Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Blog Fantastic 016: The Great Hunt review

In my review of The Eye of the World (here), I ended it by saying I would be posting the review for The Great Hunt in a few weeks’ time. I lied. It took months! It took months because I felt a bit betrayed and very letdown by The Eye of the World. It was too unfocused and Jordan’s writing is very difficult to wade through particularly during the “action draughts” where characters just seems to be wandering aimlessly and over analysing the silliest of things and trivializing rather important things about the fate of the world. It shouldn’t have surprised me though. I should have seen it coming. Robert Jordan writes like the Wheel weaves, that is he sticks to the pattern and repeats it over and over hoping that the result will be grand and epic simply because of its size and not necessarily because of skill or particularly intricate designs. There are things, such as Rand constantly thinking of women in the way only young virgins think of women, I’m sure will be a part of the series until the very end. Or until Rand and one of the female characters simply have sex and begin to build an adult relationship instead of tugging at their braids and twiddling their thumbs.

Granted, I had quite a few issues with The Eye of the World and most of them are still present in The Great Hunt. The most notable exception to this is that Jordan is pulling away from the influence of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. He’s making The Wheel of Time his own thing by infusing it with original concepts and ideas. The more he builds his world, the weaker Tolkien’s influence becomes which makes for better reading because I’m not automatically making connections between both works which can only favour Jordan since a strong comparison to Tolkien’s work makes Jordan look amateurish. The Great Hunt is a big book and I had a lot of things I wanted to say about it but I’ve cut out most of the random comments and I’ve tried to limit myself in order to better organize my thoughts. Let’s dive in.

The Characters:
There were quite a few characters in the first book and there is a fair amount of characters that have been introduced in The Great Hunt. I don’t love ‘em all. Some I downright fight annoying. So much so that I think I hate them. If there’s one character I love and I think I will always love it’s Moiraine. She’s just the coolest you know? I love that she’s obstinate but not blindly so. She’s intelligent and she’s a hard worker. She also has a conscience that is true and just and she’s devoted her life as an Aes Sedai to work towards keeping the dark forces at bay and helping the Dragon Reborn put an end to it for good. It’s a noble goal and she’s aware that there will always been obstacles to block her path but with Lan by her side and just a few other allies, she’s willing to take on all opponents because she believes in what she’s doing. She’s also badass and I wish there was much, much more of her and Lan in the first two books. According to The Wheel of Time wiki, Moiraine is only in 7.44% of The Great Hunt. That’s bull! I want more! Who decided on this? I had to wade through 53.16% of the book stuck with Rand and all of his insecurities. That better change in the following books.  

I might as well get it out of the way, right? Let’s talk about Rand. It’s incredibly annoying to be inside Rand’s head for so many chapters. He’s in constant denial of his role in the grand scheme of things. While the Aes Sedai seem to accept that their lives are destined by the Pattern, heck they even seem to depend on it, Rand is uncharacteristically sturbborn. Uncharacteristic for being a character in a world where their culture is saturated with the idea of the Wheel of Time and the Pattern being woven with the lives of men and women. It’s almost as if Jordan thought he had to write Rand this way in order to give the reader someone to relate to which is ridiculous. We’re reading a fantasy novel and come on as if we didn’t know Rand was the Dragon Reborn since the first page of The Eye of the World!*

Rand is whinny little bitch. I find it very difficult to sympathise with him because of his internal monologue. He’s always complaining about how people think of him and label him. To some, he’s a lord. To other, he’s the Dragon Reborn or another False Dragon. To some, Egwene and Nynaeve especially, he’s just a farm boy. All of these labels and titles upset Rand and instead of focusing on becoming the person he wants to be, he’s letting himself be bothered by what others think of him. He’s just too fragile to be the hero he’s destined to be. I understand that Mat, Perrin and Rand have had their lives turned upside down and shaken up but why are they all finding it so difficult to adapt to their new experiences? They live in a world of magic and they’ve seen the proof of it time and again but the idea of being a wolfbrother or being able to channel saidin, the male half of the One Power is too much for them to handle? You would think that because they live in a world of magic and ancient heroic legends it would be easier for them to accept and even embrace it. Even if that’s not the case, they experienced those very things they used to think were impossible. Their state of denial is incredibly frustrating and they’re so dumb about it they even lie to themselves about what they’re doing. Rand regularly justifies his hunt for the Horn as being nothing more than a search for the dagger of Shadar Logoth which he’ll give back to Mat so that he can be healed for good. You can channel saidin and you’re going after the Horn. What other clue do you need?

