Part I can be found here.
The Shadow Rising (3.5 stars)
At the end of The Dragon Reborn, Rand took the sword Callandor from the Stone of Tear (thus continuing the allusions to King Arthur), which further cemented his place within the prophecies as the Dragon Reborn. And that’s where we pick up here, in The Shadow Rising. Rand’s become obsessed with the Prophecies of the Dragon, and is torn between Moiraine trying to push him in certain directions, nobles pulling him in other directions, and Lanfear trying to sway Rand to her agenda. Rand wants to do the unexpected.
So he does. He decides to go to the Aiel Waste. Egwene, Mat, and Moiraine go with him. Elayne and Nynaeve decide to chase the Black Ajah to Tanchico, and Perrin goes back home to the Two Rivers after learning that the Whitecloaks are there, looking for him. In the Aiel Waste, Egwene learns from the Wise Ones how to harness her abilities in Tel’aran’rhiod (the world of dreams), while Rand learns how to fight the Aiel way. He also learns more about the Aiel (since he is one), and struggles to convince all of the clans that he is really He Who Comes with the Dawn (the Aiel version of the Dragon Reborn). There’s a power struggle between Rand and an Aiel named Couladin, and Rand ultimately reveals the big secret he learned about the origin of the Aiel: that they used to follow the Way of the Leaf. Meaning they were pacifists. This utterly destroys their world, because they are now a very war-like culture. This revelation is so shocking to them, that many are driven mad. The Shaido, under Couladin, break completely from Rand, and about half the clans stand apart from both Rand and Couladin.
Perrin and Fail discover that Whitecloaks have been terrorizing The Two Rivers. They form a rebellion and – after a massive battle against Trollocs and Myrdraal – end up kicking the Whitecloaks out. They also get married. Elayne and Nynaeve find the Black Ajah, led by the Forsaken Moghedian, but aren’t able to capture them. They also meet Egeanin (the Seanchan captain we’ve encountered before), and “befriend” her. Nynaeve finds a male a’dam, and tasks Bayle Doman to drop it into the deepest part of the ocean.
Siuan Sanche, the Amyrlin in Tar Valon, is overthrown by Elaida* and the Red Ajah (and, also, the Black Ajah), and is also stilled. She, along with her Keeper Leane, and Min flee Tar Valon. They encounter Logain, the gentled False Dragon.
At the end, Rand fights Asmodean – who had been hiding as a gleeman amongst peddlers trailing Rand. They destroy most of Rhuidean, but Rand is victorious. With Lanfear’s help, Rand is able to capture Asmodean and use him to train him in how to safely use the One Power.
*Elaida, Elayne, Egwene, Egeanin, Elyas…..there are way too many names that look the same. This is a problem when almost all the names are purely inventions of Robert Jordan.
**End of spoilers**
This is the fourth book in the series, and the paperback tops the scales at 1,000 pages (roughly 400,000 words). This book, alone, is about the same length as the entire The Lord of the Rings. My above synopsis doesn’t leave out anything significant, really. There are a lot of character interactions, history, and descriptions of cities, cultures, clothing and other miscellany – but I’ve covered the main plot points.
I feel like we could easily lose a third of this book and not lose anything. And if we lost half of it, I feel like it would’ve bean a really taught novel. I mean, you could put all of that into 500 pages and still have plenty of room to breath.
Maybe there’d be less of Egwene talking about how stubborn Rand is. Or less of Mat talking about little he wants to be involved in all of this. Or less of Rand talking about how so many women are chasing him – except Min. She doesn’t see him that way. Why can’t he stop thinking about her?
(I’m rolling my eyes right now.)
And Faile. Fucking Faile. She may be the worst character I’ve ever had the misfortune of encountering. Not because she’s innately monstrous – but because I think she’s meant to be likable. She’s the love interest of one of the central characters in the book – and isn’t specifically bad or evil. She’s just so terribly written and utterly insufferable. Early in the book, when Perrin decides to go back to the Two Rivers, he makes Faile think he doesn’t like her and is instead involved with another woman. He’s doing something men frequently do in these books: he makes the hard and noble decision of depriving himself of something he wants because women need to be protected from danger. Naturally, this upsets Faile. So she tricks Loial into letting her come along with them (Perrin needs Loial to make the journey), and she is absolutely mean to him the entire way. Like, to an irrational degree. She’s emotionally abusive. She’s so insufferable that I lost all sympathy for her.
