our inaugural book, I decided to go with something that’s been requested frequently: The Eye Of The World, the first book in the marathon-length wheel of time series. Since it’s a big honking fantasy brick I’m going to do a few more chapters than will be usual, until we reach a point where it feels like the plot is actually kicking off (so about 700 pages in, WA-HAY).
For those unfamiliar with the series, some background: The Wheel of Time is comprised of fourteen gigantic, world-crushing fantasy novels and one prequel (in some markets they’re split up and sold in parts). Robert Jordan wrote the first thirteen but unfortunately passed away before completing the final novel, which was then handed over to Doing In The Wizard’s very own Brandon Sanderson to complete using the notes and early draft material that Jordan left behind. Prior to his death Jordan swore repeatedly that there would be twelve and only twelve books (I’m not entirely sure why he was so insistent on this, given how legendarily plodding the later books were), but once Sanderson and his editors got a look at the extant material they realised this was never going to happen and ended up capping the series off over three volumes.
I actually have a personal history with this series, in the same way that some people have a personal history with mean-eating sharks. Way back when I was a radical teen a friend recommended the books to me and I dove in even though previous attempts to get into fantasy never got off the launch pad. I made it halfway through book four, and to this day I still feel I’m owed some sort of compensation for the time I wasted.
But! I actually enjoyed this first book a lot at the time, so it’s going to be interesting to see whether my feelings on it have changed since then.
But first, cover time:
This here is the UK version, which a younger me experienced first hand. It’s got the common traits of a fantasy cover (including hyperbolic praise), but I actually quite like its minimalist design. Every book went with essentially the same image only in different colours, which gives them quite a collectable feel. If I remember correctly, the eleventh one is shiny and because I am an eternal child this captivates me utterly.
On the other hand, American readers got this… thing.
I guess it’s an example of a certain style of classic fantasy artwork, but it’s also a style I find kind of hideous so whatever. Note the vaguely Samurai-looking helmet on Mr. Dude there– the series takes some influences from Ye Olde Japan (most of the swords as described are basically katanas for some reason), especially from book two onwards. This goes about as well as you’d expect.
(Also that guy must be like eight feet tall or something)
In recent years the series got some new covers that I personally like a lot, but the first one is hilariously mundane. It’s the protagonist on a ship, I think? Is that a huge tower in the background? I vaguely recall scenes where the characters go on ships, but none that were particularly remarkable or cover-worthy. On the other hand I believe this is the only extant drawing of Rand where he doesn’t look like a massive douchewagon, so there’s that.
Before we start, a word on spoilers. I’m going to be talking broadly about events that occur later on in the series as part of various discussions, but important plot twists and the like (such as the one that happens at the end of the book) won’t be touched on. Please try to follow this policy in the comments as well.
We are indeed reading a fantasy novel. Yes, it’s set like a million years before the rest of the story.
I wonder how many fictional mountains there are with “dragon” in their name.
The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air.
I distinctly remember the prose being better than this. Maybe it improves later.
We’re in the palace of Lews Therin Telamon, which has just seen Some Shit due to as-yet unexplained magical events and as a result everyone except him is dead. The palace is described in typical medieval terms, but a few books later it turns out that this time period (called the Age of Legends by the people in the story) is the far future of our own world and was actually a kind of utopian wonderland where magic and technology so advanced it was indistinguishable from magic lived side by side. I wonder if none of that is evident here in order to preserve this fact for later, or if Jordan just hadn’t thought of it yet.
For a moment he fingered the symbol on his cloak, a circle half white and half black, the colors separated by a sinuous line. It meant something, that symbol. But the embroidered circle could not hold his attention long.
Ol’ Lews isn’t quite himself, it seems. He’s not really aware of what happened and doesn’t seem to realise that everyone around him is dead, calling out for his wife even as he steps over her dead body. In fact, in just a sec we’re going to find out that he’s actually responsible for all of this, having suffered a fit of madness due to the villain’s actions that caused him to unleash his awesome magics willy-nilly.
Behind him the air rippled, shimmered, solidified into a man who looked around, his mouth twisting briefly with distaste. Not so tall as Lews Therin, he was clothed all in black, save for the snow-white lace at his throat and the silverwork on the turned-down tops of his thigh-high boots. He stepped carefully, handling his cloak fastidiously to avoid brushing the dead.
Go ahead and guess if this guy is evil or not.
“Shai’tan take you, does the taint already have you so far in its grip?”
Shai’tan, huh? Kind of sounds like Satan with a few extra letters and an obligatory fantasy apostrophe thrown in. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence though.
“Look at you,” he said scornfully. “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.
I distinctly recall laughing out loud at this the first time I read it. It doesn’t help that “the high seat” sounds like something a baby would sit in at a restaurant.
Ten years! You pitiful fool! This war has not lasted ten years, but since the beginning of time. 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!
In case it wasn’t obvious enough, this dude in black is a servant of big bad Shai’tan, who has been getting up to shenanigans for the last ten years. Lews Therin opposed both of them but has been driven mad through some sort of action on Shai’tan’s part, which is a big victory for the forces of Not-Good.
Evil Dude uses dark magics to heal Lews Therin’s mind temporarily, allowing him to realize the true horror of what he’s done.
Remember, you fool! Remember your futile attack on the Great Lord of the Dark! Remember his counterstroke! Remember! Even now the Hundred Companions are tearing the world apart, and every day a hundred men more join them.
Whatever Shai’tan did is affecting other people besides Lews Therin, but only men. Keep this in mind, it will be important.
And yes, our villain is an evil being who is evil because he’s evil, and his followers willingly refer to him as things like “the great lord of the dark” and pledge their allegiance to “the shadow”. It’s going to be one of those books.
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, the taint of the Shadow’s counterstroke, the taint that doomed the world.
Oily taints are a grave danger to the world. Remember to keep your taint oil-free.
This is going to be explained later, but we might as well just get it out of the way: in the world of The Wheel of Time magic users tap into the True Source to activate the One Power. The Source is split into male and female parts (this world is so gender-essentialist it’s woven into the fabric of the universe), and as he was being sealed away Shai’tan corrupted the male half as an act of revenge, causing any men using it to go mad and begin unleashing their powers on the world. This not only led to a gigantic amount of destruction as half of the magic users in existence suddenly turned into walking bombs, it also ensured that any man after this point born with the ability to touch the Source will eventually succumb to the effects of the taint and become dangerous. When we flash forward like a billion years to the main story this situation has been in effect for millenia and male magic users have to be hunted down and have their powers locked.
Reading this again, it’s clear that Jordan is actually setting up a lot of future plot developments. For example, it’s made clear that the taint is like an oil slick on the surface of a body of water, ie something that male users of the Source have to pass through to tap into their power; Saidin itself remains pure and uncorrupted beneath. This becomes critically important much, much later in the series when the characters go about trying to find a way to remove the taint.
The air turned to fire, the fire to light liquefied. The bolt that struck from the heavens would have seared and blinded any eye that glimpsed it, even for an instant. From the heavens it came, blazed through Lews Therin Telamon, bored into the bowels of the earth. Stone turned to vapor at its touch. The earth thrashed and quivered like a living thing in agony. Only a heartbeat did the shining bar exist, connecting ground and sky, but even after it vanished the earth yet heaved like the sea in a storm. Molten rock fountained five hundred feet into the air, and the groaning ground rose, thrusting the burning spray ever upward, ever higher.
Lews Therin uses his awesome magics one last time, creating a gigantic mountain that seals him away.
“You cannot escape so easily, Dragon. It is not done between us. It will not be done until the end of time.”
Then he was gone, and the mountain and the island stood alone. Waiting.
BUT WAITING FOR WHAT?!?!?!?!?
The seas boiled, and the living envied the dead. All was shattered, and all but memory lost, and one memory above all others, of him who brought the Shadow and the Breaking of the World. And him they named Dragon.
It seems history did not look back kindly on our man Lews Therin. Not surprising, really.
(From Aleth nin Taerin alta Camora,The Breaking of the World.
Author unknown, the Fourth Age)
Conlangs and quotes from fictional books! We’re back in our comfort zone, people.
I’ve complained in the past that most fantasy conlangs are bad because they all sound the same; the ones in the Wheel of Time books are a bit better as they sort of have a distinct sound to them and kind of come across as real languages and not random collections of vowels and apostrophes.
Chapter 1: An Empty Road
Hey you know how the Kvothe books both had a near-identical little spiel at the start? Well:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
Thankfully it isn’t nearly as annoying, concerning as it does ages and wheels and turning and the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind instead of… whatever the Kvothe openings were about.
After all that excitement on Dragonmount the story moves a zillion years into the future and focuses on a tiny backwater area called the Two Rivers.
Huh, that’s strange. I tried to find a picture of the Two Rivers but instead landed on a photo of Hobbiton, a location from the world-famous fantasy trilogy The Lord of The Rings by JRR Tolkien. How odd.