The sad thing is that Rand isn’t the only poorly written character. The characters are Jordan’s weak point. Some of the characters are interesting and some are even well written but many, far too many for a book of this size and with this many characters, are flat, uninteresting, annoying and just downright unpleasant to read about. Some characters only have one thing about them that’s truly annoying. Liandrin of the Red Ajah is a good example. Her dialogue is terrible. She talks so strangely, it’s like a reverse-Yoda parody. It’s just awful. Other characters are used in regular jokes, or at least what Jordan considers to be a joke. The Emond’s Field boys are constantly wishing another one of the guys was around when they’re making a fool of themselves talking to one of the female characters. When Rand is with a women he finds attractive and he’s blubbering like an idiot he wishes that Perrin was with him because “he always knew how to talk to girls”. A few pages later, it’s Perrin’s turn to wish that Rand was with him because “Rand always understood women”. It was repeated at least one every 100 pages in The Eye of the World and it popped up again in The Great Hunt.

My favourite characters are Moiraine, Lan and Loial. I don’t need to explain why I like Loial, he’s just awesome and I want more of him. He’s one of the few characters that are interesting and despite not being explored as much as other characters; he does a good job playing a supporting role. Moiraine and Lan are good characters because they’re the only example of male/female relationship that isn’t painful to read. All of the other male/female pairings feel forced, passive-aggressive and sexist to both men and women. The male characters all think women are impossible to understand and will continuously act as a source of frustration. Despite that frustration, the male characters will also be continuously infatuate with or lust after the female characters. As for them, the female characters all feel entitled to bully the male characters and have them submit to their will and whim. There is a scene where a female innkeeper gives Rand marital advice when she mistakes him and Selene for a couple after Selene retreats to her room after an argument. It’s not only embarrassing for Rand and his friends; it’s embarrassing and painful to read. Moiraine and Lan don’t dodge all of the above criticisms, but their relationship feels fare more natural than any of the others in the series so far.

I think another reason why I like Moiraine and Lan is that I actually know something about their character but I didn’t learn it from The Eye of the World or The Great Hunt. Most of what I know from them I learned while reading New Spring. It’s incredible how little the characters develop after 1500+ pages. Nynaeve is still temperamental and hard-headed as ever. She also shows no desired to do anything. Sure, she’s travelling with Egwene to Tar Valon but you get a sense that she’s doing it because she has nothing else to do and not because she wants to. This changes towards the end of the book but it’s not something grown out of her own desire to do something, she’s simply doing what she thinks is right after being put in a very difficult situation. Now that I think about it, there was a bit of character development for Nynaeve. I guess she wasn’t the only character to develop. Rand is still a whiny bitch but now he’s a whiny bitch who knows how to do a few neat tricks, like sword fighting thought he took a knack to it like it was nobody’s business. It might sound crazy but as far as characters are concerned, New Spring looks even better when comparing it to the first two books of The Wheel of Time.

There were a few characters that were only introduced in The Great Hunt that I like; in particular I really like Hurin. He’s a sniffer which means he has the special ability to smell violence. How cool is that? Well, when you start to think about it it’s not as cool as you think. Few of us ever experience the kind of violence we see on television and that we read in books. If we ever did, I’m sure most of us would be terrified and we’d probably be changed by the experience. Imagine experiencing that violence through smell? You can smell flesh wounds, domestic violence, rape, murder, torture, every kind of violence. You can recognize what violent action took place in a specific area by smell alone. The more intense the violence, the more intense the smell and the easier it is to recognize. It quickly becomes a pretty horrific “gift”. Hurin is pretty great about it though. He uses his ability for good and even though he doesn’t enjoy smelling certain acts, he does it for the greater good. He’s also very loyal and it’s nice to have a character who seems content with his position in live and doesn’t feel the need to question his motivations. He knows where he stands with the other characters in the book and that refreshing. Still, I hope one day when he retires he gets to spend his time in a huge garden surrounded by happy people so that he can smell something nice for a change.

Though I struggle to find a lot to enjoy in the way Jordan writes his characters, he does show some affinity on how they influence one another throughout the story. Rand in particular seems to more accurately reflect his status of ta’veren. A ta’veren is an individual around which the weaves of the Pattern focus, pulling in the life-threads of others. Everyone who meets Rand has their lives changed because of it. Jordan demonstrates this regularly and it really works because of the well-developed idea of the Pattern. It feels a lot less heavy handed because the Pattern is a real thing in this particular world. It’s not some vaguely defined mystical force; it’s a well-documented guiding force of the universe, as real as gravity. While Jordan struggles at writing realistic characters, he’s much better at other aspects of writing such as world building.

*I added all of those italics because Jordan loves his italics. The only thing he loves more than italics is to reverse italicising words in an italicised sentence.

