Welcome to the Binge Project series! These Binge Projects will feature me reading or watching an entire run of comics, books, TV shows, or other media in rapid order, then writing expansively about the experience. This installment will be a slower process, as I work my way through the lengthy “The Wheel of Time” book series.
Five books in, and this series has become legitimately great. This is not to say that the series has been poor until now; every installment has been genuinely enjoyable and left me wanting to read more. But there was always some caveat that held previous books back a little. The Eye of the World was a little slow, doling out its world-building very methodically. The Great Hunt blurred the lines a touch between homage and copying. The Dragon Reborn‘s ending was a little repetitive and left me cold. The Shadow Rising had the most to like, but also the most to dislike as gender treatment negatives overshadowed the positives at times. But with The Fires of Heaven, The Wheel of Time has its first edition with no major “but…” to qualify its successes.
And thank goodness, because what great successes this book had. I was rereading my first four write-ups of this series to prep for this one, and realized for the first time how badly I was overusing the word “thrilling” in those posts. Occasionally I just get into a funk where I use a particular word way too much, but I’ll give myself some excuse for it in this case; when this series hits its high points, it is thrilling. Its action and character developments can leave your pulse pounding with the best kind of excitement. Not surprisingly, The Fires of Heavens delivers such moments, with big plot developments and our first major character death.
First, since I’ve criticized Robert Jordan for various things in the past, it’s only fair to give some updates on which issues linger and which have been solved. In Book 2, I worried that he was going a little heavy on Tolkien parallels, as Ingtar did such an overt Boromir impression. That issue went away after that book and has never been a significant problem since. In Book 3 and especially Book 4, I went after his gender issues pretty hard. That’s an issue that I don’t think will ever go away completely; Jordan might always have some lapses that rub me a little wrong. But I’m happy to report major progress in Book 5. His “angry women” trope still plays heavy-handedly early on, but he gives us a couple character breakthroughs that help ease the tension. Egwene’s confrontation of Nynaeve’s attitude was almost like a stand-in for me as a reader; Nynaeve didn’t show the immediate progress I’d hoped for after that confrontation, but at least she gradually eased up by the time her group reached Salidar. Aviendha is as bad as ever early, but her accidental trip halfway around the world ended with her easing up, as well, once we got the world’s least surprising revelation: that she’s actually in love with Rand. So to sum up, the gender issue is still there and might always be, but it at least retreats to the fringes over the course of this book, instead of remaining the forefront distraction that it was in Book 4.
As a sidenote, Jordan has a weird tendency to treat sex a little…distantly, for lack of a better word. I imagine that The Wheel of Time was at least initially aimed at teen readers, or at least at keeping those younger readers as a possibility, so maybe Jordan felt the need to use some kid gloves. Which is fine, I don’t need my fantasy series to be 50 Shades of Grey or anything. But when he starts to use sex and nudity as significant plot points, it just feels awkward that he simultaneously completely avoids any description of them. Considering Jordan probably named about 100 inns over the first three books, any absence of description just brings more attention to something.
I still don’t think we really need three women to be in love with the protagonist, especially with Rand becoming cranky and unreachable enough to start to make even one seem slightly less believable. And yet, when Jordan actually gives us the romantic moments like he does with Aviendha in this book, I don’t really mind; at least within those moments, the individual relationships with the women feel believable. And at least Book 4 ended any lingering romantic tension between him and Egwene, though part of me isn’t sure that’s gone forever. By rule of Chekov’s Gun, we have to see Rand use the two uber-powerful sa’angreal alongside a woman who can channel. It could be Elayne or Aviendha, each of whom is pretty strong in her own right and each now with a romantic tie to Rand. It could be Nynaeve, who is the least close to Rand but would result in the most powerful combination. But my gut still says Egwene gets the spot; her ter’angreal visions when becoming Accepted showed her and Rand entangled no matter what road she goes down.
After Nynaeve previously defeated a member of the Forsaken, it seemed like she might be lacking a natural next step in her growth in power. Jordan’s solution was to knock her down a peg to build her back up, first losing the rematch to Moghedien in embarrassing fashion. This tactic worked, mostly because it was paired with other efforts to rebuild Moghedien as a threat despite seeing her lose once already; her takedown of the Black Ajah, particularly her ruthless dismantling of Liandrin, left her squarely reestablished as a major villain. So by the time we got to the third battle between the two, Nynaeve was firmly the underdog again, making her sudden triumph even more exciting than the first time around. These Nynaeve/Moghedien events also got Birgitte promoted to a regular halfway through the book, which should eventually be cool; I think a badass woman who can’t channel will be a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, Jordan slipped her into his Angry Women routine for a while too, but like I said, he eased up eventually. Also unfortunate was the choice to have that little group hide out in a freaking circus; I was rolling my eyes so hard. Even as hard to take as the full Aes Sedai can be at times, I’m glad to see them in Salidar.