And then Perrin marries her.
God, I hate the infighting between the characters. They don’t ever seem to be having fun or enjoying one another’s company. One must wonder, at times, why they’re together at all. All the female characters seem to do is bicker and complain about the insufferability of men. All the male characters seem to do is express confusion at the women. Over and over and over. It’s so incredibly perplexing. I don’t understand why his characters are like this.
The story itself is pretty good. I mean, it’s not the most mature or complex of plots – but the basic plot outline is interesting. And the world he’s created is engaging (if, again, not particularly complex or deep). But Robert Jordan just has these terrible tropes that he falls back on time and time again. Every time I start to get pulled into these books, Elayne thinks to herself out irrational men are. Or Rand thinks about how impossible it is to understand women. Or Egwene is criticizing Rand for being a stubborn fool.
Have you ever been around someone who is always complaining, or never has anything nice to say about people? It makes it really hard to like them. That’s how it is with these characters. Every time Elayne thinks about how nicely turned Rand’s cavs are, she follows it up with how wool-headed he is.
And every. Single. Character. has a love interest.
Rand and Min/Elayne/Aviendha
Perrin and Faile
Mat and the Daughter of the Nine Moons (who he hasn’t met yet, but we have – even if we don’t yet know it)
Egwene and Gawyn
Nynaeve and Lan
Moiraine and Thom
And we aren’t done. There are more coming. These are all characters that aren’t together when we meet them – they all fall in love (magically, upon first meeting) throughout these books. It’s exhausting. Reading these books is like watching a soap opera – everyone is always falling in love with someone, or torn over their inability to be with someone, or fighting with that someone….
It’s also like a soap opera in that everything is repeated ad nauseum. When I was a freshman in college, my girlfriend and her roommate watched Passions, a soap opera. So, by association, I did as well. And though I found much about the show to be interesting – the endless repetition of plot points for the distracted housewife (it’s still 1950, right?) drove me insane. I feel, reading these books, a similar slow unwinding of reality. Like, you don’t need to tell me over and over again that Mat doesn’t want anything to do with Aes Sedai, or ta’veren’, or the Dragon Reborn. I get it. I’m not reading this book while I’m taking care of children, or cleaning the house. I have a pause button, and a bookmark.
The Fires of Heaven (3 stars)
There’s a….principle, I guess, in literature known as Chekhov’s Gun. It states, in short, that if you’re going to introduce an element (like a gun) into a story, it must be consequential at some point.
Not everyone holds to this (Hemingway, famously, mocked it), and I think it’s fair to say that sometimes it’s reasonable to introduce things that don’t end up paying off in the end. But so much of these books is pure fluff. Entire swaths of this text is twaddle that doesn’t further the story, and can only be described as texture by someone looking to paint these books with the most favorable brush possible.
Let me quote you a passage:
Elayne held herself against the swaying of the coach on its leather hinges, trying to ignore Nynaeve’s sour face across from her. The curtains were drawn back despite a sprinkling of dust that sometimes whipped through the windows; the breeze blew away some of the late-afternoon heat. Rolling, forested hills streamed past, the woods occasionally broken by short stretches of farmland. A lord’s manor, in the fashion of Amadicia, topped one of the hills a few miles from the road, a huge stone foundation fifty feet high with an elaborate wooden structure atop that, all ornate balconies and red-tiled roofs. Once it all would have been stone, but many years had passed since a lord needed a fortress in Amadicia, and the king’s law now required the wooden construction. No rebel lord would be able to hold out against the king ofr long. Of course, the Children of the Light were exempted from the law, they were immune to a number of Amadician laws. She had had to learn something of the laws and customs of other countries from the time she was a child.
