The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I picked up the first of the famous Wheel of Time series to try to fill in a gap in my reading in the fantasy genre, and was really disappointed not to enjoy it as much as I was expecting to. I call myself a fantasy fan, so I felt obligated to finish it. It’s a very long book, but I stuck it out, in case there was something at the end to justify the hype. Maybe the ending is amazing enough to justify the thousands of fans and dozens of sequels, I was hoping. 

The language grated on me and was a constant source of annoyance. I enjoy high fantasy language when it’s done well. I love Tolkien, Robin HobbGarth Nix, and Jillian Kuhlman. But Jordan’s language seemed affected to me, not genuine or authentic, like his characters were elementary school kids reading lines in a bad play. I didn’t buy the weird invented words like gleeman (a minstrel–why not just say that?), or the newly-coined curses (“Blood and ashes, Batman!”).

I’m someone who doesn’t shy away from a long book, and who happily dives into thousands of pages when they’re well-written and worth the time to read. But this book is way too long, and its length problem starts at the sentence level. I could edit 10-25% of the scenes and events and side characters out of the story, and then another 10-25% of the words out of every page that’s left. It’s a good general rule that if you need a dictionary in the back to help your reader keep track of your mythology, then you’re either dumping it on too quickly, or you made it too complex, or both.

I thought the characters were annoying and impetuous because they constantly make dumb decisions. Like, don’t tell the wizard who saved your whole town that you’re having dreams where the devil talks to you and you wake up with your dream-pricked finger bleeding. Of course, go explore the creepy ruined city, and follow the guy with no shadow. And then, go ahead and steal a jeweled dagger from an enchanted treasure and hide it while playing with it obsessively. These decisions are so incredibly stupid and genre-blind that I lost patience with them and could no longer dismiss them as motivated by superstition or teenage capriciousness. They were pure distress balls.

A quote on the back of the copy I read said, “Robert Jordan has a powerful vision of good and evil.” But I did not find the portrayal of evil in this book to be persuasive at all. If real evil worked in such a transparent, obvious way, announcing itself and insisting that people bow down to it, evil would be much easier to resist than it actually is. The motiveless, pointless evil of this book’s villain was overblown, caricatured, and flat-out boring. Similarly, all of the talk of the Pattern, and the Wheel that weaves it, is another problem that takes power and meaning away from the characters and their story. If all of the actions of the characters are simply a result of their fate, of the turning of an abstract Wheel, then they have no agency and their choices are meaningless. If that’s the case, what’s the point of reading about them?

There are so many elements of this story that have exact parallels to The Lord of the Rings that it seems like kind of a rip-off. I’m sure others have pointed these similarities out before: idyllic farmland attacked by outsiders, a magic wizard who calls the reluctant hero to join a quest, an epically long backstory. Even the people and places are the same:

  • Orcs = Trollocs
  • Wizard Gandalf = Aes Sedai Morraine
  • Aragorn the Ranger, heir to the throne of Gondor = Warder Lan, the last Lord of the Seven Towers, the crownless king of the Malkieri
  • four hobbits = four teenagers
  • The Shire = Emond’s Field
  • Ringwraiths = Myrdraal/Fades/Half-Men
  • Ents = long-lived, tall creatures that call humans “hasty” = Ogier
  • Misty Mountains = Mountains of Mist
  • Mount Doom = Shayol Ghul in the Mountains of Dhoom
  • Mordor = The Blight
  • The Dark Lord Sauron = Ba’alzamon/Shai’tan/The Dark One

At first I thought the changes Jordan made in rewriting The Lord of the Rings made his story more inclusive because there are many more female characters than in Tolkien’s books. But the gender politics of the One Power are so strange that I’m not sure if they’re progressive or regressive. The principle of balance seems good and neutral, but if balance has to be restored by taking fictional power away from a group that has little real power, I don’t necessarily think that’s a positive and inclusive choice for an author to make.

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Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s work is weird and wonderful. The Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green are two more of his unique novels. All of his writing features strong attention to language and first person narrators with engrossing, unforgettable voices. I was fascinated by the unpredictability of The Bone Clocks, but Cloud Atlas took that to an entirely new level. It has six different novella-length narratives, arranged in a pattern that is likened in the text to Russian nesting dolls. Finding the connections between the stories, and the scattered metaphors for the title and the novel’s form is like finding Easter eggs. Each narrative is a different genre in a different setting, ranging from the epistles of an English notary exploring the Pacific islands in the 1800s, to a hard-boiled detective novel, to a “corpocratic” future dystopia where “fabricants” are enslaved clones. One main theme connecting the narratives is escape from oppression and slavery. The beautiful humanist vision at the conclusion is one I’ll remember a long time.

Mediocre Fantasy

Here are 3 quick reviews of some fantasy novels I wasn’t very impressed with. The last two of these books are very long, and may have been worth the time investment if it weren’t for that factor.

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Wither, because it seemed like a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, with drastically shortened lifespans to add extra stress. But Rhine, the protagonist, seemed to lose much of her spark and will to fight in this sequel. She spent much of the narrative ill or in a drugged stupor, and then got captured again at the end.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

This book concludes The Passage Trilogy. It examines the series’ villain at length. I often found it needlessly violent and maudlin. I had a hard time buying into the ending, in which 700 people on an isolated Pacific island are all that’s left of humanity, then 1000 years later things are back to normal, almost exactly the same as they used to be before the virus, with technology and culture comparable to today’s. I found that absurd.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I remember loving The Mists of Avalon years ago, but Bradley’s version of the Trojan War is not as good as her version of the Arthurian legends. She chose Kassandra, the future-predicting daughter of Priam, as her protagonist. One perhaps understandable flaw, which may be inherent in the source material, is the idea of predestination and the will of the Gods, which makes the choices of the characters seem pointless.

