Fate, I observe somewhat unoriginally, is a funny thing, in both the strange and the ha-ha flavors. This is just as true in real life as it is in stories, though the dialogue in the stories generally tends to be a bit more polished.
I am continually both amused and bemused, therefore, whenever I think about how there’s a person out there who, by saying two short sentences to me, is ultimately responsible for shaping a huge portion of my life, my friends, my interests, my travels, my experiences, and even my career.
And I have absolutely no idea who this person is. And I never will.
He will forever only be that random guy in the University bookstore on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas who, sometime in 1997, paused in the science fiction/fantasy aisle next to an equally random girl staring at the shelves in total indecision, just long enough to point at a thick mass-market paperback with a blue-toned cover and say:
“You should try that one. It’s really good.”
And I did. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I am, of course, not going to make the claim that The Eye of the World and the series it begins will have nearly as profound an effect on other people as it has on me; I will be the first to admit that my life trajectory vis-à-vis the Wheel of Time has been… unique. (If not quite so unique as some.) But it’s oddly appropriate to contemplate that capricious turn of fortune in my own life concerning this book, because the vagaries of fate is precisely what the story of The Eye of the World is hinged upon. Or perhaps I should say Fate, because the capital letter is definitely warranted in this case.
And as you know, Bob, if there is one thing we like to read about in the genre of epic fantasy, it is Fate.
It’s what we crave from stories, that sense of pattern recognition. We want to find the signal amidst the noise, the synchronicity in the randomness; we want the reassurance that (at least in the story) it all means something, maaaan.
And in that sense, The Eye of the World more than delivers. It would not be too far-fetched to suggest, in fact, that this need for pattern recognition, for the existence of Fate, whether you be accepting of it or railing against it, is the entire point of the novel, and indeed of the entire series.
The author, Robert Jordan, began the story in this novel, as he did in every book following it, with the image of wind. Wind: an invisible but palpable – —and inescapable —- force, in other words, an unpredictable and ever-varying phenomenon that begins and ends, but at the same time is eternal and unending. There may be more powerful representations of the concept of Fate out there than this, but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with one off the top of my head.
And the story he crafted with that image —- a group of seemingly ordinary young men and women, swept without volition into a much vaster and more dangerous world than they could have imagined, to learn how their decidedly extraordinary destinies were tangled with each other and with the world at large -— is as quintessentially satisfying as any story that wears the label of “epic fantasy” I’ve ever come across, and a great deal more so than many, in my opinion.
It’s a story that is almost ridiculously simple in premise: what would it be like if Fate tapped you on the shoulder one day and said, Hey, guess what? You get to be the savior of the world! Sucks to be you! Yet this simple premise becomes, in this series, astonishingly complex in execution, built as it is on an intensely satisfying imagined world that is frankly staggering in its depth and attention to detail and internal consistency and sheer volume.
The Eye of the World, in fact, was almost a throwback, when it was originally published, in how directly and unabashedly it fulfilled (and exemplified) the fantasy tropes we all know and love. It is not a deconstruction of fantasy or a post-modern commentary on fantasy, it’s just —- fantasy, straight up, no chaser. With all the portent, intrigue, battles, prophecies, magic, fantastic creatures, heroes, villains, cast-of-thousands, good-vs.-evil, Fate-of-the-world-itself drama that implies. And that is why it is awesome.
It is awesome for that and many other reasons. Because it is an homage to that great icon of epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, without being a ripoff of it. Because it has female characters who are as richly realized and as central to the plot as the male characters. Because it is rife with those wonderful moments of paradigm shift that are my favorite thing in speculative fiction, where the characters are forced to confront something scary/extraordinary/beyond the normal, not just about the world around them but about themselves. Because if you don’t read the last six or so chapters in one sitting, with your heart in your throat the whole time, there may be something wrong with your heart-throat suspense detector thingy.
This is all in my opinion, of course. But I have already proven that sometimes the opinion of a random stranger can be the best thing that ever happened to you, at least when it comes to trying new books.
Ergo, sez me, you could do worse than to listen to me when I stand next to you in this metaphorical bookstore aisle, lean over conspiratorially, and say:
You see this book, The Eye of the World? You should try it. It’s really good.
Leigh Butler is a writer and blogger for Tor.com, where, among other things, she conducts the blog series The Wheel of Time Re-Read, which you should totally check out once you’ve gotten hooked and read the whole series, mwah-ha-ha. She currently lives in New Orleans.