I hate fantasy novels, and the genre as a whole.
Okay, that’s not completely true. I play two Dungeons & Dragons games a week and act as a dungeon master, too. I frequently inhabit fantasy worlds and write stories that take place within them, but I don’t read fantasy novels. Growing up and attempting the endeavor that is Lord of the Rings, I always found the genre sexist, racist, and overall, well...boring. As an adult, newly interested in tabletop RPG games, I thought maybe I should read some fantasy in order to get in the mindset of the games I loved. I tried some authors recommended to me, but most of it--even YA fantasy, which aims to break the mold of the genre--carried the vestiges of Tolkien.
Stylistically, fantasy has always seemed expansive, pages and pages of descriptions. Part of this is the world-building aspect of the genre. How do you describe a world that doesn’t exist? You explain it until you can’t anymore. But all that detail, delivered in painstaking monologues and narrator asides, wore me out. It’s not fair to say that all fantasy is this way, and I know that, but I’ve never been able to get into it.
I recently committed to read the first book in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I’ve heard people at my local game shop talk about it, saying that it was great, or maybe terrible, or maybe something in between. In my mind, I simply said, “it’s a fantasy series, so I’m not interested.” But then someone I really like said it was a good series, that it was sort of different from other fantasy novels, and--since I trust his opinion on books and because I thought it might be fun to reread it together--I caved. I bought my mass-market paperback of The Eye of the World (TEotW) and started on the journey.
And I couldn’t put it down! I was shocked. Me! Liking a fantasy novel! TEotW doesn’t do most of the things that grind my gears, and it does some good things besides. So here are my top reasons why every non-fantasy fan should take a stab at Robert Jordan.
1. Strong women characters
In TEotW, women have an extreme amount of power and are respected appropriately. The Aes Sedai--people who can tap into the True Power and wield magic-- are all women, and are feared by many common folk because of their abilities. Men CANNOT wield magic in this world. Well, they can, but when they do they go crazy. Yes, women are literally magic in Jordan’s world, and possess the power to change the world and oversee it appropriately.
Frequently in TEotW, characters talk about Tar Valon, where Aes Sedai train and learn how to wield the True Power. To me, this sounds like an all-girls Hogwarts, maybe with a bit more discipline. Okay, it doesn’t sound fun at all, really, and the training seems really hard. BUT, the fact that magic is something specifically in the domain of women is really cool. I’m hoping to see some men wield magic later in the series, at least in some way, because equality is important.
(As a side note, Molly Ostertag’s Witch Boy does a great job of showing what a world where only women wield magic could mean, and what happens when a boy decides he wants to be a witch.)
The women we meet in book one are fantastic. Nynaeve, the Wisdom (essentially healer) of a small village, takes no crap from anyone, and frequently beats people in the head with her trusty walking stick. I like that kind of spirit.
2. Imperfect, but ultimately good protagonists; growing up
The four main characters that emerge in book one aren’t that old, but they’re old enough to know the world depends on their next steps. That being said, they’re still kind of dumb and make mistakes. Rand (a clear “main character” who is kind of bland but very good), Mat (an energetic dumb dumb who I love the most), Perrin (stoic and apparently good with the ladies), and Egwene (a girl who shows promise to be an Aes Sedai one day, sweet and also tough) make mistakes and get in trouble throughout the novel, but they ultimately seem to be on the side of good. As much as I claim to love a good antihero, it’s nice to see young characters who are just really, earnestly good--and good in a grand, world-saving sense. I’ve heard from others that some of the young crew get EXTREMELY MOODY in later novels, which makes me think there will be some Harry Potter level drama ahead. Oh boy.
3. Interesting battles
My least favorite part of fantasy novels are the battles that seem to draw on forever, and Robert Jordan is surprisingly good at reigning that in. Each battle feels harrowing in a good way. These characters are not all powerful gods or coincidentally lucky. They suffer. They face the threat of losing fights. They’re not really good at fighting--yet. There’s room to grow, without the characters starting out perfect, and that is a good thing.
This is a personal love of mine, mostly because I have vivid dreams (and, unfortunately, nightmares). In my life, dreams are a frequent conversation topic for me, and I enjoy trying to decipher what my dreams mean or if my subconscious is trying to tell me something. In the novel, dreams are a way to communicate. The big bad of the series speaks directly to the main trio of boys through their dreams, trying to determine who the “chosen one” is. This is great to me on two levels. First of all, that the bad guy doesn’t know who he’s actually looking for is wonderful and sort of refreshing. He doesn’t have a surefire way to figure out who he wants, but he’ll figure it out eventually I’m sure. It’s also terrifying. You can’t escape from a dream, can’t choose to wake up and do it. Instead, the boys are trapped with the ultimate evil inside their own minds, and that’s a bit of psychological intimidation I’m very interested in.
5. The acknowledgement that prejudices can be overcome
There are several instances in the novel where characters express dislike or prejudice over someone who is different from them--be it an Aes Sedai, who use magic in a rare and powerful way, or Ogiers, who appear monstrous but are actually quite gentle folk. These impressions of others are often rooted in systematic hatred, passed down through generations and deep rooted within society. Sound like anything in the real world? The good thing is that these beliefs can change, for various reasons. Rand, scared of pretty much everything outside the Two Rivers, meets many new types of people, and develops a trusting sort of respect for the feared Aes Sedai. Mat (again, my fave) has a deep hatred of Ogiers, even the kindhearted Loial, and says, well...some pretty nasty things about them. Eventually, he apologizes to Loial and says he was mistaken in his judgement. Though this isn’t a perfect comparison to real-world instances of racism and sexism, it’s refreshing to see characters change, even over the course of one novel, for the better.
I’ve only just read the first novel in the Wheel of Time series, which spans 15 or so LONG novels, but after reading the first one, I have a feeling I’ve never had from a fantasy novel before: the desire to read more.
Let me know what fantasy series you love in the comments!