Anyway the Two Rivers is home to our protagonist, Rand al’Thor. Yes, the hero is named Rand al’Thor. Stop laughing, this is serious fantasy. Rand and his dad are on their way to Emond’s Field, the nearest town (they live in an out of the way farm) and it’s hard going because the weather has been unusually cold and harsh for spring. Wolves and bears are known to be roaming the area, and Rand has an arrow nocked and at the ready in case of trouble.
Bears had been after the sheep, too, where a bear had not been seen in years. It was no longer safe to be out after dark. Men were the prey as often as sheep, and the sun did not always have to be down.
This raises an interesting topic. Bears today are (despite their reputation) quite retiring and relatively unlikely to attack humans. However, historical accounts from native Americans and early European explorers suggest that north American bears were much more aggressive before the widespread occupation of the continent by settlers, and it’s been theorised that a higher population density and the introduction of firearms is what changed this. Given that the Two Rivers is supposed to be very sparse in human habitation and lacking in any weapons more dangerous than bows, it makes sense that bears driven out of their normal habitats by hunger would aggressively attack humans.
The reason I’m bringing this up is that a lot of fantasy novels conjure up a setting that’s wildly different from whatever modern day country the author lives in, but then basically treats it as the same except for technology level so you get a renaissance or medieval-era world that’s basically 21st century America but with kings and taverns all over the place. In actual fact the past differed from the present in a lot of smaller ways that most people don’t think of, and that would hold true for a fantasy world that’s riffing on the past.
Tam was taking steady strides on the other side of Bela, using his spear as a walking staff, ignoring the wind that made his brown cloak flap like a banner.
Tam is Rand’s dad. To my great surprise, he survives to the end of the book.
I used to take horse-riding lessons when I was a kid (I had the fanciest god damn helmet you’ve ever seen, with a bow on the back and everything) and my favourite horse at the stables was named Bela. She was one of those cow-coloured horses and she had Attitude.
He was a head taller than his father, taller than anyone else in the district, and had little of Tam in him physically, except perhaps for a breadth of shoulder.
He doesn’t look like his father, you say? I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything.
Gray eyes and the reddish tinge to his hair came from his mother, so Tam said. She had been an outlander, and Rand remembered little of her aside from a smiling face, though he did put flowers on her grave every year, at Bel Tine,
When I hit this paragraph on my first read through I immediately noticed the fact that “Bel Tine” sounds a whole lot like Bealtaine, a pre-Christian spring festival that was once practiced in Ireland, Scotland and the Island of Man (there’s also a similar festival from Wales). Along with Arthurian legend, about which more shortly, these books draw fairly heavily on various aspects of celtic cultures. They’re hardly unique in that regard– D&D lifted a huge amount of its bestiary from celtic mythology and the Mabinogi, thus ensuring that various flavours of Sidh and obscure creatures from Welsh mythology would appear regularly in JRPGs for decades to come.
On a similar note, if we end up covering the whole book we’ll meet a certain band of travelling caravan-dwellers who might seem eerily familiar from my Kvothe Let’s Reads…
Our dynamic due are actually on the way to Emond’s Field right now to deliver some apple brandy for the Bel Tine celebrations. Rand senses that he’s being watched and turns to see a cloaked rider on the path behind them, who disappears when Rand trips and glances away for a moment.
One of the strengths of these books (that doesn’t seem to diminish over successive volumes) is that they’re at times very effective at conjuring up an eerie mood or even being straight-up creepy. The characters are forever wandering through surreal dreamscapes filled with unsettling portents and images. Seriously, it happens like every other night to these people.
Abruptly Rand realized what had been odd about the horseman, aside from his being there at all. The wind that beat at Tam and him had not so much as shifted a fold of that black cloak. His mouth was suddenly dry.
Let’s talk about Rand for a minute, because we might as well. It’s not really evident yet, but the dude is seriously the dullest protagonist in fantasy history. He fits right into the Boring Destiny Guy role (you know what I’m talking about) and even having read three and a half books of his adventures I still struggle mightily to come up with any way to describe his personality. Stubborn? He has a temper, sometimes, I guess? My overwhelming impression of him is a lot of guff about Duty and Fate and not much else.
So I guess he’s more like BLAND la’BORE am I right?
Almost since he was old enough to walk, he had run loose in the forest. The ponds and streams of the Waterwood, beyond the last farms east of Emond’s Field, were where he had learned to swim.
Either this place is a serene arcadian wonderland or it’s a realistic pre-industrial environment where predators are still a threat to humans. It can’t be both.
and once he had even gone to the very foot of the Mountains of Mist, him and his closest friends, Mat Cauthon and Perrin Aybara.
