Category Archives: Wheel of Time

How could you possibly look ten women in the face and ask why they had gotten you drunk and made a game of taking your clothes off and putting you to bed?

Every long series has its fan favorite volume and for The Wheel of Time it’s book four, The Shadow Rising, coinciding also with the longest, at almost 400k words and 980 pages in the edition I read. Up to this point and including this one, each book, while relatively slow paced in itself, represented a different stage in the story. So where I expected formula I instead found a well defined arc with clear development. In this fourth book Jordan tends his garden.

There. I don’t think I could summarize what I’m going to write any better. I think it’s telling that this book, peculiarly since they were always there, lacks a Prologue. The way I see it there’s no prologue here because it’s the part of the book that usually teases the point of view of the bad guys (and girls, especially) before handing over the scene to the principal viewpoints (though it’s not a so strict structure and sometime you get other viewpoints as necessary). But book four mainly represents Team Good reforming and reorganizing. I knew already before reading the book that in this one the story opened up and laid the basis for what comes after, that it was essentially a foundation of the larger arc, but it takes quite a lot of pages to get the plot moving. In general, this where Team Good is on the move and plays its hand. So it’s not the bad guys who come forth, but Team Good taking the initiative to shake things up. It’s refreshingly “proactive”, instead of falling back in the norm of defending and confronting an imminent or latent threat. Despite this, Jordan still needs the imminent threat, even a number of them, so in the first part of the book a number of plot contrivances are tossed in just to keeps things supposedly tense, but in truth it’s all silly fakery. A pretense, smoke and mirrors whose purpose is linked to a bigger and more pervasive one I’ll explain later.

From a general outlook for the first 300 pages we mainly have characters looking around themselves to figure out what happened and where they stand, and decide (and argue muchly between them) what to do next. Then another 50 or so to actually get things moving. Past that point the book is split into three main branches, where each relies on a completely separate subplot, as if you get to follow three separate stories happening in different parts of the world to different characters. One follows Rand and his “initiative”, one Perrin and his woes, and another the girls and their affairs. And a fourth, minor page-wise, that deals with stuff elsewhere. They actually never converge, or get unified as the story goes, although some of the characters cross over. So for the first time, maybe, there’s an attempt to shape a world that has its own personality, in the sense that even if everything thematically pivots around Rand, stuff starts tumbling outward and the world outside claims its role. We see the ripples. It’s about the various parts of the world taking autonomy, instead of being empty stages waiting their turn as some main character passes through and experiences adventure. This happens timidly, but at least it happens, it is set as a goal. So while the first third of the book is rather shallow and not exactly matching the expectations for “best in the series”, overall the story is well sustained and interesting.

I imagine that for the fans the highest point is about getting to know more of the mythology and events from the past. There are scenes here that are meant to shape up things in a coherent whole, unify a number of different aspects and deliver more than a few revelations (especially those who enjoy to play with puzzle pieces). That part of the book could be considered fairly generous, and Jordan’s successful attempt to give some specific flavor to his world. But again, I can’t avoid thinking this is a giant fake, and that the true heart of the book is instead that shallow first third where characters bicker and fuss over petty things, and each other. That’s where the recipe is hidden in plain sight. The MUNDANE. Boys liking girls, girls liking boys. Tea times, sleepovers. Romantic love letters. Lots of pretty dresses and cleavages, or transparent silks and implied sauciness. This is it. The actual revelation here is the inverse of what you’d expect: the “fantasy” is meant to spice up the “romantic”, not the opposite. The fantasy is context, not subject. It is flavor, detail. Some window dressing so that the love story is more passionate and epic. Truly romantic and ideal. The fantasy is meant to add the required pathos that elevates a love story to its most idealistic extreme. Made wondrous. The shepherd isn’t a shepherd, but the predestined king in shiny armor that knows how to use a sword. But not just, because the love must be cursed, impossible. Never actually consumed. The longing dominates, because love stories need to be like that, always suspended, always slipping away. The boy wants the girl (or, actually, an harem), but he has more pressing matters because he has to be manly and save the world, first. Basically: adolescence. It’s adolescence stirred up in a mythical world. Essentially poison, in a way. In the sense that it’s super-effective. And that’s how I have (perhaps disrespectfully) reduced its popularity.

“Rand al’Thor,” Moiraine told the air in a low, tight voice, “is a mule-headed, stone-willed fool of a…a… a man!”

Elayne lifted her chin angrily. Her childhood nurse, Lini, used to say you could weave silk from pig bristles before you could make a man anything but a man. But that was no excuse for Rand.

“We breed them that way in the Two Rivers.” Nynaeve was suddenly all half-suppressed smiles and satisfaction. She seldom hid her dislike of the Aes Sedai half as well as she thought she did. “Two Rivers women never have any trouble with them.” From the startled look Egwene gave her, that was a lie big enough to warrant having her mouth washed out.

