Friday, 19 March 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 2; The Great Hunt (1990)

On I go; volume two slips under the belt. Like the first, this is actually a 250-page novel pretending to be a 700-page one; and also like the first book after a sticky start it settles into an unoriginal but I suppose unobjectional groove. But I’ll confess I found the business of reading this much less enjoyable than the first. It felt—not all the time, but for fairly long stretches—like a chore.

It doesn’t help that the book starts so weakly, for prologue and opening chapters have a distressingly high ‘reader-struggling-to-give-a-fuck’ quotient: inconsequential and unengaging. And this is more deep-seated a problem, I think, than just readability. The book’s prologue betrays the debilitating thinness of Jordan’s ability to conceptualise what evil is. Here it’s a kind of masked ball of medievalised Bond villains, through which the lord of wickedness floats like a hydrogen-inflated mardi-gras person-shaped balloon. Later in the novel it’s Horrid Violence Against Civilians, but even there J. can’t quite keep his account free of bathetic lurches. Here's a description of Trollocs getting nasty in a village: ‘Pleas for mercy and children’s screams were cut off by solid thuds and unpleasant squishing sounds’ [197]. That's squishing; yes. That ineluctably evil word, yes.

Anyway, the opening seven-or-so chapters drag, as our three heroes dawdle about in foppishly-named Fal Dara fortress. The Aes Sedai, a sort of Bene Gesserit sisterhood (as rreugen pointed out in the last post) meet in infodumpy convocation. At one point two of them, Anaiya and Moiraine, chat about something they both already know very well. Notice the first four words of this speech:
“You must know that the Great Hunt of the Horn has been called in Illian, the first time in four hundred years. The Illianers say the last battle is coming”—Anaiya gave a little shiver, as well she might, but went on without a pause—“and the Horn of Valere must be found before the final battle against the Shadow." [52]
There are dozens of more pages like this, detailing various prophesies and plot-coupons, until discussion is cut off by the unpleasant squishing sounds of frustrated readers.

At any rate, this ‘great hunt’ is the titular premise of vol. 2. As one Aes Sedai helpfully explains to another who already knows it, ‘the Horn of Valere was made to call dead heroes back from the grave. And prophecy said it would only be found just in time for the Last Battle’ [65]. Where Eye of the World was saturated in its Tolkien original, this novel is more parsimonious with its source-material: it lifts Aragorn’s ability to command the dead of Dunharrow, saving other things, I suppose, for future volumes.

The Aes Sedai have this horn but they carelessly lose it to the Evil at the start of this book, and many hundreds of pages of text must be given over to its recovery. To raise the stakes a magic dagger has also been half-inched, upon the recovery of which, for obscure magical Magic reasons, the life of Rand’s pal Mat depends. So off they go, in search of these plot-coupon artefacts. Rand and his pals take an interdimensional short cut through a sort-of waking dream alternate reality called ‘Tel'aran'rhiod’ and get both horn and dagger back, lose it again (because there are still several hundred pages to fill) and finally retrieve it once more. Another friend of Rand’s, called ‘Reginald Perrin’, although, tragically, not the Reginald part, is now a sort of werewolf and has golden eyes.

What else? Well, whenever the narrative sags, J. throws some battling orcs, sorry, trollorcs, sorry, trollocs at our heroes, to leaven the questing/infodumping tedium with some fighting. But even though we’re only at vol. 2 Jordan already feels the need to garnish his accounts of these repetitive fighty-fights so as to ameliorate their monotonous over-familiarity. So, for example, one hero-v.-trolloc fight takes place in a firework shop, to the accompaniment of lots of fireworks going off. Bang! Crash! I felt this, however, completely failed to ameliorate the monotonous over-familiarity of these repetitive fighty-fights.

Then at the three-quarters point, a little jarringly, a whole new, evil empire, from a place not even on the map on the book’s flyleaf, invades, and everything kicks off. These ‘Seanchan’ have a big army augmented by various horrid monsters; and as the book ends our pals find themselves squeezed between these invaders on the one hand and the cruel Children of Light on the other. Handily, though, our guys have the horn. If you see what I mean. One toot on the magical horn from ailing Mat and the dead arrive, King Arthur himself amongst them. Then Rand has a round of fighty-fight with Ba’alzamon. The writing, in this latter, is not what you would call restrained:
“I will destroy you to your very soul, destroy you utterly and forever … why are you grinning like an idiot, fool? Do you not know I can destroy you utterly?”
“I will never serve you, Father of Lies!” …
“Then die, worm!”
Ba’alzamon struck with the staff, as with a spear. Rand screamed. As he felt it pierce his side, burning like a white-hot poker. The void trembled, but he held on with the last of his strength, and drove the heron-mark blade into Ba’alzamon’s heart. Ba’alzamon screamed, and the dark behind him screamed. The world exploded in fire. [666]
Implicit in the aesthetic guideline ‘less is more’ is the injunction ‘more is not more'.