Ah, Mat and Perrin. We’ll be encountering both of these dudes soon. They’re more interesting than Rand. Well, Mat is more interesting than Rand. Perrin is also boring, but he does something in the second book that made me want to burn the solar system down, which is at least more of a reaction than “fucking nothing.”
“I could do with a pipe,” Tam said slowly, “and a mug of ale where it’s warm.” Abruptly he gave a broad grin. “And I expect you’re eager to see Egwene.”
Always with the grinning
I have always had an extreme difficulty telling the cadre of women who want to bone Rand apart. For example, I could have sworn Egwene was the princess that Rand doesn’t meet until much later, but I guess not. In my defence, most of the women in these books are virtually identical in that they all hate each other and spend 90% of their time sniping at people and acting like spoiled petulant children.
There’s a reason for that, but if we end up diving into the series for realsies we’ll cover it in more detail.
He did not need any more confusion. For the past year she had been making him increasingly jittery whenever they were together. Worse, she did not even seem to be aware of it. No, he certainly did not want to add Egwene to his thoughts.
Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick, not this shit again. I thought we were past this after Kvothe.
YOU FANCY THE PANTS OFF OF HER
THIS IS NOT A MYSTERIOUS CONCEPT PEOPLE GENERALLY GET THE GIST OF IT WHEN THEY’RE CHILDREN
This paragraph prompted me to go looking for what Rand’s age is here, and apparently he’s supposed to be fucking nineteen years old at the earliest. What bullshit are you trying to pull with this, book? Did no one ever explain the concept of people being attracted to each other to him? Do people in this world enter puberty at a really late age or something?
He was hoping his father had not noticed he was afraid when Tam said, “Remember the flame, lad, and the void.”
The flame and the void is some sort of quasi-meditation technique that Tam espouses, which lets him clear his mind and be awesome at archery. It involves visualising a flame, and also a void. Would you believe.
A few muttered that there was no point getting any closer to the mountains than needs be.
The actual reason no one goes beyond the mountains is that the north is ruled by a race of violent beast-men that almost destroyed the world once. This isn’t a secret or anything– it’s common knowledge among the entire rest of the world and there are whole kingdoms dedicated entirely to guarding the northern boarderlands– but most people in the Two Rivers believe the creatures to be mythical. They’re just that isolated. For some reason.
I never really bought just how insular this place is supposed to be. In a short while our heroes have to leave and if I remember correctly it takes them like a few days at most to get into more built-up areas where this is all common knowledge. There’s no actual reason for the Two Rivers region to be so cut off, and we know some people have gone out into the wider world and come back (Tam is one of them, in fact). It’s like people just don’t leave or bring outside information in for no reason.
…well, okay, the reason is that Jordan was ripping off The Shire something fierce, but my complaints still stand.
Small children and dogs dodged around the cart in whooping swarms once it passed the first row of houses. Bela plodded on patiently, ignoring the yelling youngsters who tumbled under her nose, playing tag and rolling hoops.
I kind of get the feeling Jordan either wasn’t very good at, or didn’t want to bother, writing about children since in the chunk of the series I read they never really feature as anything more than background elements and when they do show up either a) do shit like this in a really twee and unrealistic way or b) die.
“What are we going to do about Nynaeve, al’Thor?” Congar demanded. “We can’t have a Wisdom like that for Emond’s Field.”
Nynaeve is our second heroine, after Egwene. All five main characters from the Two Rivers have now been name-dropped.
In case you didn’t catch on by now: yes, these names are lifted from Arthurian legend. Nynaeve = Nyneve, the lady of the lake, and Egwene = Gwynevere, Arthur’s wife. In fact this world has a historical figure named Artur Paendrag (get it) who’s a kind of Alexander the Great analogue.
“Nynaeve al’Meara is just too young to be Wisdom, al’Thor. If the Women’s Circle won’t do something, then the Village Council has to.”
Leadership of the village is shared by a council of men and a council of woman, both of whom assert that they do all the real work while the other is just a figurehead. I could unpack this further to get into the series’ attitudes about gender, but if we end up tackling the books as a full Let’s Read there’ll be ample time for that later. Oh believe me, will there ever be time for it.
“What business of yours is the Wisdom, Wit Congar?” roared a woman’s voice. Wit flinched as his wife marched out of the house. Daise Congar was twice as wide as Wit, a hard-faced woman without an ounce of fat on her. She glared at him with her fists on her hips.
