This article is sponsored by Tor Books. The opinions reflect those of the writer.
As readers are preparing to dig into fantasy epic The Wheel of Time all over again with Amazon Prime’s forthcoming television adaptation, they’re also given the treat of experiencing a “new” Robert Jordan book.
After forty years of sitting on the shelf, Warrior of the Altaii, Robert Jordan’s first novel, is finally being released. While it very much has the flavor of a late-1970s fantasy, it’s a really good fantasy novel from that era. And, as a bonus for Wheel of Time readers, there are plenty of seeds they can detect in this early work that grew into something more fully-fledged in Jordan’s most famous series.
“The early hints of his major themes from The Wheel of Time—I think [readers] can’t help but pick up on them,” Jordan’s editor and wife, Harriet McDougal, told Den of Geek in an interview. “He was working on the relations between men and women—a constant interest of his, how relationships work.”
Tor founder and publisher Tom Doherty felt similarly. “There’s so much foreshadowing of what he would eventually put in The Wheel of Time,” Doherty told Den of Geek. Doherty bought Warrior of the Altaii before he founded the speculative fiction publisher. However, Jordan wanted to finish some other works—including The Wheel of Time—before returning to the manuscript. “I think when [people] read it, they will say, ‘Oh, wow, this was the foundation.’ I think they’ll get pleasure out of making the connections.”
What is Warrior of the Altaii about?
For readers familiar with Jordan’s The Conan Chronicles novels, reading Warrior of the Altaii will make it clear why McDougal originally thought Jordan would be excellent at writing for that franchise. Told in the first person, Warrior of the Altaii is the story of Wulfgar, a lord of the horse warriors of the Plain, a near-wasteland where every day is a struggle to survive.
The Altaii people live in small, nomadic groups, and violence is a very real, ongoing part of their existence. They thrive on raiding caravans, frequently selling both the goods and the merchants to buyers who turn a blind eye to the fact that they may be purchasing their competitors.
But life for the Altaii is changing. The beasts of the Plain are getting fiercer; caravans are becoming fewer and farther between, and the water holes are less prevalent. In one case, another group of nomads, the Morassa, seems to have poisoned one of the water holes, damaging the future for all who must survive on the Plain. Wulfgar has no desire for his people to change, but the threat that the Morassa, the “civilized” people of Lanta, and the mysterious and magical Most High may have plotted together to eliminate the Altaii all together means that Wulfar must lead his people to a war—or face their extinction.
There are a lot of familiar elements here—the horse-warrior culture is likely based on the nomadic tribes united by Genghis Khan (who founded the largest contiguous empire in history), which in turn may have served as an inspiration for the Dothraki in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. The hero is captured by one of the twin goddess-empresses of Lanta, a twisted Dragon Lady who tries to tame Wulfgar into a pet; those tropes have shown up in many fantasy novels, both of that era and beyond. The battle sequences are worthy of the Peter Jackson treatment: sprawling combats where the noble barbarians face off against the shield walls of the Lantan infantry.
There are also some elements that modern readers may find dated. As Doherty acknowledged, “It will be a problem with some people. It wasn’t a problem in those days—the attitudes were just somewhat different.”
For example, the slave trade is mentioned in a matter-of-fact way; people taken in a raid or found alone in the desert are made into slaves, regardless of their heritage or gender (though the novel primarily features female slaves).
There is also a degree of sexually-based torture that would have felt different to audiences in the 1970s—but may also remind savvy Wheel of Time readers of a slim scene from Lord of Chaos, where the Forsaken Semirhage, who is truly evil and one of the most frightening of the Forsaken, conducts similar torture on a Warder. The version in Wheel of Time is more palatable because of the clarity with which Jordan showed good and evil in the scene, rather than the more ambiguous morality of all the characters in Warrior. It’s fascinating to see his progress as a writer in this way.
But Warrior of the Altaii also surpasses many of the early genre expectations. There are unique hints of a post-apocalypse in a genre mash-up that introduces time-traveling Wanderers, including history scholar Elspeth, whose understanding of the way societies grow and change is vital for the survival of the Altaii.
The mysterious Most High also have a backstory more appropriate for dystopian science fiction than a sword and sorcery novel. Loose threads that remain unresolved at the end of the novel (which does stand as a whole) may leave readers wondering where Jordan might have taken those threads had this been the series he developed further, rather than The Wheel of Time.
Connections to The Wheel of Time
There are also plenty of reflections Wheel of Time readers will notice, the most obvious being the naming convention of the mountain range: Wulfgar’s Backbone of the World becomes, in The Wheel of Time, the Spine of the World. The Plain where the Altaii live resembles the deserts of the Aiel people. And the themes of gender division—and what happens as those gender roles are crossed—continued to play out throughout Jordan’s work.
In Warrior of the Altaii, the Sisters of Wisdom feel very much like the precursors of the Aes Sedai. The Sisters among the Altaii know the Sisters working for the Lantans. They discuss the consequences of what happens when a Sister has turned to evil. Wulfgar, who serves as the center of several rituals, becomes changed due to his contact with magic—something that other men have not experienced. That he is central to not only the events of the novel, but to the shape the world will take in the future, is reminiscent of the concept of Ta’veren.
Readers are likely to spot many more similarities, and they may not all spot the same things. As Doherty noted, each reader will bring with them what they remembered from The Wheel of Time, and so will find different aspects in Warrior of the Altaii that resonate.
“It’s a very enriching experience to read this and see where he was all those years before he started The Wheel of Time,” McDougal said. She also expressed her hopes for the novel: “It’s lovely to see people getting interested in and enchanted by Robert Jordan all over again. I hope that this brings new readers, who have a great deal of pleasure before them.”
She also expressed her excitement for The Wheel of Time Amazon Prime series, on which she serves as the consulting producer, and how eager she is to see the story adapted to film after all her years working on the story. “I think of these characters as my children,” she confessed. “It’s amazing.”
Of course, she couldn’t reveal much about the production, which is being kept under wraps. “I will say I went to Prague earlier this month,” she told us in November, “where they are shooting, doing the principle photography. It all looks perfectly wonderful.”
As readers wait for the series to come to television, they can pick up Warrior of the Altaii. This previously-shelved original work of Jordan’s will certainly serve as a window into his later works—as well as serve to deepen Jordan’s legacy.
Warrior of the Altaii is now available to purchase wherever books are sold.