Moiraine’s brows drew down as if she were about to reply to Nynaeve in harder kind. Elayne stirred, but she could not find anything to say that would head off argument. Rand kept dancing through her head. He had no right! But what right did she have?

Then you may not agree with the extent of what I described, but it’s undeniable that it’s still there. If you think about it Martin’s ASOIAF isn’t all that different. It does the same thing but for more grown-up readers. Those hooks have similar shapes, in similar places. In both cases what’s familiar is used as a breach in the heart of the reader, grasp those familiar emotions and trappings that work so well in all forms of fiction, fantasy or not. The fantasy adds spice, elevates potentials. Inscribes into epic and memorable. Gives the writer unprecedented control (and responsibility). Characterization follows suit. Jordan does go after realism, but goes after iconic. I’d say characterization is extremely detailed and always well defined. Those characters need to stand apart, become familiar in the least amount of time. On top of this Jordan has a style of writing that is very expressive and “outward”, so you don’t find ambiguity and subtlety, but familiarity is the key to understand the characters perfectly and get absorbed in their story and personal woes and cravings. It is also an aspect where a formula shows. The smoothing of skirts and tugging of braids is now legendary and much sneered at, but I kind of respect it and find it as an actual strength that adds to characterization instead of subtracting. Why? Because this bundle of gestures and other small acts are used as a kind of characterization toolkit. So much redundant, but each expressive and carrying a very specific meaning. Each character has its own dedicated package, and each is used to convey a particular mood or sentiment. It makes characterization plain and, if I haven’t repeated it enough, hence familiar. Characters immediately recognizable, near to you so that you want to share. It works and it’s never overwrought because it always serves a point. Since the gesture conveys the state of mind, it is precisely necessary and efficient.

For someone who isn’t a Jordan fan, “best of Jordan” isn’t any better, but this book at least is more consistent and interesting compared to the duller and perfunctory 3rd. Characters step out of their lull on both sides, the evil foes start getting a personality and being more defined between each other, becoming characters and so giving more actual substance to a story that up to this point was merely against the usual abstract threat of some metaphysical evil. This also gets better nailed to the ground, more tangible and familiar. The story actually gains from having more of it revealed instead of shrouded into mystery. But then when you let character make the story it can also happen that they can unmake it. Perrin’s chapters would be at least nice but the way the character behaves makes them quite obnoxious. His relationship with Zarine is jarring because of how forced it is. It’s one of the cases where characters’ stereotypes are way more powerful than any realism. It reads like the most naive fairy tale and loses all its impact. And I actually like Zarine, compared to what I perceived as widespread hostility in the fandom. Thankfully there’s always a little bit of plot movement, myth development or mystery going on with obnoxious characters’ interactions. The book is readable even if slow paced, and overall a good experience comparable to the second volume, the one I liked the most up to this point.

Despite some plot moving parts and a general decent satisfaction in wrapping up the book, it’s not like what happened is so pivotal. Most of it is set-up, and some characters that are newly introduced absolutely go nowhere. They are basically entirely superfluous and it’s very clear they represent a part of the story that will play a role later on. It is a book that builds and moves, but only to load material on the rest of the series. Very little in this book happens for the sake of the book itself, and it’s maybe a success that it still feels satisfactory despite being mostly transition.

As I’m wont to do I started reading the 5th right as I finished this one. The end of the 4th is abrupt and really one big setup. You are meant to wonder: what now? And again it’s also a success that finishing the book made me enjoy a lot reading the prologue of the 5th. If I didn’t have a substantial reading queue I’d really like to just go on. As I said, this present book feeds the rest of the story, so that not only you may had a good experience reading it, but interest is sparked about what happens next. In a way, I could say that the very best part of book 4 is the prologue of book 5. And, less successfully, the more the book stays away from the main characters, the more it actually gets interesting and fun to read.

If one isn’t at peace with what I wrote in the first part, the mundane and the adolescent context, then it’s not going to be a series that can be digested. One would just bounce back on the irrelevant fluff and characters’ contrivances. You can’t even attempt to separate all that from worthwhile myth and worldbuilding. It does feel shallow and artificial. But if one is indeed an adolescent, or at least willing to impersonate one (!), then it’s really an enjoyable, epic story that carries on one’s dreams. It is generous and welcoming, and for this reason more “aware” and extrovert compared to the archaic Tolkien. Yet, while it is built to capture a large audience and remain as a classic, I believe its naive idealism won’t survive the times. Even younger readers now are jaded and cynical, as shaped by the world we live in, and maybe there’s not so much space left for the colorful, larger than life epic tales. It’s Jordan that appears archaic compared to Tolkien.

