Welcome back to the Brown Variety Hour! This is my first review posted on the site. While I intend to make good on my promise to have a variety of writing, reviews will be a bit of a staple, as I will (hopefully) always be reading a book. I'll be posting my reviews both here and on my Goodreads account. My reviews will generally contain spoilers; if I think I spoil something particularly big, I'll have an additional warning
Read from ~10/20/2020 - 02/06/2021
I felt extremely whelmed after finishing The Dragon Reborn, the third entry in Robert Jordan’s tremendously long Wheel of Time series. The momentum from the previous two books had fizzled out in an unsatisfying ending. That said, I remained hopeful that I’d enjoy the fourth book. After all, I liked the first two books and the third certainly wasn’t terrible.
The Shadow Rising similarly isn’t terrible. Despite my complaints, I don’t think this is a bad book. What it is, unfortunately, is an annoying slog of a book that mostly failed to drum up interest in the next entry. In some ways, that’s more damning than a bad book. An installment that kills interest in a series does much more damage, as it makes the entries that come after it go unread. And I wish I was just being hyperbolic, that The Shadow Rising didn’t make my interest in the series go that limp when I was so optimistic before. But this book could be downright exhausting and it shook my conviction to read the series.
The Shadow Rising begins shortly after the end of the previous book, in which Rand claims the sword Callandor from the Stone of Tear, declaring himself The Dragon Reborn. Rand must deal with members of the Tairen nobility, who outwardly revere him but in truth wish to use him, as well as the Forsaken, who are making their presence increasingly known as they attempt to destroy and/or corrupt him. The principal cast soon go their separate ways. Rand, Mat, Egwene, Moirane, and Lan go to the Aiel Waste in pursuit of a prophecy regarding the Dragon and Aiel. Perrin, Loial, and Faile make haste to Edmond’s Field in order to liberate it from The Children of the Light. Finally, Nynaeve, Elaine, and Thom Merrilin head to the city of Tenchico to hunt for the Black Ajah.
As you can probably tell, The Shadow Rising is when the various threads of the Wheel of Time begin branching pretty far from each other. In fact, The Shadow Rising is notable for apparently being the last book before the finale where all of the principal cast members are in one location. I’m generally not a fan of “splitting the party,” but I’ve come to begrudgingly accept it in the Wheel of Time. It certainly helps that Robert Jordan handles it so well here. It feels less like the group is being hampered by separation, but more that they’re growing, with distinct goals that force them to be separate. My acceptance of their separation is also helped by the fact each group features good chemistry. The groups all are bonafide traveling crews. While some groups (Perrin’s group) have more entertaining pairs than others (Rand’s group), Jordan does a good job of bouncing clashing personalities/desires against one another. In creating so many separate plot threads, Jordan makes the story feel absolutely epic in scope.
Delving a bit into craft, I have to praise Jordan’s deft use of POV-switching. It’s truly impressive how well he manages to utilize multiple POVs in a single chapter in a way that feels natural. Jordan will often use a POV to create suspense, ensuring that we only have the thoughts, and thus, the knowledge of a character that’s narratively satisfying. I appreciate how Jordan isn’t afraid to let us in the head of the baddies — it makes the world feel that much more engaging. The POV shifts seldom feel like a big change. On one hand, you could make the argument that this is a bad thing since it points to voices not being distinct. I, however, appreciate that it isn’t jarring.
Four books later, I still find myself drawn to the characters and the world they inhabit. Even if I have my misgivings with how we move through it, I cannot claim that I don’t love learning about the world of The Wheel of Time. It’s so expansive, with multiple nations and deep lore that make it feel real. I can’t wait to see it on the small screen soon. The characters are very distinct and I find my frustrations with some of them a mark towards how well they’re written. As I said before, you’re sure to have a favorite (still, Perrin and Mat, if you’re curious).
Perrin’s chapters are easily the strongest — they’re more action-filled and tense than the other chapters. If that wasn’t enough, they’re more emotionally poignant, as well, since Perrin liberating his hometown feels a lot more personal than what the other characters are getting into. The tradeoff is that, since we’re in such a personal space, our knowledge of the world isn’t advanced in these chapters. This ends up being fine, as the worldbuilding slack is picked up with the other groups and in these chapters themselves, the character-building moments more than make up for it. This isn’t to throw the other sections under the bus; they each had their high points (Min, whose section I initially didn’t care for at all ended having the best chapter in the entire book), but Perrin’s chapters were the most consistently entertaining.
It’s clear that there are good things in The Shadow Rising; great things, in fact. It’s too bad that they’re bogged down by the rest of the book, which is unremarkable at best, annoying at worst. Before, the saving graces of The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn were having a strong ending and a strong lead-up, respectively. Unfortunately, The Shadow Rising has neither.
Some of my gripes aren’t new; I can’t even say that they’re problems that have gotten worse. I’m merely frustrated that they persist. These aren’t new things that I can write off as being unique to The Shadows Rising. No, these are things that I imagine I’ll have to deal with until the end of the series. Let’s delve into them, shall we?