In sum, such shine as the opening book managed to kindle in my imagination went out for me in the second. The longer one reads this yarn the more unignorable it becomes that there’s nothing really at stake in Jordan’s battle of good and evil. The Evil are Evil because he says so, because they cackle and threaten like villains out of a theatrical melodrama, occasionally because they kill people, but most of all because they wear black clothes. Indeed, black hardly does the clothes justice. The black clothes of the Evil are none-more-black black (‘those black clothes, blacker than black …’ 186) On the other side of the divide, the good are characterised mostly by a Epic Blandness, an almost transcendental Blandness that goes beyond Bland into UberBland. Rand, the main protagonist, is the worst offender of all in this regard. There's some notional fretting on his part about 'not wanting to be used', and a little friction with his girlfiend; but no development, or conflict, or interest in the character in any meaningful sense. And the ‘Horn of Valere’ plot coupon feels massively arbitrary. I can’t remember if it was mentioned in The Eye of the World. Conceivably it was, but it still feels plucked from the aether here: introduced, chased after, lost again, chased after, and then used; a sterile imitation of dramatic tension.

If I had a completely free hand in this I might easily find reasons never to pick up another Wheel of Time instalment again. But I’ve committed to reading the whole thing, and don’t choose to be forsworn. Onward. Time to drown out any inward pleas for mercy with solid thuds and unpleasant squishing sounds.


rreugen said...

I have the suspicion that your reviews, as you continue your journey through this series, will become more and more slapsticky. Or snarky.

I just hope that they won't utterly destroy you, like, for ever.

Also, I think that you did not notice that RJ did restrain himself and did follow that dictum "less is more." Otherwise, that revealing (for his esthetics) quote you offered would have read thus:

"Ba’alzamon screamed, and the dark behind him screamed. The world exploded in fire, and the dark behind it exploded in fire."

See? But he only suggested what the second dark did.

There's stuff like that all over.

(I do realize that I probably have made some language/grammar mistakes in this comment, which is ironic considering the subject, but to my defense my English is self-taught, and nobody around me speaks it)

Adam Roberts said...

Your English is fine! And your insight acute: I've now read vol. 3 as well, and I sense no diminution in my slapstick snarkiness.

redrichie said...

I'm surprised that these series continue to be as successful as they are. I would have thought that the unintentional hilarity in the dialogue would have seen the sub-genre laughed out of existence.

No matter, it makes for entertaining reviews from chaps like yourself!

Miles said...

In defense of Jordan, the evil sides get a little more interesting later, and if most of the good characters stay pretty bland, at least Mat gets a lot better after book 2.

Also, nearly everyone I know who read these books did so in high school. I feel like for that audience, they aren't half bad. Though even back then I thought practically all the good characters were idiots, so maybe it would be better said that they aren't three-quarters bad.

GeoX said...

This is fantastic, in a horrifying way. I can only imagine that by the end you'll be reduced to screaming profanities whilst pounding your keyboard with a rock.

Jonathan M said...

Splendid work Roberts!

I love the idea of the villain floating about like a balloon.

I also love some of Jordan's writing choices. Being stabbed with a spear is just like being stabbed with a red hot poker is it? fancy. Also Trollocs? Really?

Adam Roberts said...

That's a white poker, Jonathan. Let's not accuse him of understatement.

Otherwise, yes indeed: '"The Great Lord of the Dark is my Master" a voice chattered with fear. ... The figure of a man floated in the air above the Myrddraal, the hem of his blood-red robe hanging a span over the Halfman's head ...'

Adam Roberts said...

GeoX: I look at it this way. Either the series will improve, or the whole experience will function as a sort of mental emetic.

Beloved Snail said...

The bad news for you, I think, is that the first two books are actually kind of readable compared to the later ones.

Adam Roberts said...

B. Snail: my heart leaps up.

ca said...

I am really looking forward to the next installments. It may even inspire me to get past the first couple of chapters of WoT 2, which is where I lost steam. Or, quite possibly, not. But these posts almost made it worthwhile!

Ned said...

Not to defend Jordan too much, but couldn't you claim he stole the idea of the horn from the Song of Roland as easily as from Tolkien? Keep up the work and good luck with the project.

Adam Roberts said...

Ned: it's true, of course, that Tolkien pick-and-mixed the elements in his trilogy from earlier European myth and legend. But the horn of Roland doesn't summon people back from the dead to help you in battle, I think. It's just a regular but very loud horn.

Nick said...

Is it wrong that I read "Seanchan" and immediately thought 4chan?

Is the world being invaded by cats? No, wait, that'd be readable...

(Sidebar, cos I'm here - am reading (and loving) Yellow Blue Tibia - is far better than anything WoT! :) )

dconlay said...

Okay, admittedly I haven't read all of the comments, and I do appear to be rather late to the game, but has anyone else noticed a more than passing resemblance to Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series? Yes, Tolkien, of course, but if you mixed Tolkien and Donaldson not only would you approach the total number of pages writen for the series you could also account for many of the characters and plot points not cribbed from Tolkien.

Ewan said...

I think its easy to argue that theres no depth to these characters this early in the book because there hasnt been the time to create the depth. Jordan always intended this series to be long but the earlier books tended to be more bland because he had to appeal to a wider audience to ensure publication. As the series progress the excessive exposition on the world and its history extends to character back stories and becomes a very rich tapestry setting for the narrative. Obviously this is personal opinion but i feel like the series as whole accomplishes something even more profound for me that LOTR did by establishing a world and a history of that world that has kept me hooked for going on a decade.