Review of EYE OF THE WORLD by Robert Jordan

This marks probably the third or fourth time I’ve read EYE OF THE WORLD. The first time I read the book was in high school, when I was still relatively new to the fantasy genre and hadn’t read much beyond THE LORD OF THE RINGS and DRAGONLANCE.

THE WHEEL OF TIME was one of the first series I began reading once I started to earn enough spending money for regular trips to the bookstore. Little did I realize at the time that it was a project that wouldn’t span months but would take decades. At first, I burned through the books, buying a new one every 3-4 weeks, taking advantage of the cheap mass market paperback editions. I was in college when WINTER’S HEART, the ninth book of the series, was released, and it was like the return of an old friend — an old friend who hung out for a couple weeks, shared a few laughs, then abruptly left and didn’t return for three years. When I began reading CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, I discovered something strange — something had changed. But it wasn’t my old friend that had changed. It was me.

Plot details eluded me. There were characters I faintly recalled, and others I had no recollection of at all. In the years between books, I’d graduated college. I’d gotten a job, which meant I could go to the bookstore even more often and buy even more books. Authors who had been inspired by Jordan — and by his inspiration, Tolkien — had shoved their characters into my brain, making it harder for me to keep straight the tangled webs of the Pattern.

Knowing that there were still several books remaining in the series — and more than a decade’s wait for the conclusion at Jordan’s current pace — I decided to stop reading. I would wait until the series was complete, then pick it up from the beginning and read it like one, preposterously long novel.

And that brings me to this summer, and my return to the world Jordan created.

Not surprisingly, I bring a different perspective to the book this time around. I’ve read a lot more. I know where the books are going. I’m more familiar with the criticisms and accolades the books have seen, and have a better understanding of where they fit in the pantheon of fantasy publishing.

And it’s still a damn good book.

Jordan is obviously using The Lord of the Rings as a model, and it’s not hard to look at certain characters and find their parallel within Middle Earth. But at the same time, Jordan has built upon many of Tolkien’s ideas, and placed some mortar on some of his weaknesses. Whereas LOTR struggled to find roles for the female characters, women are centric to Jordan’s story. In fact, they’re centric to the culture our protagonist, Rand al’Thor, hails from. Plus, in most every character who seems clearly inspired by a LOTR counterpart, Jordan has added his own twist to make things more than mere impersonation — it’s more like Jordan is building upon LOTR even as he pays homage.

The biggest strength that jumped out to me in this reading is Jordan’s ability to make some of the random people our protagonists meet interesting. One of my favorite characters in the book is Lamgwin, the guard in charge of Master Gill’s inn in Caemlyn. As I recall, we never see him again, but I liked his efficiency, and I could imagine a really good story written about him and his life while all this crazy stuff is going on in the world around him and he’s focused on a seemingly simple goal — defending this inn from Whitecloaks and Darkfriends and general crazy people.

There are other examples throughout the book, from the farmer who gives Rand and Mat a ride to Caemlyn’s gates, the family that hosts them for a night as they travel on their own, and some of the people we meet in the Two Rivers early in the book. They’re not major characters, but Jordan takes the time to make them more than mere stock characters, and that really helps make the world come alive. Through them, it feels like a world with real people and real problems, and all these epic events that the protagonists stumble into have real consequences for these folk, who are just trying to get through the day-to-day.

While the characters we only briefly meet left me wanting more, there are certainly criticisms to be made of the main characters. The most common is that they’re all immature, which is problematic, not necessarily for its own sake, but because there are times when Jordan uses their immaturity as a crutch to advance the plot. Mat’s primary storyline is the result of him doing something he’d been specifically told not to do, and while I like the character in later books, his plotline didn’t work for me in this book.

It’s also a bit problematic that the main characters are rarely proactive — instead, they’re mostly reactive, running away from one problem into another. Rand demonstrates determination and an everyman quality, but that everyman quality also makes him just a bit dull. Of the three main boys, he’s actually far less interesting to me than Perrin, and in the next few books I’ll be far more interested in Mat as well.

Of course, that being said, it’s still a strong book. Jordan can work around a main character who isn’t terribly interesting because he has a strong cast of characters that will only grow as the series continues. The massive cast is why I stopped reading the series a decade ago, simply because it was hard to keep track of everyone with 3-5 years between books, but it’s also why I’ve come back after a decade away, eager to make my way through a series that’s going to eclipse four million words.

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STAN MUSIAL: AN AMERICAN LIFE by George Vecsey

Early in STAN MUSIAL: AN AMERICAN LIFE, George Vecsey struggles to explain why Musial, one of the elite ballplayers of his era right alongside Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, was left off the fan voting for the Major League Baseball / American Express All-Century team in 2000. He points to the fact that DiMaggio played in New York and Williams played in Boston, a pair of East Coast media outlets that certainly played up their players’ respective legacies far more than St. Louis ever could Musial’s. He points to the drama that surrounded both DiMaggio and Williams even after their playing days ended, their larger than life personalities and legacies, whereas Musial was far less likely to rock the boat, more Midwestern in his values and public persona.

After reading Vecsey’s biography of Musial, I think Vecsey’s latter explanation may be closer to the truth. For one thing, New York loved Musial, a fact Vecsey details in the book. Secondly, throughout the book, it’s obvious that Musial plays things pretty close to the vest. He makes public appearances and signs autographs, and when he’s feeling especially outgoing he’ll play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica, but he never really lets people in, never gives us a real feeling of exactly who Musial is.

In many ways, that keeps Vecsey’s book from going as deep into Musial’s life as I would have liked. It’s extensively researched, as Vecsey quotes a variety of people from all walks of life, people who met Musial just once and came away with a story, and others who knew him during his ball playing days and his life as a businessman / restaurateur. But while Vecsey finds plenty of these stories, he doesn’t speak to Musial for the story. He doesn’t speak to Musial’s wife Lil, though he does speak to their daugher and former son in law. He speaks to a few players who knew Musial in the day, but even they seem to have nothing more to say beyond the fact that he was a nice guy.

In the end, I got the feeling that nobody Vecsey spoke to really knew Musial all that well. There were a lot of stories about what a great guy he was, and the tales of his friendship with Michener was interesting, but for the most part, everyone’s tale of their relationship with Musial was the same — he was a nice guy who could really hit.

Without getting any closer than that, it’s hard to feel like you really understand Stan Musial. Prior to reading this book I read David Maraniss’ book on Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” and came away feeling as though I really understood Lombardi, both personally and professionally. Maybe Lombardi is simply an easier man to understand simply because he was more expressive and open than Musial ever was.

I recommend the book for baseball fans, especially Cardinals fans, because of the wealth of stories Vecsey collects. It’s a good book, a solid baseball biography, but I came away wanting more, wanting Vecsey to dig just a bit deeper.

TOP FIVE BOOKS I’VE READ IN 2012:

1. AMONG THIEVES by Douglas Hulick

2. THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach

3. THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

4. SANDMAN: FABLES & REFLECTIONS by Neil Gaiman

5. THE MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle