Thursday, January 04, 2007

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

My reading life started with fantasy literature. At six I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at seven I read The Hobbit. When I was nine I started The Lord of the Rings, and in my early teens I moved on to the Dragonlance novels, Dennis L. McKiernan, and anything else with cool cover art involving swords, magic, elves, or ogres.

During my first few years in the navy I spent a lot of time reading -- about five books a week. It was then that I made my shift toward literary fiction, but I still mostly read fantasy. When Robert Jordan's first Wheel of Time book, The Eye of the World, came out I snatched it up and read it quickly. It was great. Broad, detailed, and fresh. Well-executed. Then I read the second, third, and fourth books as they were released.

At intervals of about a year and a half.

I got tired of waiting for each new book, and I was firmly in the grip of "real" literature in my mid-twenties, so I dropped the series. Twelve years or so passed, and this last summer I thought I'd try Jordan again. The situation was right: I always read something light (read: genre fiction) right before bed to rest my mind, and Jordan has finished eleven of his twelve novels in this series, so there won't be too much waiting in between (unless Jordan dies before he finishes number twelve, which is a possibility). So I started at the beginning again.

Lord of Chaos is book number six, and I've reached the midpoint of this series with mixed emotions. Fantasy literature operates with a different set of requirements from literary fiction, and one of those differences is in purpose. The fantasy author is creating an escapist work, building a new reality for the reader to inhabit, and that habitation rivals character development and plot in importance to the genre. In this respect, Robert Jordan has no equal. The world he has created in The Wheel of Time is complete, tactile, and vivid. After six novels (and about 4,000 published pages) I've spent more time with Rand al'Thor than I have with my friends in the last half year.

The first few books in this series moved well. It seemed each event was necessary, compelling, and served the plot. That becomes less the case with each book. It feels like the need to go twelve volumes has overtaken Jordan's obligation, in Kurt Vonnegut's words, to "start as late as possible and end as early as possible." I hate to imagine what would happen to this story if it were rewritten for the sake of plot-coherence. It might become a trilogy.

I feel like I've invested too much time to give up on this now, but I'm only halfway done. And I can't shake the feeling that Jordan's dragging his feet. He has so many story arcs going we go hundreds of pages without reading about central characters. It's crazy.

So, I don't know. I guess I'll keep going, but I hope in the end I don't wind up like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he decodes the message after getting his ring: "A commercial? A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch!"


Anonymous said...

Don't keep going with it. Drop this series as soon as you can. I have made it to book 11 and I wish I stopped at book 5. The story line just keeps getting more and more arcs with each book. I read about 200 pages of book 11 and I still did not know where he was going. By the end of the book I really did not know what got accomplished. I felt like I spent a bunch of time getting caught up with all the story lines and no progress was made.

--Sean Gilman

Paul said...

I have to admit after Knife of Dreams I had to go back to the beginning (when it was good) and reread it. Going through it without waiting two years between volumes was better, and at that point I knew where to skim. Face it, by Lord of Chaos, Tor knew his titles would sell and didn't bother sending them to an editor -- why waste the time when you know you'll have a best seller even if all he does is write nursery rhymes. But to rephrase what Sean says: IT GETS WORSE (unless you like to read about women whose only action is to fold their arms under their breasts and whose only recourse for punishment is to beat each other senseless). He gets nuttier and nuttier about describing the exact facial shape, eye color, hair style, garment cut, embroidery design, and fabric of *everyone*, even people you will never see again. Unfortunately, there's still a story here (or a bunch of stories), and when he is at his best, he is still very, very good. Lord of Chaos has a terrific ending, but if you think the plot is slow going now, just wait till Path of Daggers. My advice would be to wait and make absolutely sure he finishes A Memory of Light (or whatever they're going to call it) before the amyloidosis gets him. I've read he has no literary executor to finish the story if he hasn't completed it, and I think if he doesn't complete it and you get to the end of Knife of Dreams and can't go on, you'll want to shoot yourself for the time you've invested. I'm mainly reading it for closure, although I am reading it to my son, but he's definitely getting the "good parts" version where I tell him, "OK, nothing really happens in this chapter" and move on. I have benefitted a lot from the encyclopediaWOT site, which has detailed chapter synopses with footnotes that help make everything more comprehensible. But if you want to start a series that for sure has been written, you might try The Chalice of Life by Karen Anne Webb. It's book 1 of a long quest fantasy, but each book is self-contained. And it ends.