I admit it's taken me a while to get up the gumption to continue with Robert Jordan's massive (and seemingly endless) Wheel of Time saga. Since Jordan is such a powderkeg of controversy in fantasy, with readers falling four-square to either one side or the other of the quality question with little grey area inbetween, I figured I ought to forge ahead with the series and see where I stand in the debate. The fact is that when any artist provokes sharply polarized opinions love him or hate him the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Great Hunt is a textbook case.
In The Great Hunt, Robert Jordan hasn't given fantasy any sort of masterpiece; his prose is still often atrociously overwritten, needlessly bloating many passages that should have been conveyed more succinctly. But he hasn't produced a stinkburger either. And I was pleased, after plowing through some tedious and prolix opening chapters, to find myself settling into a story that was, as my British friends might say, a bit of all right. A little perspective helps here. I have read fantasies much, much worse than this. I suspect Jordan takes as much heat as he does because he's the genre's 700-pound gorilla. (Tolkien is still the 800-pounder; since the movies, more like the half-tonner.) Compared to books like Drake's aimless Lord of the Isles or Harlan's interminable The Shadow of Ararat or Newcomb's godawful The Fifth Sorceress, The Great Hunt was frequently a pleasure.
The novel opens with a stone brilliant prologue, in which we're appraised of the Dark One's activities following the first book's climax. Then Jordan unfortunately downshifts for about ten chapters. Though he commendably doesn't waste time with much "in our last episode" rehashing, he still putters around when the book should be shooting out of the starting gate. Rand al'Thor, having channeled saidin the tainted male magic to battle the Dark One, now lives in constant fear of both descending into madness and being "gentled," having his magic-channeling abilities permanently stripped away, by the Aes Sedai. Rand must walk a tightrope. The Amyrlin Seat (leader of the Aes Sedai) and Moraine (who found Rand in the first place) alone suspect Rand is actually the Dragon Reborn, but they pledge to protect him. Not all Aes Sedai are friendly, particularly those of the Red Ajah, who would ruthlessly gentle Rand on the spot. But even they know Rand is ta'veren, someone around whom the great Wheel of Time weaves the fate of the world.
While he is being paid a visit at Fal Dara keep by the Amyrlin Seat, disaster strikes. The Horn of Valere, an ancient and recently recovered relic said to summon long-dead warrior heroes to help fight the Dark One in the mother of all final battles, is stolen from the keep by a Darkfriend. Rand joins a party that includes many familiar faces from book one in an attempt to get the Horn back, while Egwene and Nynaeve, two girls from his hometown of Emond's Field, are taken to Tar Valon to begin Aes Sedai training.
These are the book's weakest chapters, unfortunately. Jordan's prose is often just plain turgid. "At dawn the day was born, just as twilight gave birth to night, but at dawn, night died, and at twilight, day." Has anyone rambled so long simply to state the obvious? That's a sentence so painfully twisted you just want to send it to a chiropractor! Jordan also has yet to shake himself of another common bad habit of fantasists: highfalutin dialogue. In order to make Liandrin, head of the Red Ajah, sound arrogant, haughty, and aristocratic, Jordan has her talk like Yoda! "From Fal Dara in secrecy these young men must be removed, and to Tar Valon taken...Of the Black Ajah you have heard?"
But as the novel progresses, things become a little more involving. The Great Hunt gives readers a better feel for the saga's backstory. And Jordan does a much better job this time making his characters involving and sympathetic. Rand is no longer a nonentity, though he's still not much more than a stock player. But he's kind of likable this time, with his unhappiness at being the center of attention not nearly so whiny and in fact rooted in a tangible threat his impending madness after channeling saidin. The plot thread following Egwene and Nynaeve to Tar Valon is just as compelling. Furthermore, Jordan introduces a couple of interesting new story elements and is much better about explaining some frustrating ones from book one. (The lost city of Shadar Logoth, for instance.) The cryptic carved stones that transport careless adventurers to nightmarish, "unfinished" alternate realities is an extremely cool concept that I hope he doesn't overuse.
Unlike The Eye of the World, which read simply like fantasy's 500th uninspired Tolkien rewrite, The Great Hunt shows Jordan owning up to the Professor's influence and getting serious about using it as a springboard for his own ideas. And, not surprisingly, the book's best scenes are those in which Jordan turns his full attention upon a concept that is more original (all things being relative) to himself: the Aes Sedai and their harsh training methods; those mysterious carved stones. In these scenes Jordan shines, and one has a real investment in his story.
There is still plenty of boilerplate fantasy going on. As always, our star is The Reluctant Hero Who Must Save the World (though Jordan's spin is that he will destroy it at the same time). Prophecies, monsters, magic, dark lords, valiant warriors, loyal friends and traveling companions, even some songs. Seen it all. But when you haven't got originality going for you, decent storytelling can carry you through in spite of it. I felt like I got that in The Great Hunt. The fact I went into it with lowered expectations probably helped. I cannot in all honesty say I would hand someone this book when I could be handing them some Martin, Kay, Pullman, or Jacqueline Carey instead. But I am curious to see how well Jordan fares in continuing this epic, and how far he can keep it going before he's just spinning his Wheel.