That’s from Chapter 13, page 254 of my paperback copy. I just picked that page at random. Nothing of relevance happens in this chapter. You can skip the entire chapter and not miss out on anything important. There’s literally no reason any of this was written. Why in the fuck are we reading about Amadician building codes?
You get the feeling that this is all going somewhere. There are slow currents churning out there, and they’re ever so gradually starting to come together. But, clearly, Robert Jordan has no intention of getting there soon. Characters are strewn across the globe, and things are introduced (the Seanchan) and then forgotten about (temporarily, at least). Rand sacked the Stone of Tear and grabbed the equivalent of Excalibur….only to travel halfway across the globe and spend 1,000 pages in the desert. The Forsaken are out there doing things, but don’t really seem that interested in stopping the Dragon Reborn from fulfilling prophecies or preparing for the final battle. I keep wondering why the Forsaken haven’t gathered a giant army of Trollocs and Myrdraal, opened gateways to where Rand is, and attacked him with overwhelming force before he was able to figure out how to channel enough to defeat them. They’ve had more than enough opportunity.
Full spoilers follow:
This book picks up in Rhuidean, where The Shadow Rising left off. There’s a massive cache of ter’angreal that Moiraine wants to take to Tar Valon. Egwene is still studying with the Wise Ones, and Rand is trying to learn how to channel from Asmodean (who isn’t a good teacher). Rand gets word that Couladin is headed towards Cairhien. Most of Rand’s story in this book is him chasing Couladin across Cairhien. Moiraine is so desperate to get Rand to listen to her that she swears fealty to him, which shocks everyone (including Rand).
Nynaeve and Elayne are trying to return to Tar Valon, but get waylaid by some Yellow Ajah spies who were told to be on the lookout for them. They are able to escape, but run into Galad (who is now a Whitecloak). They then hide among a traveling circus.
A fucking circus. We spend chapters (plural) with Nynaeve and Elayne living among circus folk. Nothing is really happening. They’re just in a circus. Doing circus-y things. The entirety of their storyline is broken up into traveling and hiding (and none of this matters) and them being in Tel’aran’rhiod.
In a fight in Tel’aran’rhiod, Nynaeve and Moghedien get into a fight. Birgitte, a hero of legend, gets pushed into the real world by Moghedien, and nearly dies. So we get yet another character added to this story. Because that’s what’s lacking.
I remember her being a character – but I don’t remember much about her. Gee, I wonder who her love interest is going to be. Because everyone gets a love interest. I can’t wait to find out (he says dryly).
Anyway. Nothing really happens in the Nynaeve/Elayne storyline. They’re trying to get back to Tar Valon after their fight with the Black Ajah in the last book. Eventually, they run into Siuan and Leane in Salidar – where they’ve found a bunch of Aes Sedai (mostly Blues) who’ve escaped from Tar Valon following Elaida’s coup. They organize a second tower. Siuan also gets connected to Garth Bryne, formerly general to Morgase in Caemlyn.
Rand and his Aiel army eventually meet up with Couladin outside the walls of Cairhien. They battle, and Couladin is summarily defeated and killed by Mat. Thousands of Shaido flee, however. Rand is offered the throne of Cairhien, but turns it down. The nobility swear fealty to him. He now has the Aiel, Tear, Cairhien under his banner.
Meanwhile, in Caemlyn, Queen Morgase (mother of Elayne) breaks free from the control of Rahvin, one of the Forsaken. Eventually, word gets out that she is dead – which leads to Rand vowing revenge and attempting to overthrow him. As Rand and Co. are preparing to go to Caemlyn, Lanfear shows up – angry that Rand and Aviendha have gotten close (they slept together in a scene that I always thought was pretty cool). She attacks them, but Moiraine steps in. She and Lanfear end up falling into the same ter’angreal where Mat got his Raven-marked spear, and it then proceeds to melt. Lan’s bond to Moiraine is broken, and Rand assumes that they’ve both died. Rand then travels to Caemlyn, and Aviendha, Mat, and Asmodean are all killed in the attack. Rand and Rahvin take the fight to Tel’aran’rhiod.
Nynaeve has also been fighting in Tel’aran’rhiod – Moghedien again. This time, Nynaeve wins and gets a damane leash on her. Moghedien, trying to save her own life, tells Nynaeve that Rand is walking into a trap.
So Nynaeve and Rand end up fighting Rahvin, and Rand kills him with balefire so powerful it erases time to the point that Aviendha, Mat, and Asmodean are still alive (that’s what balefire does).
The book ends with Asmodean mysteriously being killed (for real, this time), Rand declaring amnesty for all men who can channel, and the Saldean lord Davram Bashere (Faile’s father) coming to Caemlyn to offer his loyalty to Rand.
All in all, I think the plot moves a bit further in The Fires of Heaven than it did in The Shadow Rising. Other than Elayne/Nynaeve chapters, stuff was happening. But I pretty much dislike all the characters. Not necessarily for the characters themselves, but because of the interactions between them.
A big part of that, which I haven’t really talked about, is the lack of agency these characters have. Rand (especially), Mat, and Perrin are all what is known as “ta’veren”. They have a tendency to influence the pattern around them – to tweak reality in odd ways. So, for instance, Matt and Perrin are constantly being drawn towards Rand, which makes it really hard for Mat to get away from Rand like he wants to. He keeps getting drawn back into Rand’s gravitational well. Matt’s lucky, so things tend to fall in his favor. Perrin…can talk to wolves? I don’t know. Perrin is just kind of there in these books, he doesn’t really seem to offer very much.
Prophecy plays a huge role in these books, and the characters are sometimes driven by prophecy to seek out certain things. Min (one of the most likable characters in the entire series, for me) can read people’s auras, and see some of their future, so she’s always taking readings of characters. She’s long known that Elayne was going to have to “share” Rand with another woman. And I put quotes around that because there’s an emphasis on the sharing that seems to come with it. Given the sexual dynamics in these books, characters see themselves as being “owned” by someone. Aviendha emphasizes over and over that Rand “belongs” to Elayne, that she “owns” him. Nynaeve has similar thoughts about Lan. People aren’t partners in this world, there is a constant war of control and ownership between men and women. Rand doens’t want to be “controlled” by anyone, he is no one’s “puppet”.
So it’s very unsettling to me, this dynamic of property and ownership paired with the power struggle between men and women all within the framework of a world where characters often don’t get to choose their path, and are even actively prevented from doing what they want. Elayne and Rand love each other, but we don’t really see them falling in love with one another. They meet, feel a spark, and then they fumble through some nervous and awkward interactions with each other before hiding in dark corners with one another. That was two books ago, and they’re still thinking to themselves how much they love the other person. Now Rand is thrown together with Aviendha, who by all outward appearance clearly loathes him, and we are meant to understood that they now love each other, too. Min, the third leg of this wobbly table, and Rand’s connection is even more tenuous.
But they (Min, Elayne, and Aviendha) all have to “share” Rand. Because reasons.
This doesn’t feel like a novel depiction of a polyamorous relationship, to me. I feel like we’re supposed to see Rand is a god among men, so great and powerful (and hard, because that’s all he really seems to focus on) that all the women throw themselves at his feet. Only they aren’t worshiping him, because women are all domineering and bossy.
I found this great article written by Lezi Nerdy called Gender Essentialism in The Wheel of Time that really laid all of this out far more clearly and organized than I can manage right now, and she really touches on something I hadn’t previously considered: the male-female dichotomy may have been accentuated so much to show how broken this world is, and that this all could’ve been a path by which Jordan could’ve shown that these characters were wrong, and that the world didn’t have to be this way. In the final analysis, that isn’t what appears to have been the case (which doesn’t seem surprising, to me, given that these books don’t really display a progressive mindset), but I think it’s still a great way to look at these books.
Maybe it’ll help me muddle through the next (gulp) 6 books until I get to Brandon Sanderson.
My review of the first three books in this series ran 3,700 words. This review is coming up on 3,300 words. Looks like Robert Jordan isn’t the only guy in need of a strong editor. So, I guess I’ll stop here.