Shockingly, The Fires of Heaven omits Perrin and Faile completely, after building them up into my favorites in Book 4. It’s still a fairly crowded book, so I don’t think it was a bad decision; let them have some downtime off-screen. But their space is well-distributed among the other characters, with Mat in particular taking another large step forward. I once predicted he was a descendant of a ruler of Manethereen, but by now we know that he actually is those ancient commanders themselves, with those long-dead memories restored by his trip to the ter’angreal. It’s interesting to think that Mat appears to have been bound to the Wheel as much as Rand or Birgitte, spit back out now as ta’veren in time of need. With Rand the Dragon Reborn and Mat moving into a role as likely becoming his top general, I’ll be curious what Perrin’s role is when he re-enters the fray. He’d become a capable leader himself in Book 4, but he seems unlikely to match Mat’s strategic capability. But at least I think we’re moving into the era where Mat finally stops running from his destiny, and I think that’ll be enjoyable going forward. As for this book, the only disappointment I had in Mat’s storyline was Jordan’s tendency to skip past a big battle or confrontation. He’s done it a few times in the past, such as skipping the fight for control of the White Tower, but the refusal to give the climax(es) of the battle with the Shaido was a little annoying, particularly not giving us the full description of Mat killing Couladin.
I would guess Jordan’s reason for such omissions was to save the big fights for showdowns he thought were more important, and avoid making the book nothing but battles. If so, at least I can give kudos on the fights he did deliver. After setting us up to expect Sammael as Rand’s next big opponent, Jordan instead gives us finality on Lanfear and Rahvin. Lanfear was easily the more surprising to me; I strongly expected her to be among the last Forsaken standing near the end of the series. For that matter, I expected Moirane to be there at the end for the good guys. Hell, I even mentioned in a previous installment that Jordan should ease up on foreshadowing her death since it was unlikely to happen soon anyway; shows what I know. Of course, I’m still not entirely convinced I’m wrong. A lifetime of fantasy and scifi has left me skeptical about deaths in general, but especially ones where we don’t actually see the character die, or bodies afterward. Falling through the ter’angreal shouldn’t necessarily be fatal itself; its burning should leave them trapped there, but we don’t know for sure that’s the only way out. Lan feeling his bond severed would seem evidence that at least Moirane is dead; after all, if they were trapped in another world, she’s still up against a Forsaken. But I’m not convinced yet that we won’t at least see Lanfear again.
The aforementioned battles between Moghieden and Nynaeve were probably the highlight to me, thankfully tying into the book’s main climactic showdown of Rand and Rahvin. While it was predictable to see Rand use balefire as a sort of deus ex machina to bring back his just-murdered comrades, it didn’t make the fight any less exciting. I would have preferred to see Rahvin stand his ground, but the cat-and-mouse game in Tel’aran’rhiod was enjoyable, with Nynaeve intervening just enough to give Rand his opening. (I just realized Nynaeve kind of got to play Han Solo at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope; good for her.)
Where do we go from here? I thought Moirane might be who Rand had in mind to give the Cairhien Sun Throne to, given the mentions of her family once ruling there, but given her death, I suspect I was wrong, though I can’t guess whom it actually is (unless it’s just Elayne). I imagine the Salidar Aes Sedai are gearing toward making Egwene the new Amyrlin in exile, reading between the lines of Siuan’s maneuvering and Egwene’s previous vision in the ter’angreal. Was Moghedien one of those Aes Sedai in disguise? And who the hell killed Asmodean? Presumably another of the Forsaken did it, but still; I was really like having him as Rand’s untrustworthy teacher and am disappointed that only lasted one book. It seems like his death would have made a better ending than Morgase traveling; I’m not feeling much enthusiasm for her subplot of romantic tension with her soldier, and am having a hard time getting pumped for her journeying to try to “take back” a throne Rand would gladly just let her have if he knew she were alive. I assume she’s on her way to Pedron Niall, the most unlikely ally possible, but he probably needs to gain a larger role soon anyway. I just can’t help thinking it might be more interesting if she really were dead, and Elayne could take the throne.
Wherever we’re going from here, I’m a hell of a lot more excited for it now. With Jordan finally killing a major good guy, the stakes keep feeling higher, even as Rand’s successes have only grown. Even more importantly, the gradual easing of the gender problem left me feeling a lot less conflicted after this book than I was after Book 4; if it eases even further, then I might struggle to find anything to complain about. (But it’s me, so I’ll find something.) The Fires of Heaven was the best book yet, and left me with the great anticipation to keep going — which is everything you hope for with each installment of such a long series.
NEXT TIME: Lord of Chaos, Book 6 of The Wheel of Time