Hugo Awards: The Eye of the World

When I was but a wee nerd of 11 or 12, I had a brief dalliance with Dungeons & Dragons. For whatever reason, I found the High Fantasy stuff fascinating and gobbled up game manuals and started reading The Lord of the Rings. This was before my love of reading really kicked into high gear too, so it was notable that I was reading this stuff on my own. And it wasn't the first time, either. I have fond memories of reading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books for school, and even wrote a knockoff short story on my Commodore 64 called The Land of Analak (I'm pretty sure I still have a hard copy of this somewhere; I'm also positive that it was terrible.) All of which is to say, I don't know when or even why I fell out of love with High Fantasy, but at some point, Horror and Science Fiction became my reading mainstays, with only the rare Fantasy novel for variety.

As such, if I had picked up the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World, when it was published in 1990 (i.e. right around the height of my exploration of fantasy), I would have probably loved it. Instead, here I am 24 years later, slogging through it because the entirety of The Wheel of Time was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award. I've already covered how a 14 book, 11,000+ page, 4 million+ word series of books came to be nominated as a single work (short story: a quirk in Hugo nomination rules says that if no individual work in a series is nominated, the entire series can be nominated once it concludes), so I won't belabor the controversy all that much. Ultimately, it wouldn't even really matter if only the most recent work was nominated, as it would probably be difficult to read without knowing what happened in all the earlier installments.

After finishing this first volume in the series, I will say that there's no way that I will finish the series this year (it's simply too long) and I'm positive that it will not land in the top two slots of my Best Novel ballot. It's not that The Eye of the World (henceforth TEotW) is bad, per say, just that it did not reinvigorate my decades past love of the Fantasy genre. You might think that a bit unfair, but I will say that some recent consumption actually has sparked some interest in exploring more of the genre, notably Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels and the Game of Thrones TV series, both of which really grabbed me in ways that TEotW failed to.

In a lot of ways, this book was exactly what I was expecting. Heroes journey, complete with naive farmboy? Check. Mysterious cloaked riders? Check. Obvious Tolkien inspiration? Check. Hearty stew? Check. The number of fantasy cliches this book hits is almost impressive, even to a genre novice. On the other hand, there were plenty of things I wasn't expecting, and there were a bunch of things I did really enjoy.

The story follows the aforementioned naive farmboy Rand al'Thor, who is pretty obviously The Chosen One, despite attempts to obscure that fact by ensnaring 3 naive farmboys (Rand, Mat, and Perrin) in the scheme. Their idyllic little hamlet, Emond's Field, is mysteriously attacked by orcs and Nazgul Trollocs and a Myrddraal, but fortunately a visiting historian turns out to be a powerful Aes Sedai (basically a magician), and she is able to repel the initial attack and helps our targeted farmboys flee, along with a coterie of friends. Thus begins epic journey number one, followed by several episodic stops, hearty stews, and at least three or four other epic journeys. Eventually a threat to the titular Eye of the World (basically a powerful magical object of legend) is discovered, and our heroes and heroines race to confront the Dark Ones who threaten the world.

At first, I was happy to see that your typical "Chosen One" plot was obscured by the notion of three boys being targeted, but since the story is mostly told through Rand's eyes, it seemed pretty obvious to me that he was The One (there are some other indications of this that I did not pick up on, unless I was doing so unconsciously). At some point on their journey, they do get split up, so there are some other viewpoints, but Rand and Mat are together (and their sections are told from Rand's perspective) and Perrin runs afoul of some wolves, making it pretty clear that he has other latent talents. As a protagonist, Rand is rather bland, which tends to be the case with these hero's journey type stories. A blank slate of a protagonist makes for an easy entry point for readers (and would undoubtedly have ensnared a younger me), though there's not a ton of depth to the character or even much of an arc throughout this book (but then, there are still 13 books to go...) He is mostly passive, scraping by through luck and the goodwill of others.

As characters go, most of the core seem only slightly less bland than Rand. Mat is a bit of a prankster, and gets caught up in some cursed treasure like an idiot. Perrin seems like the strong silent type, and he's got some talent for talking to wolves, which is neat. The aforementioned Aes Sedai is named Moiraine, and she seems more interesting due more to the fact that she's an Aes Sedai than anything else. There is much in the way of rumors and hearsay about Aes Sedai bandied about here, which is actually a rather interesting notion. Most of the time, a story like this would buckle down for gigantic info dumps (of which there are still plenty, don't worry), but what we get here is a more realistic sort of information. Aes Sedai are famous, but their fame seems to be an accumulation of misunderstandings and half-truths. Or something like that. They do not seem to have great reputations, with many warning that accepting the help of an Aes Sedai will open you up to repayment of some kind, like they're some sort of Mafia/Lawyer hybrid. Moiraine is the only Aes Sedai we see a lot of in this story, so perhaps she's an uncommon example, or perhaps she just hasn't dropped the hammer on our unsuspecting farmboys (I was definitely expecting something of the sort in this book, and it did not really come). Moiraine has a warder named Lan that is basically a badass bodyguard, though we find out enough about him to know that he's also a bit of a poet. I suppose you could call Egwene a love interest for Rand, though not much comes of that, and the story instead focuses on her desire for adventure and latent abilities that could allow her to become an Aes Sedai herself. Then there's Nynaeve, who initially seems rather caustic and whiny, but also has some latent magical abilities (there's a lot of that going around in this book). Finally, we've got Thom Merrilin, who is an old "gleeman" (basically a bard or entertainer). He's old, well traveled, and wizened, and has enough experience to help guide our lowly farmboys.

To be honest, my favorite characters tended to be off on the periphery. There's Min, who is basically a fortune teller and seems rather cool (though we get very little of her here). There's a loner named Elyas who can communicate with wolves, and helps awaken the latent ability in Perrin. Rand accidentally meets a princess, some princes, and the queen (and her feared Aes Sedai advisor). I suspect many of these characters would be fleshed out in future installments, and I would be disappointed if they weren't...

In the end, I did enjoy this book. It reads like a slightly more accessible, but bloated Tolkien story. I'm reminded of the Tom Bombadil chapter in Fellowship of the Ring, except that I feel like there were, like, 7 Tom Bombadils that seemed inconsequential for this particular installment, but who will show up later in the series (not that Tom Bombadil shows up much in the rest of LotR, but still). I'm a little unsure how to really think about this book in context of the Hugo awards though. I feel like many of the things I'm holding against it would be resolved later in the series, but on the other hand, the fact that the series is so long is prohibitive in itself. I've mentioned before that I don't necessarily mind long books, even meandering ones, but even I have my limits. While I'm sure much of this stuff will be fleshed out in the sequels, I still can't quite shake the notion that this didn't really need to be as long as it is. But since Tor has decided to include the entire series in the Voters Packet, I will most certainly read more of the series before I vote, but given what I've read so far, I can't see myself getting too carried away with this. I did grow to like this story as I read it, and now that I'm familiar with a lot of the concepts, maybe the future installments will be less jarring. That being said, given its competition in the Best Novel category, I can't see this one winning...