‘The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.’
I am a big fan of epic fantasy. I love the Lord of the Rings, despite how over-written it can feel, I enjoyed Eragon, before I found out that it follows the same story as Star Wars Episode IV, and I love George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. So I was surprised when I discovered that I had missed out on a large fantasy epic series that was fairly well known named The Wheel of Time.
Much like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time series is author Robert Jordan’s magnum opus. There are 13 books in the series, and Robert Jordan passed away before finishing the last two, which were finished using his notes, in the same manner as Christopher Tolkien has constructed and published the books his father had written or intended to write when he died.
I have only read the first book so far; The Eye of the World, and whilst it certainly has the narrative cliffhangers that pull the story into the rest of the series, it does not prevent the book from being a fully self-contained story. This makes it perfect for someone to pick up if they are uncertain about committing to a 13 part series; you can read the book and if you don’t want to spend longer in the world, you will at least have the satisfaction of a complete story, loose threads being more of an intrigue as to what the future may hold than an story arc that feels unsatisfactorily left open.
The Eye of the World follows the story of a group of village youths, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, being taken from their town by a mysterious Aes Sedai; a sorcerous woman whose power is feared by everyone in the village and surrounding towns. An evil force pursues the youths, and they spend the book coming to understand why this evil wants them so desperately and what they can do to protect themselves.
This summary makes the book sound like a fairly standard heroes journey, and it does have some very familiar story beats to The Fellowship of the Ring, but where I think Robert Jordan’s book really sets itself apart is its cosmology.
This cosmology takes heavy influences from East and South Asian mysticism, with time being an unending wheel where key world events happen unerringly in cycles, a cycle of death and rebirth, all of which is fuelled by the One Power, a fundamental force of Robert Jordan’s universe. This Power is the source of all magic, and is divided into male and female halves, two parts of a whole, that can only be touched by those of the corresponding sex. But there is not balance; one half of the One Power has been tainted by evil and cannot be safely channelled. These light and dark halves of a whole evoke the concept of ying and yang to continue the East Asian faith theme.
This underlying cosmological groundwork is placed under a more traditional good versus evil framework, with similar language used as is found in Abrahamic faith; there is a good but distant creator, mysterious and unknowable, and a devil character, named Shaitain, who takes an active part in corrupting the world, as well as creating evil creatures to serve him in a manner similar to Morgoth and Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.
There is a lot going on with these concepts and the question of what happened to the One Power and whether it can be restored to purity appears to be a thread that will be picked up on in later novels, however the cosmology does not bog down the storytelling. We slowly learn more and more about it as a flavour and explanation for the character development we see as we progress. It facilitates the story rather than constraining it, and this is what helps make the story so gripping. The fantastical rules of this world are very different from the rules we see in Tolkien or Martin’s work, and it is interesting to see how these different rules shape the archetypal characters that we are introduced to.
This book is an accessible and enjoyable read. It is familiar fantasy with a distinct and unique flavour that keeps the reader hooked throughout.
If you like fantasy stories and have not found The Wheel of Time series, I would recommend reading this book, as it provides a new and interesting world to enjoy. It is more accessible than Tolkien, and less convoluted than Martin with similarities to both whilst still feeling fresh.
If however fantasy is not your cup of tea, The Eye of the World is not so different that it is likely to change your mind. It is a book firmly grounded in the fantasy genre and takes it in an interesting direction, but not so far away that you no longer have people with swords fighting bad guys that are embodiments of evil, and evil is evil for evil’s sake.