I’m at about 140 pages into Martin’s A Storm of Swords and once again wondering about the causes of its popularity. I know that this third book is considered by far the best in the series, and that I have to expect things slowing down quite a bit in the next two books, so my expectations here are set very high, maybe that’s why I’ve found those first 140 pages not as the best prelude to the best book. The plot is stuck at the end of the previous book, and Martin needs all those 140 pages merely to go through each PoV to make a summary and set a new starting point.

That’s how you can write a huge 1000+ pages book and still give the impression that not much happened. The structure is rather simple, you have an average of 10-15 pages for each chapter/PoV and it takes about 150 pages to return to one. In the end this produces a 1000 pages book where a single PoV has about 100 pages of available space to tell its story, and 100 pages is the bare minimum to show some development, especially with the kind of detail that Martin writes in. That’s the formula to write these epic sized fantasy books. Just an high number of PoVs, fragmenting the story, but also offering that big breadth one expects precisely from this genre.

My question is why Martin and Jordan series were able to reach a huge popularity and the answer I offer is that both do something similar but from two different angles. I think the keyword is “accessibility”. Martin is popular because his series is what you can easily recommend to all sort of readers. That’s why it’s successful: because it’s a genre novel accessible (and written for) all kinds of readers. You don’t need to be a “genre” reader to engage with Martin story, and so this series can tap into the large audience of general readers.

Whereas Jordan retains a similar level of accessibility. His series also taps directly onto a huge pool of readers: all kinds of adolescent readers. The Wheel of Time has the power to engage all sort of “younger” readers. It’s like a LotR where uncool, clumsy Hobbits are replaced by young future heroes destined to conquer and change the world, becoming celebrities. Because of how it’s built, its strength is about tapping onto a certain audience, in a specific age-range but regardless of whether they are “readers” or not. Or even genre readers. The WoT can convert someone, making him a “reader” in the first place, and a “genre” reader as consequence. It does so because it offers characters and themes that appeal directly to that age-range, it’s the call of the adventure and the writer taking the reader’s hand, offering one of the most immersive and engaging experiences. It’s the stuff younger readers dream about, and it fully embraces it. It gives them the time of their life.

That’s why I used that distinction between “adult” and “young” fantasy. Martin’s series can be seen as representing “adult fantasy” that is extremely popular and successful because it can CONVERT adult readers into “genre” readers. On the other hand Jordan’s series is also hugely popular and successful because it converts readers, but in this case it’s more carefully aimed at an age range. What ASoIaF does for a more adult public, the WoT does for younger readers, recruiting them into “genre”. In both cases, these two series can rise so much in popularity because they draw from a huge pool of readers that aren’t limited by “genre”, and that’s why I’m putting the focus on “accessibility” and “conversion”.

There’s finally another element that plays an important role in all this. It’s usually the writer’s job to engage the reader and make him “care”, keep him reading and turning the pages. But I think this is an illusory description because it overestimates (and romanticizes) the writer’s power and ultimate goal. I think in the best case the writer can only work on the illusion of directing and manipulating the reader’s interest, while it’s probably more correct to say that the writer merely taps and rejuvenates interests that have always been there, with the reader. Like suppressed memories that seem to resurface unbidden. It’s a much more subtle touch, and far less powerful. More sleight of hand than magic.

So why is this sharing of interests important in the case of popularity of these series? Because it’s the real hook that makes possible to reach for that huge pool of readers. Think to Martin’s series. Or even “Fantasy” in general. The common response you get from non-genre readers is: why should I care? Why a normal adult guy who has more immediate concerns should waste hours of his life reading “fantasies”? That’s why the common answer is about conflating Fantasy with “escapism”. It’s the most immediate reaction. But this is also the key to interpret how Martin’s series can be so hugely successful at engaging readers who usually “do not care” about Fantasy. What’s the First Mover in Martin’s series? Family. If you think about it, that’s the whole core. That’s where his series sets its roots. That’s the link to readers who aren’t normally genre readers or have zero interest in reading genre fiction. Its strongest theme is immediately familiar. All the priorities of each characters are simply defined by where he’s born, that will then also define what place he’ll have in the Big Game. Martin has an archetypal grasp on what everyone cares about, and so the possibility to connect with all readers. The first generalized hook that powers the series is about family concerns, mothers worrying about their children. It’s universal even if it’s encased in “fantasy”, and it can immediately engage readers because of its familiarity. The “adult” aspect is merely related to a style. Martin’s series is built on PoVs and these PoVs are selected on a wide range. It’s “adult” because it requires to shift these projections, have interest in this wider range of perspectives, in their breadth and diversity. Adolescents are usually more narrow-minded and self-absorbed to care about what happens outside of themselves (and the WoT reflects this). Then Martin builds the structure of his game by giving voice to different sides, creating contradicting feelings in the readers since there’s not a privileged side the reader can be on (though this is mostly a well crafted illusion).

