Pseudonym of US writer James Oliver Rigney Jr (1948-2007), a decorated soldier (for service in Vietnam) with a degree in physics; he writes dance reviews as Chang Lung and has written as Reagan O'Neal and Jackson O'Reilly. Apart from some Conan sharecrops set in the world created by Robert E Howard (> Sequels by Other Hands), RJ's fiction is restricted to the Wheel of Time sequence, only superficially a Genre Fantasy little out of the routine save for its already considerable length. To date the sequence occupies seven large volumes – The Eye of the World (1990), The Great Hunt (1990), The Dragon Reborn (1991), The Shadow Rising (1992), The Fires of Heaven (1993), Lord of Chaos (1994) and A Crown of Swords (1996) – with at least three more volumes projected.
The back-story structuring the sequence, which is dominant and coherently presented, works as an effective Time Abyss, in terms of which the protagonists act out (and come to understand) their destinies, a process which extends over thousands of pages. Millennia before the tale begins, humans had won, at great cost, a vast war against a Dark Lord: in the wake of this conflict, all male power-wielders have been cursed or "tainted" so that any man who attempts to use Magic afterwards will go insane. Only women, who operate a complementary form of magic, are immune. But both magics are necessary if Balance is to be maintained, and this unbalanced, precarious world – as the narrative begins – is clearly vulnerable to the risk that the Dark One, in Bondage all this while as a Malign Sleeper, may re-emerge.
The Wheel of Time is built from conventional genre fantasy sequences, but these sequences are assembled with notable architectonic skill into an Epic Fantasy whose momentum (despite longueurs) is very considerable. At the very start, three male and two female Ugly Duckling or Brave Little Tailor peasant principals are conscripted by those aware that they will be crucial in the forthcoming struggle with the Dark One, who is apparently soon to break free from his long bondage. The central Hero, Rand, turns out to be the Avatar of the man who had originally immured the Dark One; he is always therefore at the edge of becoming insane, and much of the suspense of the sequence is generated through his acting out of the combined roles of Messiah and Accursed Wanderer. He, his village friends and various other Companions – there are seven in all, and they constitute a literal as well as operational Seven Samurai grouping – all acquire additional powers and prowess as they advance through a combination of apprenticeships and Night Journeys; become major players in the politics of contending kingdoms (one of them is a Hidden Monarch); and gradually eliminate one after another of the Forsaken, evil human henchmen of the Dark One, originally imprisoned with him but already free.
The plotting is dominated by a Secondary-World equivalent of the Fantasy of History. The Aes Sedai order of warrior-Witch nuns, at once a Pariah Elite and Secret Guardians, have manipulated history for 3000 years and are opposed by crusader-witchfinders, the Children of Light, whose Religion regards all magic as evil. Also of note are the warrior people from beyond the mountain, the Aiel, paradoxically determined to expiate in military prowess the shame of abandoning their original pacifism; and the Seanchan, invaders from a colony of those driven from the major landmass in a civil war and seeking revenge. Many of these orders and races are derived from various sources; RJ draws material with particular frequency from Celtic Fantasy, and from the Arthur cycle in particular. When complete, the sequence will almost certainly constitute one of the major epic narratives of modern fantasy.
RJ's faults are obvious. He is not a careful writer ("Egwene's stomach sank into her feet" – The Fires of Heaven), and he clearly writes long rather than short. At times, his characters seem to be endlessly in transit from one Plot Coupon to the next, in constantly (but not germanely) changing combinations of Plot Devices. And his sense of moralized Landscape rarely transcends the commonplace.
But the Wheel of Time conveys, as a whole, a surprising emotional charge. This may stem in part from RJ's repeated plumbing of the relationship between humiliation and hierarchy, a scrutiny which is appropriate when applied to a nostalgic and conservative genre like fantasy, and which seems over-worked only when he deals with the internal discipline of the Aes Sedai, who are oddly fond of corporal punishment. Furthermore, a sense of an intelligent creative enterprise is sustained throughout the sequence, most notably perhaps in the ingenuity with which standard plot devices, backgrounds and characters are subjected to constant and sophisticated modification; and in the overall sense RJ gives that he is in full control of his enormous narrative structure. Later volumes of the sequence, though they remain stylistically awkward at times, increasingly demonstrate the pleasures to be derived from RJ's mastery of long-breathed storytelling. [RK/JC]
other works: the Conan sequence: Conan the Invincible * (1982), Conan the Defender * (1982) and Conan the Unconquered * (1983), all three assembled as The Conan Chronicles * (omni 1995); Conan the Triumphant * (1983); Conan the Destroyer * (1984); Conan the Magnificent * (1984); Conan the Victorious * (1984).
James Oliver Rigney Jr