One of the more annoying ones for me is Rand’s harem. It had less focus in the last book, but it’s brought up more here. To wit, we have Lanfear, Elayne, Min, and (possibly) Aviendha all fawning over Rand. I wish I had a better reason for not liking it besides just finding it kind of obnoxious. I don’t really know what it’s doing in the book. As of now, it doesn’t add anything. If you like harems in your stories, fine. It can work in some contexts, but I didn’t read this thinking it would be a wish-fulfillment fantasy and I don’t think that’s an unfair way to look at this. Because as is, it does seem just to make Rand seem cool. With a glowing sword, magic powers, respect, two badass dragon tattoos/scars, and a harem, all Rand needs to be the epitome of “cool” is a literal dragon to ride (and I will put money down that he gets one). I know it seems like I’m just being mean, but Jordan could use the harem to say something (especially given that, compared to ours, this world is described as matriarchal) but as of now, it’s...just kind of there? And Jordan really hasn’t made it clear what Rand or any of these women see in each other. It seems like it’s being tied to some prophecy/his status as Ta'veren which comes across as lazy. What makes this all the more frustrating is that I know what’s going on, Jordan knows what’s going, but the story itself seems to be pussyfooting around the topic. I’d want the story to just finally cement the relationships.
But it’s kind of hard to do that when it seems like a good number of the members of said harem hate each other.
This brings us back to what has quickly become my most loathed aspect of these books, the relations between men and women.
As I stated in my last review, in the Wheel of Time series, women and men are very, very antagonistic towards each other This much can be gleaned from the internal dialogue. Pick a character, any character! If the character is a woman, chances are they’ll be complaining about how men are “wool-headed idiots.” If the character is a man, chances are they’ll be complaining how women are confusing/irate/etc. This seems like a minor issue and it would be if it wasn’t repeated ad nauseam for almost four books at this point. As I’ve said before, this particular aspect of the world makes me uncomfortable and frankly a bit sad. Ultimately, I could just ignore it before, but it comes up so much here that there’s no escaping it. I lost track of the number of times I verbally told characters to “shut up” once they began their snide asides regarding the opposite sex. It really turned me off on most of the budding romances in this story because it feels like these characters half hate the people they’re supposed to be interested in. Again, that makes me uncomfortable. And if you thought you could rest easy ignoring the weird gender relation thing because it’s only internal, then guess again! Part of the reason that Rand’s harem still hasn’t materialized is because of it: Elayne likes Rand and Rand likes Elayne. She sends her a letter about her feelings but it’s apparently obtuse (I don’t think we ever get the letter in full). Naturally, we then get to see the two of them mope about how the other doesn’t like them and is so stupid/cryptic/whatever all while Elayne’s friend, Aviendha, constantly berates Rand for apparently not loving Elayne. But this doesn't even come close to the irritation I felt during Perrin and Faile’s early interactions. I already didn’t buy their love from the last book, but here their acidic interactions are turned up a notch, as they constantly bicker and argue and don’t speak to one another for a good portion of their chapters. When they do reconcile, it ends up being cute, but there’s still a tinge of uncomfortableness to all of it. And, again, I’m not really sure what it’s doing here. On one hand, things go a lot smoother when they trust each other, but there are still moments where Perrin tries to lie to Faile to “protect her.” Given that these types of relations still persist, I’m not holding my breath for the next book.
These things should be minor, they should be drowned out by the spectacular parts of the book that I described earlier, but said parts are few and far between. The pacing of this is glacial and there’s not a good “flow” from chapter to chapter. Any given chapter won’t have much happening yet it might go on for a good while: the annoyances I had could very much be the most engaging part of a given chapter. Not helping is the fact that chapters usually wrap up pretty neatly, so I never really felt like I had to read the next chapter. Assuming you are hooked, you very well might find your stomach drop once you discover that the POV has suddenly shifted to the group you’re less thrilled about. And those are just structural gripes: the actual plot itself was a bit of a slog for me; exciting parts are sparse. Perrin’s chapters were my favorite partly because they were engaging throughout and they kept things moving. This book took me a while to finish. While this was mostly because I’ve been busy, I'm sure it’s also because this book just wasn’t that interesting to read and it began feeling like a chore. A book that’s dull and long makes for a losing combo.
Excluding the glossary, The Shadow Rising is 980 pages long. I like to think I don’t shirk away from longer books, but the pacing made the length absolutely grueling. Adding insult to injury, it doesn’t seem like the plot moved forward that much — 980 pages amounted to largely piecemeal development. It would be one thing if this were a six-book series, if this was just a bit of a sophomore slump before it gets good again, but no. This is book four out of fourteen (fifteen if you count the prequel book). Looking at the length of this series has proved extremely demoralizing. The feeling of spending a long time to get nowhere is compounded by the fact that I’m not even halfway done with my journey. I still have at least ten more books to read and I’m already jaded. This isn’t even the longest book. Many fans say that this book is the best and after it, the series hits a slump. It should be clear why I’m so unsure of my relationship with the series. I disliked the book, yet there are still ten more to read? Ten more and people say the bad part hasn’t even started yet? Ten more books and this is the highlight? I’m not the fastest of readers, and at this point, I’m not really sure I want to devote at least half a decade to the rest of this series.
At the end of the day, I won’t deny that there are some great parts to the book, but the book as a whole is brought down by more annoying and boring parts. Perhaps the book would have been great if it were two hundred pages shorter. I cannot say for sure, all I can say for now is that I found this book a slog. If I’m not a fan of the next book, I might just have to drop the series, which is a shame because, as I said, it’s a mesmerizing world. If I do drop it, I might pick it up via the Amazon series.
But that all depends on how The Fires of Heaven shapes up.