Compare all this to Jordan and you see why I brought up the “young” angle. The WoT targets younger readers exactly because it selects its PoVs within the narrower range of its expected audience. It more immediately offers PoVs that the reader can recognize and identify with, offering themes that are strong specifically for that audience. And then it at least tries to follow those readers as they get older, by trying to broadening the range of the story. So the WoT is the ideal journey, recruiting and converting “young adults” into faithful readers, and then trying to walk with them into their adult age. That gives enough universal power to explain the popularity.

Now consider Tolkien. In this case Tolkien wasn’t writing for a pool of readers already waiting in potential. He just chased his own interests. This is important because “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t an “accessible” book at all, and so this seem to break the pattern I described above. It’s true. LotR is actually way more “niche” and less accessible than both ASoIaF and WoT. It’s far less easy to pick up and enjoy. And it’s also not a book that easily converts readers that do not have a specific interest in the genre. So why it’s still so hugely popular? Just because it came first? I don’t think so. The reason why Tolkien remains so popular while not being accessible is, the way I see it, because there’s a huge cultural push that overcomes Tolkien’s accessibility issues. His world is now part of mass culture, and being so it means EVERYONE is exposed to it. There’s pressure that comes from general culture that goes in Tolkien’s direction, and so all kinds of readers are pushed in this direction. Works like The Silmarillion are still extremely popular if you consider how nigh inaccessible the book would normally be, impossible to sell commercially. But this happens solely because there’s a general culture push that makes readers overcome those barriers.

Consider Malazan. Malazan, compared to ASoIaF, isn’t easy to recommend at all. It has humongous accessibility issues. This is usually blamed on the “medias res” style of the first book, but I think it’s a wrong angle. The problem with Malazan accessibility is that it’s much harder for a new reader to care about. It takes maybe two chapter in ASoIaF for the reader to figure out what it is about. One chapter in the WoT. Only the Prologue in LotR to set the style. With Malazan the reader feels like hiding in the shadow and chasing after someone on his own obscure agenda. Erikson doesn’t take the reader’s hand and gently leads him on the journey. There are no immediate rewards. You just follow with your own determination, if you want.

Why should a clueless reader care? What’s the big motivation that makes someone pick up a so huge series and overall commitment? But that’s just one aspect. Another crucial one is that all Malazan qualities generate big contradictions. The first book already presents things on a scale that dwarfs most other fantasy series, pulling out all the stops. Then by the time one reaches the third book that scale grew EXPONENTIALLY to levels that are utterly unimaginable. Just unprecedented and with no parallels. And yet, this is counterbalanced by another side that’s deeper, serious and incredibly ambitious. Giving the idea of something that takes itself very “seriously”. This creates different angles that can explode into a strong contradiction. On one side you have readers who engage with the most overt aspects of the series, the breakneck pace of the plot, the insane power levels, great battle and big scale spectacular stuff. The more mindless fun and shiny stuff on the surface, if you want. And then there are readers who instead find all that childish genre reading and instead expect something more “adult” in ASoIaF style. Ideally, one would say that Malazan is a distillation of the best of both worlds, and then even goes its own way to achieve something completely new. But far more commonly readers come with their own set of expectations and what happens is that the average reader is killed in the crossfire of contradictions. “Adult” readers can barely suffer through few pages without branding it as nigh incomprehensible childish fantasy gibberish, while those who are in for the “fun” and immediate pay off felt bogged down later on when the story reveals a depth and requires the reader to engage with more than just the surface. This ends up giving a general and immediate picture of having the WORST of both worlds. It wants to be serious and pretentious, while instead being juvenile and terribly chaotic and rambling. A puzzle that can’t be assembled.

How could Malazan be more successful? Why should the average reader care? It’s definitely NOT aimed to readers who aren’t already “genre” readers. You could maybe picture some serious-looking university professor reading a copy of Martin’s series, but could you imagine him reading Malazan? You need to be part of that inner genre group to even be a potential reader. This already makes the pool of potential readers exponentially smaller. It’s already a niche with a niche interest. And then you can imagine where potential readers come from. Maybe they read on some forum some readers who say how Malazan is so much better (it’s rare, but it happens), and so they approach Malazan expecting something that can compare to ASoIaF. And are immediately turned off by how “genre” Malazan is. Ultimately it engages with a number of themes that aren’t exactly that broad in appeal. There’s very little of those immediate and familiar feelings that give ASoIaF its strength. Malazan is less a traditional narration sprinkled here and there with fantasy elements, the way ASoIaF is. It grasps and deliver what the epic genre is, and why its powerful. It knows where it comes from, and has no identity crisis, or narcissistic pretenses of being appreciated by “everyone”. But then it requires a reader with a very open mind, who can take the challenge of the big commitment and that doesn’t ultimately jumps to conclusion because the book betrayed this or that expectation. The wider the range of interests, the more chances to appreciate Malazan in all its aspects. But this really ends up producing readers who are me, you and a few others. You have to have already developed an interest on that stuff, and the open mind to fully enjoy the “young” and “adult” parts without the feel that they clash horribly with each other.

