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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.