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Robert Jordan was a wonderful writer, capable of narrating events with a charming, almost fatherly, narrative the keeps the reader deeply engaged over the course of an 800-page book. More accurately, his writing is engaging over the course of eight 800-page books, some of them even a thousand pages long or more. It takes a wonderful writer to accomplish that.
Perhaps even more amazing than that feat, however, is what Jordan managed to accomplish with his depiction of the Aiel culture in his Wheel of Time series. In the Aiel, Jordan invented a whole human culture, with its own norms, legends, beliefs, sense of humor, and society. Jordan writes about the Aiel better than an anthropologist could write about a real human culture. It's hard to believe that the Aiel are all made-up.
I wanted to begin with some praise for Jordan before I launched into my review of Crown of Swords, because this novel is, ultimately, a thorough disappointment.
It's difficult to say so, because the novel itself is extremely well-written and keeps the reader turning page after page. While some of the previous books in the Wheel of Time series may have been slow at times, Crown of Swords does not have that particular problem, per se.
In fact, there are aspects of the book that are quite good. In particular, it's nice that some of the angrier characters from previous novels have managed to calm the hell down. It's nice that a couple of the love stories in the series got to make major headway in this novel, all the while avoiding the saccharine sweetness that could easily have arisen in such circumstances. And where there is action in the book, that action is intense and satisfying. Page-by-page, Crown of Swords is a fun book to read.
The problem is that, when you're done and thinking about the novel in hindsight, you realize that not much really happens in the plot of the story over the course of 800 pages. It is, quite frankly, 800 pages of nothing.
Ostensibly, the novel follows a couple of minor story arcs from previous novels: the search for the Bowl of Winds, the military strategy against Sammael at Illian, and the relationship between Rand and Min. All of these storylines are worth telling, of course, but none of them are long enough or important enough to warrant a full 800 pages. Everything that happens in Crown of Swords could have been condensed to 200 pages and added to one of the other novels in the series instead. There just simply isn't a lot of meat here.
There was one scene in the novel worth mentioning in a review because of how disturbing it was. Although the scene is by no means graphic, one of the male characters in the book is quite plainly raped by a female character. Incomprehensibly, this rape is played as comic relief in later chapters of the book, as many female characters learn of the rape and tease and laugh at the male character for this. The impression that the reader is given is that the event is funny. It's not funny, though, and having a rape depicted lightly or comically made me very uncomfortable, and frankly confused about the purpose served in the book.
Beyond that, I have hardly anything to review about the book. The prose is well-crafted, but as a novel it's like reading the middle chapters of some other book. Even the final chapters of the book, which are typically high points in Robert Jordan novels, are anti-climactic and left off ambiguously. Having finished the novel, I don't feel as though I've just finished a novel.
I don't want to feel that way, but that's how Crown of Swords made me feel.