Finally R. Scott Bakker. He suffers even worse from what I described about Malazan. Even more you have to share the writer’s interest on those specific themes and angles he brings up. Even more his series is precisely aimed, with a very strong thematic focus. This focus is nowhere what you expect to reach a general public, the same as you don’t expect the general public to read his blog because of the content he puts in it. It’s simply stuff not planned or meant to tap onto a big pool of potential readers. If it becomes popular it’s simply because it’s so unique and exceptional that it becomes easily recognized, and so not swallowed in mediocrity.

But what happens then? That lots of readers, all kinds of readers, hear good things and so try Bakker’s books. If they don’t have a serious interest in those themes Bakker offers then they end up noticing just the violence. The violence becomes the point. The edginess, grittiness and all those things that are today negatively branded as “grimdark” as well epitomizing all the problems about misogyny and whatnot. This produces an overall hideous image of Bakker’s series. Seen right now on a forum: “It’s an endless parade of fantasy name salad combined with massive ruminations and internal monologues.” And that’s a positive side. Otherwise it becomes an accusation directly to Bakker of being an horrible human being. Why does all this happen? I think because once you “remove” that deep layer that Bakker engages directly (and it happens whenever a reader “doesn’t care” about that stuff) then only the violence and the ugly remain. They become the one aspect monopolizing the attention, without understanding that all that is built IN SUPPORT of the rest. One element observed in isolation from everything else, and the result is readers who end up feeling offended by what they are reading.

All this to say that it’s all a matter of aims. How big is the pool of readers you try to reach. And matters of “quality” don’t even prominently come up. Only huge cultural pushes can overcome a narrow aim, like in the case of Tolkien. Another example is Neal Stephenson. He also has a very narrow target, writing for those who must already have a serious interest in the things he deals with. Yet he can be so successful because the kind of “geekdom” that makes his public nowadays is so common and widespread that it also became a “general public”, creating a cultural push that isn’t so far from what I described about Tolkien. It’s a wider movement of general culture that makes niche themes become more widely shared.

But I think that at least for the foreseeable future the very big splashes of success (here I think even about the Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games) will come from traditional and familiar narratives sprinkled by “genre” elements. Ending up with a broadening of the genre, indeed, but also reducing the genre to innocuous window dressing. That’s always the risk when some smaller cultural movement is swallowed whole by the mass culture…

I started this book while I was well into Infinite Jest and I needed something else that I could read with the brain turned off so that I could sleep afterward. Infinite Jest was getting me obsessed and The Dragon Reborn was perfect and made me sleep rather peacefully. With such premise one would think I’m already putting the book under a negative light, but that’s not completely true. I’m not masochist, I read slowly and have no time to read (and comment) books that I think are terrible, so if I finished even this one it means that I have at least enjoyed it to an extent. The kind of extent of enjoyment is a key element that I think is rather important not only from my personal perspective, but also in defining what is that makes this series so widely successful and popular.

It is accessible, I’ve already said this before and it’s an important element, but what is truly meaningful to understand is something that was exposed in a snarky review written by this Adam Roberts guy and that I’m quoting:

The writerly-technical term for this is ‘padding’; but the prolixity is such a fundamental part of what Jordan is doing that I suspect it misses the point to object to it. I was reminded a little of Scott, and his swaddling swathes of garrulous prosifying (except that, unlike Scott, by bulk, about half of Jordan’s padding is dialogue). It has specific textual effects; and the one that struck me, on reading through it, is of upholstery. It’s a comfortable sort of style, like settling into a bath; a mix of stiff little archaic touches and chattily modern waffle.

Putting aside the (deserved or not) snark, what rings true for me is that reading this series is kind of pleasant. The comparison with settling into a warm bath is the most fitting he could imagine and one of the most important elements to which I ascribe the success of the series. Calling it in a different way, I’d define this perk as redundancy. It’s the redundancy that stands out in this series and in this book in particular, and that is a strength because in the same way the prose can soothe and ease into a bath, the redundancy helps to ease into a fantasy world and induce “immersion” (fitting word, thinking of baths). This redundancy, despite its negatives, is used as a quality here. It’s not just redundancy of prose style, but also reflects in the way characters are portrayed (idiosyncrasies that have fallen now into parodies well known among readers, with the infinite tugging of braids, smoothing of skirts or all three male protagonists convinced how the other is better dealing with women) and even the worldbuilding.

