Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World is the first book of one of the most immense fantasy novel series I've ever encountered. Ranging around 700 pages per each book in what will be a fourteen book long series (currently at 12 books), I was a bit leery at the thought of starting such an epic task. But I did it, and it turned out to be pretty damn good.
The Hero's Journey
The Eye of the World is very similar to JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Like Tolkien's epic, Robert Jordan's world is that of fantasy reminiscent of the Middle Ages plus smatterings of magic here and there. The story is about one young man, Rand Al'Thor, and the events that force him from his small farm into the vast unknown; the hero's journey into the dangers and wonders of the world at large. In this, Robert Jordan manages to do something great.
For Robert Jordan is the master of detail. It is very rare to find a series with as much detail as this, and most of it is incredibly effective at building our knowledge of the world and making us believe in it. Nowhere is this more evident than the beginning of the book, where the small town of Two Rivers is the setting, and where Robert Jordan impressed upon me a powerful feeling of realism and safety that is hard to comprehend, much less describe.
For Rand is a young man easy to empathize with, a man who loves his father, has friends who occasionally get him into trouble, and with a stout heart that gives him an inner strength that is too often taken for granted. Two Rivers is an idyll of sorts, yet one with faults and disadvantages. But this is a good thing. Unlike Tolkien's Shire, the Two Rivers seems far more real, and this helped me get more involved in what happens while Rand is there. Rand's own personal home within this town, his father Tam's farm, epitomizes this feeling of safety.
I think what did it for me was the author's excellent grasp of details. In one chapter, for example, in what would sound normally uninteresting, we follow Rand and his approach to the chores of the farm. He chops wood, hauls things around, goes inside to have dinner, to curl up by the fire with an old leatherbound book. The exhaustion and then comfort that Rand feels mirrors itself for the reader; a sense of safety permeates throughout. And this makes the events that follow all the more gripping.
The Following Darkness
For trouble visits itself upon Rand, as it does upon every main character, and Robert Jordan proves incredibly skilled at creating an atmosphere of danger and importance to everything the characters do. Part of it lies in the attention devoted to the world's immense history, given to us in snippets and flashes of story that are merely the tip of the iceberg. Part of it lies in the details that surround each character, our ability to empathize with them and feel for them as they react to events much like we would. In The Eye of the World, just about every character is the everyman, the average Joe. And, consequently, their trials and travails become that much more personal and akin to our own feelings and perspectives.
One aspect of the book that appealed to me was this sense of immediacy and danger that followed everything the characters did. In Tolkien's famous work, it was relatively easy to become detached from the characters as they travel through a far more interesting and complex world. By contrast, Robert Jordan writes the book in a way that indicates world-building depth yet without sacrificing the reader's connection with the characters themselves. This is perhaps the book's greatest strength and one that I hope remains stalwart and true as the books stretch ever onward to the tens of thousands of pages.
However, the book is a bit dated, and this is definitely noticeable as one reads the book. The author's attention to detail initially put me off, and occasionally he devotes detail to things that really don't need it. For example, it is relatively common in this book for a character to be introduced with a description of a single personal quirk and then an inexplicably lengthy description of the character's clothes. Why the obsession with clothes, I don't know, but it was far too easy to gloss over these descriptions in search of more important facets of their manner and personality. Another peculiar facet of the book is the unusual depiction of just about every woman acting like a shrew. It is as if the author sought to portray strong women, but instead created abrasive women who desperately need to come to terms with reality. Not all the female characters are like this, but it easily affects the majority of them.
The Eye of the World is a worthy fantasy novel that is a great spiritual successor to the Lord of the Rings. Like that classic, Robert Jordan's epic is about man's growth and courage against the imminent doom of encroaching evil. It is different enough to induce interest and similar enough to incur nostalgia and familiarity. There are similar themes: the danger of man's pride, the importance of friendship and trust, and the ability to find faith in times of dark need.
However, it is difficult to tell if the strengths and epic feel of this first book will be able to stretch onward across more than a dozen sequels. We will have to see. But, for now, this first book has impressed me and, aside from a few odd quirks and the occasional infodump of detail, is a worthy read and powerful addition to one's fantasy bookshelf.