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The fifth book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the slowest-paced book of any in the series thus far. There is a lot to enjoy about the book, of course, but there is an unfortunately large amount not to enjoy, as well.
For starters, at least 200 of the nearly 1,000 pages in the book are dedicated to recapping elements from previous installments. It must be a catch-22 for any writer of successful book series, deciding how much backstory from previous books is enough to remind readers of the present book what has happened before. Still, it is excessive in "The Fires of Heaven," and very costly to the flow of the novel. No one who picks up book #5 in a 14-book series requires all that background information; we already have it.
A second weakness is that the book's primary plotlines follow the series' worst character, Nynaeve, a cantankerous, mean, arrogant, and all-around unpleasant woman. I respect that Jordan was capable of making such a detestable character, but given that she is supposed to be protagonist, it is frankly unpleasant to have to wade so deeply into her part of the story. Much better to have relegated her to more of a supporting role...
Which brings me to another strong weakness in the book: Some of the most appealing characters in the story were misused here. Namely, Thom Merrilan, whose place in the series is intriguing and interesting. He is a man that killed a Myrdraal with a dagger in one of the earlier books, all by himself, an extremely intelligent and capable man who plays a key part in several other characters' lives. And yet, in "The Fires of Heaven," his character is mostly played for comic relief. It's so disappointing to watch a very likeable and respectable character play the patsy in a 1,000-page novel, especially when he's playing the patsy to the detestable Nynaeve.
Finally, the book is far more slow-paced than previous novels in the series. At times, Jordan spent ten to twenty pages describing minor events that were not relevant to the plot. It makes no sense to spill ink over ten pages to, for example, describe that two characters are having difficulty finding an opportunity to have a conversation with each other.
One wonders, too, what the title of the book means. There is no reference to "heaven" or "the sky" anywhere in the novel, although there is plenty of fire throughout. But "The Fires of Heaven" does not refer to anything in particular about the novel.
As usual, Jordan packs a lot of action into the last 100-200 pages of the book, proving that he can keep the reader on the edge of his seat, but also leaving me to wonder why the rest of the novel was so slow. He also packs many quotable quotes into the story; two characters, in fact, seem to exist merely to cast such pearls to the other characters, and that's a lot of fun. His descriptions are as strong as ever, so even while the novel is paced slowly, it's well-written, to be sure. There is no escaping, however, that the novel could have been 300-400 pages shorter than it was without costing the story anything.
Five books into the series, Robert Jordan's philosophical messages are finally starting to play out in the series. What "saidar" and "saidin" actually represent -- including the "taint on saidin" -- is becoming more obvious, and it nice to explore what Jordan has to say about the relationship between men and women. Even so, his depiction of female characters has always been a little flat, and in "The Fires of Heaven," they occasionally border on the downright silly. Nearly every female character is psychologically manipulative, catty, passive-aggressive, secretive, conniving, and has a crush on some other male character. If one wanted to make a case for women's empowerment, as Jordan appears to want to do throughout the Wheel of Time series, one certainly can't do that while painting all women with more or less the same brush.
So, while there is plenty of action -- especially that action that separately follows Rand, Mat, and Morgase -- the slow pace of the novel and its cartoonish treatment of its female characters are major detractors to what should actually be a really good book.
What's good about the novel is in fact great, so I can't rate it lower than three stars. I just hope subsequent books in the series prove to be a little better.
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Book four in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, The Shadow Rising is perhaps the best of the series up to that point. There are a few reasons I say so.
First, in contrast to the conflicts in the earlier novels are "man versus self" conflicts, in which the young novice characters are wracked by self-doubt and self-denial, the conflicts in The Shadow Rising are pure action. Finally, most of the main characters have grown self-assured enough to act as heroes, even if they don't consider themselves heroes. This is a much more entertaining kind of plot, in my opinion, because there's only so much brooding and bumbling a reader can handle before going crazy. Would you rather read about a guy who's too scared to do the right thing, or a guy who does the right thing despite his fears? The latter, right? And so it is for The Shadow Rising.
Second, I am a sucker for a great love story, and The Shadow Rising has it in spades, although perhaps not where the reader most expects it. The love story between Perrin and Faile teeters on the edge of young-adult-literature type schmaltz at times, but by the end of the book, their story has it on all the important parts of a great love story without really over-doing anything. Furthermore, the characters are likable enough that we're cheering for them rather than against them, which is quite different from some of the other romantic arcs in the series.
Third, and further to the above point, the book spends a lot of time on my favorite character, Perrin, whose quiet, humble, deliberate, and definitively ethical behavior is a bright spot among a long line of characters whose vices advance the plot as much as or more than their virtues. Perrin is an easy character to cheer for, a thrilling character to watch when he's at his best. While many other characters in the series have changed for the worse over time, Perrin's core character hardly has, and where it has, only for the better. He's become more self-confident, more capable within what powers and abilities he has, and still as honest and kind as ever. Who wouldn't want to read more about a character like that?
And even beyond those strengths, the other storylines are told beautifully as well. Rand's adventures with the Aiel are fascinating, owing largely to Jordan's remarkable ability to have invented an entire human culture -- the Aiel -- for the reader to explore. It's a culture with a rich history, mythology, set of cultural norms, music, fashion, sense of humor… If a writer were to have written so completely about an existing, real-world culture, it would be truly impressive. But when you stop to think that Jordan thought this whole stuff up out of thin air, the genius of it really takes hold.
It's not a perfect book, though. I've actually grown to despise Nynaeve, one of the series' main characters. It's simply not fun to read those parts of the book because she is such a detestable character. There are also elements to the plot that seem to be less cohesive with the overall Wheel of Time universe, namely a few of the "Forsaken" characters, about whom we know nothing until they suddenly appear to do battle with the main characters from time to time. Their presence in the book feels a little disjointed, considering how cohesive the rest of the "universe" is, almost leaning toward deus ex machina levels of plot interaction.
All in all, though, it's a great book, and highly recommended.