About worldbuilding. I’m still waiting. I’ve read how the series goes much deeper into describing the world and its cultures. The second book in the series opened things a bit and made them look more interesting and convincing than just a Tolkien-translated world, but this third book doesn’t really expand anything. Characters move and visit some key cities but the way these are described doesn’t add any meaningful depth beside listing some traits and differences. Which brings me back to the redundancy. Cultures are described in a simplistic way, mostly observed through the eyes of characters who know nothing about them, but this helps to define the perimeter of the setting. Nothing in the book appears out of the grasp of the reader. We get to know things in a way that is never staggering or unmanageable and, soon, we build familiarity. Familiarity leads back to redundancy and both have the effect of easing into the story and tag along. This is why it works. It comfortable and familiar, tension is kept under control and the redundancy helps to never feel like missing something important. The more the familiarity builds up, the more the ease into reading. Then he, Jordan, lets it flow.

It flows well even if I consider this book sensibly worse than the second in the series (that I thought was much better than the first, since it was starting to flesh out the world instead of simply mimicking devotedly Tolkien). In a total of 700 pages, the 650 in the middle are a very boring travelogue that doesn’t really add enough to the story to be considered entertaining. The second book had travel, but somehow Jordan was able to put at least something meaningful in each chapter, forming a deliberate structure that I thought was keeping the book going relatively strong. This one is just more ephemeral in meaningful content, it relies too much on the characters’ personalities which I also thought were particularly weak this time. While I didn’t overly noticed the characters’ idiosyncrasies in the first and second book, I felt as if this one was itself a parody of everything readers complain on forums and reviews. An endless stream of repetitive actions and thoughts that were themselves kind of circular and leading nowhere. This gave me a feeling of stall that made the travelogue even worse.

Bad habits in the writing style flare in this book, much more than the second. The whole first section of the book is one long coed sleepover with not one redeeming feature. The plot is rather stupid and utterly fails to build up a mystery that was already revealed as it formed. Characters and plots gets sensibly worse as they get separated and lack the friction and build up between each other. In this book they move on on separate stories too soon and by the time they converge there are only six pages left. The supporting cast is also thinner so, as a whole, I thought this one book failed to build something relevant. It felt too unwound and going nowhere.

Yet there’s something that I consider positive: characters evolve. Even if the book oozes immobility in plot, worldbuilding and characters, at least something happened between the books. This is important because it’s part of a strong thematic aspect of the book that I consider successful: there’s no turning back. As the series starts you see from the perspective of these farmboys and girls too scared of adventure and that would rather just return to their normal life. The book exposes enough of that familiar life so that it is familiar for the reader as well, so you get the feeling of how the scenery changes, you feel some of that estrangement and then nostalgia for the initial bucolic world. All stories seem built cyclically so that defeating the evil will bring you back right to the start and the happy life. Suspect builds, on a series of 12+ books, about plots being cyclical as well, one book copying the one that precedes it with slight changes. Instead despite the redundancy of certain aspects and structure, I felt that the characters are definitely moving on, that there’s no return and that the plot has at least a direction and that isn’t simply folding on itself and repeating. There’s a process of maturation that, even if it doesn’t fully affects personalities (being characters rather dumb), at least affects their roles.

I got again a certain satisfaction toward the last 60 pages, with the convergence. It feels like things start moving again and have a point. Jordan has still the quality of weaving the tapestry and having a control of the big picture, so when the pieces actually move in context this is satisfying, but the satisfaction didn’t last long because the actual final confrontation was stupid. Here comes the usual abstract battle between Rand and the evil guy, leading to one big revelation that left me completely indifferent since it changes absolutely nothing nor feeds any purpose. It’s just one unnecessary deus ex machina that fails even to build surprise (one also wonders why “evil guy” tries to strike Rand only the one moment when Rand is able to strike back). All characters are particularly retarded in this part, even worse between each other which made me dislike this (brief) reunion I was awaiting. Mat himself transformed for the whole book into a walking deus ex machina who can seemingly do everything simply because he’s “lucky”. So he pulls every kind of stupid stunts, makes plots align “by chance”, and even becomes an undefeatable warrior with a staff confronting veteran soldiers and whatever comes on his path. Boring, and on top of a character whose insubordination comes so much as a stereotype that I found it only annoying and arid. A character used poorly. Along Zarine, another character who could be at the very least fun, but that is destroyed by reflection upon Perrin, whose reaction to Zarine is totally pathetic and, simply, dull & unfun. It fizzles. Like damp fireworks.

This book puts aside much of the lore and infodumps that I at least enjoyed in book 2. They were at least shaping things up. Here instead there’s a dearth of ideas supporting the 700 pages. No new ideas, nor novelty in dealing with old ideas with potential. There’s some repetition. Only a very brief glimpse toward the end at the nature of evil, still done better in book 1 & 2. The bad guys are more willingly to say the truth than the good guys. There’s still a gray area that makes the bad side vaguely more interesting than just a stereotypical foe, something that works because Jordan takes it from a deeper truth coming from the real world, but that isn’t used well or up to the potential in this book.

I’m aware book 4 is considered by many the best in the series and adding some to the worldbuilding. Up to this book the setting has been traced not unlike the characters, with very typical and broad traits “borrowed” from real-world culture and often without original twists. I’m waiting for depth or even breadth. The characters still mostly don’t work for me. The traits that define them not only aren’t convincing but they also get annoying and I find myself enjoying a lot more supporting characters (Zarine here despite the mishandling of potential, Thom a bit less than usual since he’s been downplayed so that Mat could put his super powers on display, Loial, Liandrin, Min). I still enjoy the broad scope that sporadically surfaces and hints at more. If anything I found this third book as the most juvenile of the three while I hoped things would have progressed, even slowly, toward a more convincing (and engaging) maturity. Not all is lost and I still enjoyed the book enough to make to the end (and peeking at the first chapter of Shadow Rising, where’s the prologue?).

There are various aspects I forgot to comment, one I wanted to add: I’m aware that the careful description of clothes has been criticized and considered excessive. I don’t agree, up to this book there’s always a purpose when it is used. The way people are dressed is a way to recognize who they are. Not only it differentiates cultures, but it also defines social structure and roles, and what you can expect from who’s in front of you. I don’t know if Jordan lingers too much in later books but here it’s done deliberately for a reason and provides infos that are useful in context. Another aspect is that, as I said at the beginning, I find Jordan extremely easy to read. I can read it before I go to sleep and when I’m tired. Not so much with other writers. There are fantasy writers that I enjoy much, much more than Jordan, yet Jordan is the one I return to more easily. That’s why when I begin to read just the first chapter of the next book there’s always the risk I won’t stop ;)

I don’t plan to turn this into a fantasy book review site because those reviews are in their own ways a literary work and I can’t expect to do it without a perfect grasp of English (which is again my second language). I also read slowly so I can’t make a satisfying blog with reviews. They would appear too rarely. So here are some conclusive considerations about “The Great Hunt”.

I already commented a few points and those are still valid. 60 pages from the end I still loved the book, then those last few pages left me disappointed as it happened with the ending of the first book. It may sound weird because for most readers the conclusion of the book is where the fun is. The plot threads come together, the action catches up, lots of cool and spectacular stuff happens… But it still didn’t explain enough to retroactively validate what happened in the 600 pages before. This isn’t an ultimate judgment on the book because some of those answers may come later in the next books, but I had hoped in a better conclusion and plots better wrapped up.

I still liked the book a lot overall. It is far superior to “The Eye of the World”, better pacing, more original, perfectly handled by Jordan. My impression is that he has everything under control and never slipped once. It’s not the best fantasy I’ve read, but in its kind it was near flawless, as long you accept and are interested in what the author is doing.

Schematically, there were three flaws in the first book:

1- The pacing. There are certain parts of the book, especially in the middle, that felt slow and redundant. Then the story becomes suddenly interesting once again, but this interest slows down before the end. The pacing was uneven.
2- The ending. “The Eye of the World” had a very poor end. Worse even than Sword of Shannara that is already top of the worse. It felt cheap, predictable and anticlimactic.
3- Tolkien. Some key elements in the story and its development remind of Tolkien so much that you can draw exact parallels through most of the book. So it feels like you already read the story before.

What makes this second book so much better comes directly from the flaws of the first. The pacing is improved. A so long story never moves fast, this will always be a trait of the saga, but at least it doesn’t slog, it keeps its pace steadily. The beginning of the book (100 pages or so) is the best part. From a side it reintroduces all the characters and plots from the first book, from the other it unveils so many mysteries right away. It’s a kind of “infodump” that isn’t boring, but that instead becomes the core of the rest of the book. More than once I went back to reread a chapter as I had more elements to figure out prophecies. Instead of a story dragging a mystery till the very end, this time everything is explained at the beginning, like a big setup. Then threads part from that core plot, the pacing slows down, but is kept steady for the remaining of the book. Every chapter has a precise function, it can be summarized in a few lines but it’s planned carefully to serve a purpose. The plot opens up, becomes interesting, the cast expands. I was worried that each book was a repetition of the same plot with minor changes, instead it’s really one big story that moves forward step by step. It flows.

Those situations that in the first book felt like rip-offs from Tolkien acquire in the second book a precise role, to the point that not only this second book is better on its own, but it also made me revalue the first. *Everything* from the first book has consequences showing in the second, every tiniest detail and minor character. It gains breadth, felt more original and interesting, and had better pacing overall. So I can say that the story of the first book started in parallel with LotR, but those parallels flew then in a completely different direction, in a broader vision that, while archetypal, is unique on its own and not simply an homage to other works. It acquires its strength and personality.

The first book was the “typical fantasy story”. Competently told and planned, but already read too many times. In fact it left me so unimpressed that I wasn’t planning to follow through and read the second book anytime soon. But for various reasons I started it, just to read the first few chapters, but they were so good and interesting that I continued, and then decided to go till the end. My opinion is that the “sameness” was used intentionally to present a familiar story. Set the basis, giving the readers something to hang on and get involved. Something accessible.

Which is also the main quality of the series. It’s both ambitious and accessible. Popular and deep. I said this before, it’s not the realistic, adult kind of fantasy, but it keeps a strong consistence in the world and the things happening. So, again, it sticks to a classic idea of fantasy. Heavily archetypal.

Plot device: teleporting. The journey is often a core element in a fantasy novel. It’s also one difference between the modern world and the myth of the past, places far away are mysterious places. Places of legend. There’s an idea of unknown, what’s beyond the sea is a mystery. Far away and stranger. There’s a part of this that Jordan delivers exceptionally. For example the way along the story new populations are discovered and how they are entirely foreign one to the other. What happens in the world is unknown, only some echoes arrive, never complete facts. And of course hostility, because who’s felt as a stranger is also felt as a danger, so all these close populations tend to ignore the other or be hostile toward it.

Then there’s a part that Jordan does poorly. The journeys in the first two books are a bit inconsistent because characters never go through them completely. There are reasons why many fantasy books have maps, one is that there are journeys. You go from point A to point B, look at the map, figure out how long the journey is going to be. It gives perspective, consistence. But in these books the characters in most cases only go through 1/3 of their journey. It’s like if the journey isn’t intended to be so, but just as a plot device to make a few things happen along, and then, after they happened, the whole party instantly appears at destination. Literally, because Jordan uses two different means of teleporting, one for each book. It feels like a MMO where the sense of space is now rarely respected as there are “shortcuts” that kill the idea of space. It may be good for a computer game, but in a fantasy book it diminishes the consistence, sense of geography, sense of progression. It feels too much like a trick.

About the story itself: either you have a simple canvas to then refresh and repeat with each book, or you have to divide the plot between many books. I started reading Jordan knowing nothing and I thought it fell in the first case, to the point that I wasn’t planning to read past the first book because I had enough. I was far from the truth, instead. The plot moves onward, slowly but steadily. Events in the first book were just a set up. Seeds that would develop later on. The story opens up, expands, gains breadth. Never shifting in a new direction. The second book isn’t a sharp turn from the first, but it finally makes evident how everything is perfectly connected and planned ahead. It shows that there’s a vision and that it is quite impressive. Beyond what the first book suggested.

There’s a particular point that surprised me. About 350 pages into the book a few *very* minor characters from the first book reappear. Those kind of characters that you think are there just as figureheads. Not only they are carried over to this second book, but they are used to testify a major plot device. Instead of just happening because some characters say so, you are shown the result of it. You are shown the consequence. This is a perfect example of the “show, don’t tell” rule. One of the best executed I can remember. (for reference this is the concept of ta’veren, or the influence that certain special persons have on the life of all they meet. Here Jordan shows how all those minor characters had their life changed concretely. He shows concretely, explicitly how ta’veren spontaneously operates)

And finally the characters. I know it’s fashionable to hate Jordan but I don’t agree with the critics. I don’t agree on the fact that his women are all alike to the point you confuse the names. My opinion is the exact opposite of that. Jordan’s characters are heavily archetypal, so much that they are quickly familiar. If each one has one or a few distinctive traits, then it should be easier to recognize them, not harder. Something archetypal isn’t realistic, but it helps the familiarization. This is what Jordan tried to do from my point of view. Archetypal characters easy to recognize, not easy to confuse. Cardboard cutouts, to an extent, yes. But not alike.

The characters are indeed a bit “stiff” and whiny, but not to the point that I find them overly annoying, and not all characters. The development is well done on the main ones, but their acting was too excessively dramatized for me. That’s my main dislike.

The evil side instead deserves its own considerations. The real villain is as stupid as in the first book. Completely unbelievable and inconsistent. But at the same time he’s there just for presence, because the true villains in the book are minor characters that are much better characterized, more clever and even more believably evil.

Overall I liked the book. My opinion remains about the same I wrote (linked above) when I had read the first 200 pages, with the difference that I expected more from the end, and more explanations about the plot threads. Sadly those last 60 pages left me with the impression that there were too many “deus ex machina” and artifices, but something similar happened with the first book, and the second made me reconsider the whole thing. So I can’t exclude that I won’t get my answers from the next books.

I finished reading the first book thinking it was decent but lacking originality. Planning to read the sequel in a distant future. I finished reading this second instead with a greater satisfaction and determined to read the next soon. I know that the quality only improves up to the fourth book (considered the best), then stays good till the sixth. Even if it sinks from there I believe it remains a worthy read. So I’ll go on.

I’m reading “The Blade Itself” by Joe Abercrombie now (180 pages in) and it’s completely different. More original, witty, intriguing. It’s a better book, but it’s not the classic tale and kind of pleasure you get from reading Jordan. It’s not that archetypal ideal of fantasy where you can lose yourself, the most pleasant of the journeys and escapism.