The World of the Westlands:
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about The Wheel of Time is Jordan’s development of the Aes Sedai’s magic system. In The Great Hunt, he introduces characters that have other abilities that are unrelated to the One Power which the Aes Sedai tap into. It’s nice to know that even though there is a dominated magic system, there are other forms of magic that also exist. Some forms of magic are specific to a species which no other species can use. Ogiers are a good example. Their ecological based magic can be pretty powerful and Loial has been shown to be a pretty talented at Treesinging. Some humans also have special abilities, like the wolfbrothers or Hurin’s sniffing talents. Min, which we first met in The Eye of the World can see things about a person’s future. Min tells

Some humans also have individual abilities, like the wolfbrothers. Min, which we first met in The Eye of the World can see things about a person’s future. Min tells Elayne that she will share her husband with two other women. Shit dude, it’s got to be Egwene and someone else. Elayne and Egwene have become close friends since they’ve been at the White Tower. Because Jordan’s been introducing new types of magic, I’m expecting to learn new things about some of the magic that’s already been introduced. If Rand can use the One Power, he’s basically a male Aes Sedai which makes me think that maybe he can bound with women, like the Aes Sedai do with Warders. I would also expect that if he can do this he’d try to bond with Egwene. I’m not sure if they can since they’re both users of the One Power but maybe they might still be able to. It’s said that during the Time of Legends, male and female Aes Sedai did their best work together. I guess I just have to keep reading to find out.

When it comes to Aes Sedai and their magic, the whole aspect of weaving which was present in New Spring is almost completely absent from the first two novels in the series. Is this something Jordan introduced later in the series? It seemed like an integral part of the magic system when I read the prequel and I liked it because it worked so well with the whole thing about how the Wheel of Time weaves the lives of men into the Pattern. Aes Sedai are so powerful, they can also weave the True Power into magical patterns and thus influence the course of people lives. Based on your understanding on the Pattern, the Aes Sedai might be weaving a smaller pattern within the larger Pattern.

Jordan’s world building remains interesting because he’s still adding to it. It’s a very difficult thing to do but the Westlands seem large enough and have a rich history that if he paces himself well, the world building aspect of the series can remain interesting for at least a few volumes more. The notable additions to the series are the Portal Stones, the Seanchan and their culture including the damane and their history as the descendants of Artur Hawkwing. The Portal Stones is a pretty big addition. I’m certain that it will have pretty big ramifications during the rest of the series. Portal Stones are used a magical travelling method but it also allows the users to travel through time and to other worlds. These other worlds are variations of the real world. Every single decision that is made creates another world, each one of them a variation of the true world or the true Pattern. Some of the worlds barely resemble the world the characters live in but others are so similar you can travel to one and visit its future and it will likely give you an accurate portrayal of your world.

The other big addition is the Seanchan. They come from a continent to the west of the Weslands, across the Aryth Ocean. They are said to be descendants of Artur Hawkwing and they’ve cross the Aryth Ocean to reclaim the lands formerly conquered by Hawkwing. They have a very strict hierarchal system and it reminds me of a twisted form of the government during the Feudal era in Japan. They’re a very powerful people, skilled in the art of sword fighting but what really makes them fearsome is their treatment of women sensitive to the One Power which they call damane. It’s a combination of human trafficking (the Seanchan actively search for women who can channel), slavery and warmongering. It’s a frightening addition to the world of The Wheel of Time and it feels very dark compared to the other elements present in the series. It could also feel darker because of the character development that can regularly feel juvenile.

The Great Hunt is a better book than The Eye of the World. Jordan makes better use of the world he’s developed. The focus of the story has expanded along with its world. Jordan’s also further developing the themes of his story. The primary theme is balance, dark and life, male and female. He’s also writing quite a bit about how power comes at a price. Rand is the best example of this. As the Dragon Reborn, he is able to use saidin which gives him incredible power as one of the few men able to channel. But it comes at a cost since the male half of the One Power is tainted. The price of his power is death. First he will go mad and then he will die because of his regular contact with saidin. Another important theme is the difficulty of doing one’s duty. It’s very difficult to do what is right. Rand’s reluctance at being called a Lord doesn’t just have to do with him feeling awkward, it’s also because being called a Lord means that he will the responsibilities of a Lord. Likewise, Moiraine’s work is very difficult and incredibly dangerous. She’s been at it for twenty years and she’s still facing dangerous situations but it’s the right thing to do. Mat doesn’t like to use his wolfbrothers abilities but when Hurin is lost and the Shienar needed help to track the Trollocs, he reluctantly communicated with the wolves to help keep them on the right path.

