The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1) by Robert Jordan
I've been vaguely aware of the Wheel of Time series for a while but had various reasons for holding off on beginning the series. At one point I was confusing them with A Wrinkle in Time, I had heard that it dragged in the middle, and I knew the series was over 12 books so far, all over 600 pages - it seemed like a bit more of a commitment than I was ready to make. However, a friend of mine over here recently received the latest in the series, and raved about the co-author of the last few in the series (Robert Jordan died, and Sanderson is finishing up the novels based on his outlines), so I decided to give the first one a shot - I didn't have to read the rest after all.
As a first novel in a series, it has a few similarities to much other popular fantasy: it tells the story of the hero's journey or quest, the reason a simple farm boy left his village behind. Actually, the novel begins with a prologue were a man is running through his home looking for his wife, surrounded by his dead relatives. An old enemy of his shows up and the man realizes he has gone mad, and killed his entire family. In his grief, he entombs himself in a mountain. As the book later shows, this man was the Dragon, a man that fought against the Dark One. From here, the novel transitions to three thousand years later to Rand al'Thor and his father who are enroute to their village for the springtime festival, even though the winter has been long and harsh and hasn't cleared. There are strange guests in the village, a woman and a man, a peddlar is there, and the village is expecting a gleeman - all things to make for an exciting festival. However, the village is attacked by Trollocs, the things of fairy tales even for these people, and the woman, Moiraine, turns out to be an Aes Sedai who can yield the One Power. Her efforts help save the village, and she convinces three boys (young men) that they were the target of the attack and the only way to save the village is to leave. These are Rand, Perrin and Mat. However, their escape doesn't go as smoothly or unnoticed as planned, and Egwene, one of the women of the village and Rand's girlfriend of sorts, follows along while the gleeman Thom also joins their party. Later, Nynaeve, the village's Wisdom (healer among other things) finds them as well to bring them back.
When they first leave, the goal is to get to Tar Valon, the city of the Aes Sedai for protection. However, there are several chases and adventures on the way, and the group gets separated. For the most part, the novel is from Rand's perspective but after they get separated there are a few scenes from Perrin's perspective. Eventually, the group finds each other again, and based on information they have found, they decide to head north in search of the Eye of the World.
While this is only the first in the series, Jordan packs in a lot of information about the different kingdoms and lives of the different people. Sometimes, he repeats himself (he has mentioned in every single novel, at least once, that certain tunes have different songs and words in different places), but for the most part he has developed a very rich world with several different cultures: there are the Tinkerers, a peaceful, gypsy-like people as well as the Two Rivers folk, and then the tough men in the North. He also portrays several different cities, and hints at the history of these societies. However, there was a part of me that wondered why we spent so much time on the quest, and this was the part of me that was thinking, "over 12 more books." However, while George R.R. Martin remains my favorite fantasy author, this series definitely combines the best of all worlds: it has political intrigue, and a large cast of characters like Martin, but also deals more with the fantasy elements such as the One Power and Trollocs like Tolkien. The politics aren't necessarily as obvious in this first novel, but especially as the series progresses, it becomes just as much about the game of thrones/houses as it is about fantastical elements.