Hen-pecking wives are also a Thing in these books.
Reading some of these sections is giving me horrific flashbacks to the later books, because if you know what’s coming you also know that Jordan will very quickly start taking a lot of this stuff and… going places with it. Horrible, awful places.
(I realise I’m giving a lot of coy hints here, so I guarantee that if we end up not doing any more Let’s Read material on Wheel of Time I’ll write a long post hashing all this stuff out in detail)
There’s some guff about how all the village women think Rand is hot (standard fantasy stuff, you know how it works by now) and about Tam’s dead wife, blah blah blah. Have I mentioned these books are very long and wordy?
Like most Two Rivers folk, Rand had a strong stubborn streak.
We know all about your stubborn streak, Rand. It appears to be your only character trait.
From the spring the rapidly widening Winespring Water ran swiftly off to the east, willows dotting its banks all the way to Master Thane’s mill and beyond, until it split into dozens of streams in the swampy depths of the Waterwood. Two low, railed footbridges crossed the clear stream at the Green, and one bridge wider than the others and stout enough to bear wagons. The Wagon Bridge marked where the North Road, coming down from
I forgot how much unnecessary detail Jordan liked to put into these books. At least for now it’s locations and not clothes or pieces of furniture.
The celebrations for Bel Tine showcase the odd cultural grab-bag approach the worldbuilding uses: people are making bonfires, which is a bealtaine thing, but also erecting a may pole, which distinctly isn’t. Now this is a very minor example compared to the “foreign” fantasy cultures that show up later, but it illustrates how Jordan seemed to have just gotten random elements from reality and shoved them together lego-style instead of trying to create some sort of actual coherent world.
The whole day of Bel Tine would be taken up with singing and dancing and feasting, with time out for footraces, and contests in almost everything.
Well that all sounds lovely. I’m sure nothing tragic will happen to disrupt it.
And to top everything, if the rumors could be believed, a grand display of fireworks was planned for the Green
Wasn’t there some other book that started with everyone being excited over fireworks? I can’t quite remember what it was. I think it was popular a while back, there were movies and everything…
Whatever. It’s probably just a coincidence.
Rand glanced down, and had to grin
No he did not have to grin. I dispute this claim.
Rand is all a-grin because his wacky buddy Mat Cauthon has arrived. I think Mat is supposed to be fantasy Han Solo, but he comes across more like that one annoying guy you knew in school who gave himself a nickname starting with “the”. You know, that guy. He even gets a quirky hat later.
It turns out Mat also saw the sinister cloaked man, which has him and Rand totally spooked. I’m not sure if I was struck on my first read-through by how insubstantial this is as the start of a book (let alone an EPIC SAGA). Apparently when I was a teenager a mysterious dude on a horse seemed a lot more compelling.
“I don’t know. But I do know that rider was . . . evil. Don’t laugh. I’ll take oath on it. Maybe it was the Dragon.”
The idea of the Dragon being reborn is a big part of this world’s myhtology. The ancient law of fantasy expectation decrees that all prophecies shall come to pass by the end of the book, so Rand might be on to something here.
“My mother always said the Forsaken would come for me if I didn’t mend my ways. If I ever saw anybody who looked like Ishamael, or Aginor, it was him.”
The Forsaken were Shai’tan’s companions (if I remember correctly Ishamael was the guy we met in the prologue) and were sealed away with him 3000 years ago (OR WERE THEY). Apparently they willingly named themselves that, but then again they follow a guy with nicknames like The Great Lord Of The Dark and The Night’s Shepherd so it’s perhaps not surprising.
They also bear a remarkable resemblance in certain ways to the Chandrian of Kvothe fame, except unlike the Chandrian they actually do shit.
Well, the quicker you lads get the cider into Master al’Vere’s cellar, the quicker you can see the gleeman.”
God I forgot about the fucking gleeman. I seem to recall that I nearly dropped the book here during the first go-around due to how twee this all is.
A gleeman is a kind of travelling bard/entertainer. This particular one is named Thom and he ends up being an important character. There are a lot of important characters in this book. It’s a very big book and is packed with Stuff, which is how you know it’s important.
There’s some more waffling about the festival and Rand getting the tingles over Egwene, and our second chapter ends. Now, you may have gotten the impression that that was all very slow moving, but compared to the books later on it’s filled with pulse-pounding excitement. Wheel of Time is famous for its plodding nature and copious use of filler– I haven’t verified this for myself, but according to fans literally nothing happens in book ten. Take a look at the Amazon reviews for that one if you want to have a fun time.