Monday, April 4, 2011

Fantasy Writer of the Week: Robert Jordan

I've been planning to do something like this for a very long time now. As for the last couple of years I've been reading little else than fantasy, in my free time, I thought it was a good idea to start reviewing some of the books I liked. Especially because in reading all tastes are so different that the more reviews you read the better you can judge an author's work. I'd like to add my point of view to the vast amount of book reviews out there.

I'll go in no particular order, or rather, in no order of preference. I'm planning to write these posts, going author by author, in the order I read them. I'm determined to keep all kinds of spoilers out of the game, because that's exactly the point of this endeavor: to make it easier for you to decide whether you want to read the book or not. Neither do I want to go into a discussion of the storyline. What I'm going to do is give you some hints as to the style of the writer and the atmosphere of the book. So let's start!
I don't know why Robert Jordan wasn't so famous before... Maybe he was, only not so much outside the US. Anyway, we came across his writings some five years ago, totally by chance. My husband was living in London and one morning he was smashed against a guy on the overcrowded subway on his way to work. The guy didn't even look up but kept reading what looked like a very hefty volume. During his relatively long journey, being pushed around by the crowd on a grey London morning, my husband kept glancing back at the fantasy art cover of the book. He ended up memorizing the title, so that he could look it up later. Not that he had a lot of time to read those days...

A bit later, after finding the book and finding out that it was part of a series, he started reading the Wheel of Time novels. I remember telling him how much time he spent reading, instead of doing anything else. An avid reader of classical literature, I was reading a lot too -- but none of my books made made me read long into the night, and none of them kept me from all my other hobbies. It was only a year later that, in an attempt to understand his newfound interest in books, I started reading The Eye of the World. I immediately saw that the style and language was something that would keep me reading, even if the book didn't seem a real pageturner at first. I must admit that as I'd grown up on Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, style and language were very important to me. Most of the time I was reading rather for the wittiness of the text than for anything else. Stories told as if I was sitting next to the author chatting in a friendly manner left me uninterested. They still do.

I soon got addicted. The world felt real to me, very well developed. Mind you, this was my first ever fantasy book and though I'd always considered the theme of magic and elves and dwarves somewhat childish and ... well, not very sophisticated, I was amazed just how natural magic can feel. Nowadays I'm kind of OK with wizards throwing fireballs, but the kind of adult magic displayed in the Wheel of Times (WoT) books still makes me think of them as superior in quality. The world of WoT may not attract all readers but it's indisputably consistent and cohesive. As it is sort of fresh and new it takes away the staleness of orthodox fantasy (well, wizards throwing fireballs is all well and nice but not very original...).

Freshness, on the other hand, might not be the best way to describe the narrative. If your looking for swift action and crisp, concise chapters, these might not be the books for you. (You might want to check out my next review on R.A. Salvatore, though.) It is all understandable, in a way. Creating a world takes time and the long descriptions allow the reader to immerse the reader in its mechanisms and rules, building up characters chapter by chapter and making them as transparent as childhood friends. As I've always considered style more important than action, I cherished every single syllable of these descriptions. But I can understand that they might annoy some, and I'd advise them to reconsider their choice. However, my husband's not known for his appetite for classical literature (my few attempts at the beginning of our relationship proved to be huge failures, though I managed to stuff some of his shelves with books to catch a thick coat of dust...) and he still enjoys the books, so I'd assume it's a matter of taste rather. You've been warned though.

I've mentioned the characters and how elaborate their depiction and development is. Some don't like the fact that these books tell a good guys vs. bad guys kind of story, with good guys being inherently good and bad guys, well, fairly bad. They are a bit more complex than that, but not much, which might leave some deciding to return to the somewhat more balanced world of George R.R. Martin (a review coming soon). Personally, I didn't mind. I'm not necessarily fond of black and white characters, but I definitely need more than a lot of in-between characters, however complex, to enjoy a book. People say that the real world is like that, that everybody has a streak of this or that, but I don't believe them. The fact that absolutely good people are hard to find in real life does not mean that they can't become heroes of a book. And being absolutely good is not always easy. Especially when the bad guys are a lot more ... But I should start rounding off this review.

I'll not give you pros and cons, as deciding on reading a book or not, whether it's good or not, is a lot more complex. But I'll try to sum up of what I think of the WoT books and Robert Jordan's writing. And then I'll let you know what I think of Brandon Sanderson's contribution.

What I definitely loved about these books and what got me hooked immediately was the style and the language. I loved the narrative, the kind where one character is picked as our "guide for the day", and we pry their heads and hearts open to follow them through a couple of scenes, viewing the world through their eyes. This allows for a number of styles, as each character has their turns of speech and attitudes, which makes the books all the more interesting. While we see everything from one point of view, secrets still remain hidden and to be discovered.

I also loved the language, which is sophisticated and rich but not pompous, and the characterization, which makes the heroes lovable (well, most of the time...) and the antagonists intriguing. I didn't mind the fact that most of the characters in the book are either good or bad, as I prefer my books to differ from the real world a bit. I can see, though, how this, along with the lengthy descriptions might make these books a miss for some. Although I keep thinking that's a minority. The majority have kept biting their nails waiting for the next book in line to come out and I consider myself quite lucky that I only discovered the series when it was almost complete and could go on reading without any breaks. Except for the last two books. But those were worth the wait.

Now I deliberately skipped reading reviews on any of Brandon Sanderson's books or even on the WoT books he wrote. First of all because I wanted to read them regardless of what people say, and second because I believed that avid fans of Robert Jordan might not be the fairest guides as to the merits of his successor. While I loved Jordan's book, I had to admit that towards the end some of the characters became a bit, well, stale, and some of the action was a bit dragged. I'm not blaming him, I don't think I could write about the same characters for decades, however dear they are to me. I have to agree with Mr Salvatore on this point. So when I started reading the first of the books co-written by Brandon Sanderson, I felt... relieved. A lot like when you hold your breath under water and can finally let go. Sucking in the fresh, stormy air of his prologue, I knew immediately that he was a very, very, good choice. The fact that I've been reading his books (I mean his other books) ever since is a good indication, I guess. I'd recommend reading the last three books of the series to anyone who read the previous books. Just as I recommend the whole Wheel of Time series to anyone in for a little bit of polished fantasy -- well, 14 books actually. I bet it'll keep you busy for a time. =)

I hope you enjoyed this review
and found it helpful.
Others are coming soon!
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  1. Jó, hogy írod, épp most szemeztem a Wheel of Time-mal a napokban. Tényleg ideje lenne elolvasnom...