December 17, 2008

The Best Example You Will Ever Find Of The Phantom Menace Syndrome Apart From The Phantom Menace Itself

I would like to use this space today to heartily recommend that you begin reading The Wheel Of Time series of books, by Robert Jordan. I would like to say that they are among the greatest books, of any genre, that I have ever read. I would like to tell you that if you enjoyed Harry Potter, than you will be even more enamored by this complex fantasy epic.

I came across the first book of the series, The Eye of the World, while I was in high school. I had always loved reading, loved stories, and more than once had tried my hand at writing a novel of my own. But it was after The Eye of the World that I first seriously entertained thoughts of becoming a writer.

So I would like nothing more than to urge you to toss whatever drivel you are reading right now, whether it be Shakespeare, Joyce, or Hemingway (or this blog), and grab a book that is truly compelling.

Unfortunately I cannot. The first four or five books in this series became a part of my life in the same way your favorite cousins from Pennsylvania who you only see twice a year are a part of your life, the same way your winter boots are a part of your life. You wish you could play with them everyday forever, but you always have to say goodbye and wait until next time. That is how it was with these books. I would savor each new volume. After plowing through the first few hundred pages in two nights, I would force myself to slow down, because I knew it would be at least another year before a new one came out. And once I finished, a long slow wait would begin. Each time, when the next volume was released, I would read through the whole series from the beginning so I was fully primed for the latest one.

But gradually, things began to fall apart. Book five was not quite as good as book four. Book six was undeniably sub-par. By book seven, I approached each new book with an increasing sense of hope mixed with dread. Would this book be better than the last, or would it be even worse? By books nine and ten, the experience of reading these stories had become almost tortuous, all the worse because I could not put them down, just like you could never turn away from a loved one suffering from a debilitating disease.

These characters had become a part of my life, and I had no choice but to see them all the way through no matter what the outcome. It was so maddening. What had gone wrong? What had happened to Robert Jordan, the best fantasy writer since Tolkien? What were his editor's thinking. The last two or three books were so bad, they reminded me of my own nascent attempts to write novels in high school and college. It was nonsense. It was preposterous that someone had thought to publish someone's first draft and package it as a finished novel.

As the years went by, the pace of their release slowed down. I read book eleven probably four years ago. That's right, book eleven! Jordan began releasing several prequels in the meantime, none of which I have read. I was only interested in finishing the main series, and hoped that through some miracle the story would be redeemed before the end. At one time, he had been a masterful writer. And I was not alone in this belief. Anyone I ever encountered who had read these books loved them just as enthusiastically. I had never heard a bad word. At least until book six.

I found out today that Robert Jordan died last year. I had been wondering when to expect the next book, and did a google search, and discovered the bad news. He had apparently been suffering from a terminal form of heart disease for some time.

My immediate response was to wonder if this disease could be part of the reason why the series had so tragically deteriorated. I have no answer, and I am not sure it matters. According to his publisher, another author has been commissioned to finish the series, using the notes and manuscript that Jordan left behind. Book twelve was always intended to be the final book.

I hope that the final book will approach the quality of the first several. But even if it does, it cannot repair the damage caused by the second half of the series. And if the final book is a triumph, it will always be bitter sweet for fans of the series, since the series's rejuvenation could only come about after Jordan's death.

So I would like to be able to recommend that you read The Eye of the World, but I cannot. Because once you start, you will not be able to stop. You will become deeply entranced with a whole new world, a rich epic of marvelous adventure and powerful characters. And then you will become disappointed and frustrated as the story declines, to the point that you will probably wish you never started in the first place.

What a tragedy.

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