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This long novel is one of the most rewarding and satisfying I’ve read in a while. It’s a first-person bildungsroman about loneliness, addiction, PTSD, the love of beautiful objects, and the far-reaching consequences of actions good and bad. The story begins with 13-year-old Theo losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, he befriends a dying man and steals a priceless painting. Motherless, he lives with the rich family of a friend, then with his gambling father in Las Vegas, where he meets a charming drug-addicted Ukranian teenager named Boris, one of the most hilarious, lively, and delightful characters I’ve come across in a while. I’d compare Boris to Alex Perchov from Everything Is Illuminated, because of his adorable way of talking, and because of the way both characters are sweetly innocent, yet also over-experienced for their age. Years later, Theo ends up back in New York, dishonestly managing a struggling antiques business, when his art theft, and Boris, catch up with him. The conclusion surprised me with how happy it was, and then it doused that happiness with a profound, layered philosophical meditation that I’m still pondering. As great as the ending is, getting there is its own pleasure. The story is absolutely engrossing. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book may be the consistency in the quality of the prose over 770 pages. There is at least one sentence on every one of those pages that just sparkles, and often several.

Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

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This is a really, really long book. I picked it up because I liked Middlemarch, and I think most people who liked Middlemarch would like it too. The beginning was a little hard to get into, as a long flashback confused me initially about the order of events. But once I got to know Gwendolyn, especially the cheeky, haughty thing she is in the beginning of the book’s chronology, I was hooked. I’m still not sure what to think of the education she receives in the book. In a way she’s broken down, and there’s surely an argument to be made that she loses the thing that attracted me to her–the fact that she had a mind of her own. According to the book’s strict morality, she is improved, and she and her family are materially more secure, but her spark seems to be gone, and she’s kind of submitted to male authority, even if it’s just Daniel gently speaking as her conscience.

The one part of the book that I found boring and sentimental and annoying was the character of perfect, meek Mirah, her saintly brother, and the Jewish community in general. I’m sure it’s very progressive for the time to portray Jewish characters in a positive way, but I found them sentimentalized, idealized, and unrealistic. But considering the ending, I can see why that material kind of has to be in there, and sentiment is kind of a general hazard of lots of books of this time period.

There’s also an extended gambling metaphor, lots of business with jewelry, paintings, and singing, and a long-lost mother resurfacing near the end (she might have been the most fascinating character in the whole book). This is one story that might actually be improved by adaptation to screen, assuming it’s a lengthy, faithful adaptation like the ones the BBC usually does. I’m going to try to find it and watch it. I love costume dramas.

A Little Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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This book needs just about every single kind of trigger warning that exists: abuse, sexual abuse, rape, child trafficking, domestic violence, sexual humiliation, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide. The violence is unending and detailed, so physically graphic and psychologically damaging that at times it seemed almost fetishized.

The beginning of the book didn’t grab my interest immediately. It seemed like a bunch of whiny bohemian men, and I wasn’t looking forward to hundreds of pages of that. I wasn’t hooked until almost 100 pages in, when the narrative turned to Jude, the main character, and his past. Jude is the one character who experiences all of those forms of violence, most of them in childhood. But through luck, the help of friends, and deep, deep repression, he goes on to lead a remarkable, even a charmed life: he becomes a lawyer in New York surrounded by successful artists and actors, traveling widely. However, he is deeply scarred by his trauma and the painful chronic medical conditions it has caused. His pathological need for privacy and refusal to accept help and to talk about his past are understandable, but frustrating. The most disturbing part of it is probably the way it gets inside his severely traumatized mind and shows the effect on his self-image. His self-hating ruminations are painful to read.

The heart of the book, though, seemed to be the friendships that make Jude’s difficult life worthwhile, the deep gratitude he feels for simple pleasures despite his past. It will be hard to forget because of the graphic violence, but also because of that touching, quiet humility and surprising optimism. The ending is not really happy, but I think it is realistic.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke

200px-jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverThis doorstopper fantasy is one of the most fun books I’ve read in a while. It tells of two men’s quest to “bring magic back to England” in the early 1800s. Mr. Norrell, a retiring, bookish magician wants to bring the practice of magic to prominence and respectability, but he has to make a bargain with a fairy to cement a relationship with a member of Parliament, securing his influence. The havoc the fairy wreaks in the lives of that MP’s wife and servant, stealing their health and sleep, forms a major subplot. Every time the poor victims try to tell anyone of their plight, they speak nonsense or tell a fairy story.

Jonathan Strange, a very Romantic figure, becomes Norrell’s apprentice. They use magic to help the English generals and admirals in the Napoleonic Wars, conjuring storms, building roads, and even raising the dead. Strange and Norell eventually disagree, causing a rift in the new magical community. Norrell wants to keep all magic under his personal control, especially the books of magic, while Strange wants to explore the dangerous roads into fairyland. Long, impressively detailed footnotes fill in encyclopedic details, making the novel feel like a history book, but it’s a history in which fairy tales are considered primary documents. The creepy fairy world and its history are a huge highlight. Clarke has created an alternative history in which northern England was ruled for centuries by a fairy king named John Uskglass, and in which magic, not Nelson and Wellington, beat Napoleon. The writing approximates English novels of that period, with the wit typical of Austen and Dickens. I thought it was hilarious, fearful, and wondrous.