Even though I enjoyed The Great Hunt quite a bit more than The Eye of the World, it is far from perfect. Heck, it’s so far from excellent but I don’t think that mattered to Jordan. I don’t think he cared. Sure, I never knew the man personally but shit, The Wheel of Time isn’t about supreme character development, it’s not about writing a carefully constructed narrative and reworking it until it shines unto the fantasy novel readership of the world so brightly it burns out our eyes and stops us from ever being able to read again. It doesn’t have such lofty and ridiculous goals. The Wheel of Time is about narrative simplicity for the sake of grandiose storytelling. At its core, it’s a simple kind of book that has huge aspirations. That’s why I’m conflicted when I read it. The story is very interesting; the world is fascinating and the amount of details appeals to me. I want to explore the hell out of the Westlands but instead I’m stuck in the head of Rand al’Thor and his painfully naïve thoughts about women, duty and destiny.

There’s a reason that The Wheel of Time is such a long series. It doesn’t care about being a concise series; it doesn’t want to be like all those other fantasy trilogies, it wants to be big! It wants to be huge! The problem is that it doesn’t really know how. Jordan doesn’t seem to know how to write a huge book either but he tries by filling every page with unnecessary descriptions and (sometimes, but not always) painstaking inner monologues. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter because that’s not what the focus of the series is. Jordan wants to transport you away on a huge journey where Darkness and Light fight an eternal and cyclical battle to Break the World and dammit he delivers on that! It’s not always well told, it has a lot of faults and apparently the series loses control after the sixth book but that’s to be expected. The Wheel of Time is so large I’m not surprised the whole thing got out of hand.

It sounds like I’ve been converted, doesn’t it? Well I guess I have. There is a lot to enjoy here and if you’re going to keep on reading such a big series you might as well refocus your expectations with what you know the book might actually deliver. There are some things that will bug me throughout the entire series, I’m sure, and that’s ok. I’ll just vent about it here. Like hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people before, I’m about to let myself get swept away. It’ll be a rough ride but I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. It’s hard to ignore a giant of the fantasy genre like The Wheel of Time and I’m not the fool who’s going to attempt it. I’m also not foolish enough to go around saying it’s the best damn fantasy series evaaaaah and whoever disagrees is just a stinky Trolloc! Heck no. It’s obviously not the best but it’s something. Try as I might to resist, I’m slowly being sucked in. I just hope I can keep my wits about me while still being able to enjoy all the good stuff the books have to offer. I’m serious, there are some things to enjoy here but you have to be able to tolerate a lot of suck to get it to.

Man, I really hope making the right choice to keep on reading! Maybe I don’t have a choice and it’s all part of the Pattern. I guess you’ll find out in a few weeks (or months).

A note on the cover:
Alright, let’s talk about that awful cover. Sure, it looks nice and for a moment there I almost agreed with you but it’s not. It’s really bad but it’s not enough to just say it. Let’s consider why. I’ll start with Rand; he looks like a little guy, a fourteen year old, maybe. He’s not nearly as tall as he’s described and he doesn’t have any of the Aiel features he’s repeatedly said to have in the books. The horn looks fine. I kind of like that from a short distance it looks like a regular, every day horn (what, don’t you have a horn at home?). Selene looks ridiculous though. Look at her facial expression! It kind of makes sense once you’ve read the end of the book and know more about Selene’s character, but there’s no way she would be looking at the horn with such a wide-eyed, doe-like expression. It’s ludicrous. The Trollocs also fail to meet my expectations. For starters, they all look far too human for my liking. They’re also average human size; they look no bigger than Rand. The lack of animal characteristic is particularly frustrating. Oh look, they’ve all got horns on their helmets. It’s quite nice that all the horns look different but none of them actually have horns. It’s just decorative! From cover of the rest of the series, Sweet addresses his inaccurate portrayal of Trollocs later on. I do find it a bit disturbing that Trollocs as we see them on this cover are basically black men. It’s made all the more disturbing in comparison to the other characters on the cover. Selene should be pale, and that’s fine. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with Rand though he does look a smidge too pale considering his genetic and cultural heritage. But Loial, there is no excuse for that. Not only is he too pale, his entire character is poorly painted. His ears look ridiculous protruding from an all-too-human head. Actually, that’s the problem overall. He looks human! Almost entirely so. He’s far too short, his nose isn’t as wide or as large as it should be and he doesn’t give the same sense of size and scale from how Jordan describes him in the book. And don’t get me started on the eyebrows. 

This is the best Ogier art I’ve been able to find. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an art credit.

I mean no disrespect to Darrell K. Sweet. I do like his art but the cover to The Great Hunt isn’t representative of the story being told in the book and that’s automatically a bad thing, but it is a bad thing when you’re clearly trying to give an accurate depiction of the story and characters of the novel! I’m certain I would really like this cover had I never read the book but having read the book, the cover doesn’t work for me anymore.  I will give credit where it’s due, he paints the hell out of that scenery. Look at the rocks, at those trees. They’re pretty gorgeous, you have to admit. The Trollocs’ armour also looks pretty great. I can’t get over Loial, though. That’s difficult to digest.

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