The mighty book four, The Shadow Rising. Fifty-eight chapters, 393 thousand words, and in the paperback edition, near on 1000 pages. It is the longest book in the entire Wheel of Time series, the next closest come in at around 350 thousand words and are books 5 and 14 (the final one in the series).
Even holding this paperback is hard work, it’s pretty much at the limit of what can be held in one hand. It’s taken 5 days to finish it, reading at lunch times and in the evenings. The last stretch, Friday evening, was around 200 pages in a four hour sitting. Most of the time I was able to just read through, but a few sections had me taking short breaks to think things through or to calm down due to annoying characters.
The epic nature of the overall story is finally revealed here, and some important links are made. Onward!
The Shadow Rising is absolutely a story of two halves. One half (which covers more than half of the physical book) picks up where book three left off and sets up a number of threads. The second half of the story, in roughly the last third of the book brings them all to a climax of sorts. It’s a formula that should be familiar to anyone who’s read the previous three books, because it’s pretty much how they play out as well.
Sadly, despite the very enjoyable ending, the start of the book begins to display serious pacing issues. After around 150 pages, pretty much nothing significant happens in the story. We get a little bit of background, some hints at the ongoing struggle, and a bubble of evil causing havoc – but that’s it. In most fiction, 150 pages would give you something pretty significant. It’s fair to say, in my view, that after 300 or so pages, there’s still very little story progression overall.
The protagonists are all in Tear, as they were at the end of book three, and despite talking about it and planning it, they don’t actually start leaving Tear until around 300 pages in. Some of the events in those first pages are interesting, but they’re not defining moments, and it’s at this point you have to make a choice with The Wheel of Time. Either you’re reading a fantasy story about Rand al’Thor battling The Dark One, or, you’re reading a book about the world inhabited by Rand al’Thor and the others, and about the epic struggle affecting all nations of the land. If you’re here for the former, then you’re going to get bored quite quickly. If you’re here for the latter, to be immersed in the epic struggle, to hear about nations and groups and individuals who might never be mentioned again, and to watch their struggle against the Dark One, then you’re probably in the right place.
When the main characters finally leave Tear, the story splits into three threads. I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum. We follow Rand and those that travel with him in one thread, we have Perrin and his group in another, and finally we have Nynaeve and friends in the final group. The book weaves between those three primary groups from around 350 pages in. all the way until the end, with minor diversions to visit other locations and individuals. Depending on who you like most, and what you like reading about most, you may enjoy the three threads differently to me.
Personally, I absolutely loved Perrin’s tale, I enjoyed Rand’s section, and I tolerated the story of Nynaeve. Those impressions remained until around the last 100 pages, at which stage, the Rand and Nynaeve elements finally picked up and approached, but never quite attained, the level of enjoyment I had from the Perrin tale.
The story of Perrin is full of emotion, courage, duty and love, and I’m pretty sure it would have made an excellent 200,000 word novel in its own right. It does so well because it builds on everything that has come before it, and it contains a whole array of the most interesting characters. We get to meet some we thought we’d left behind, and it really pushes the development of Perrin and those with him forward. It also speaks to the wider story, and we really begin to see what being Ta‘veren might mean beyond causing mass weddings. The climax to this story is simply superb, supported by an excellent beginning and a thoroughly enchanting middle.
Rand’s tale is no less interesting, but it is less emotionally impacting. His journey reveals a significant amount of new information about the Aiel, The Age of Legends and the Breaking of the World, and it’s fascinating from that angle if nothing else. I do so love the Aiel and so I was continually pleased to come back and read about them, but Rand is closed and alone, and that not only comes over in the story but it makes it hard to empathise with him at times. Still, the outcome of his tale in book 4 is brilliant, and the Aiel sections make it engaging and funny (as well as thrilling).
I don’t know if it’s a gender bias, or something else, but I just find Nynaeve’s behaviour so frustrating, so annoying, that I always feel a bit reluctant to read the sections with her in them. That goes for her female companions as well. However, it’s an important part of the story in The Shadow Rising, and there are plenty of reveals, and some exciting moments. The story of Nynaeve and her gang doesn’t really peak until very late in the book though, but when it does, it is just about worth the wait.
In my view, The Shadow Rising starts to show that the story is just getting away from Jordan. The scale is just so epic, so vast, and so intricate, that he struggles to contain it within the format of a typical fantasy book. I don’t know how it could have been avoided, if he felt everything in the book needed to be presented. I do wonder if a series of smaller books with more focussed stories might not have worked better.
Despite that, and despite the lack of progress, bad pacing and frustrations at the start, The Shadow Rising has the most thrilling ending of any of the books so far, without a doubt. We really are starting to get a sense of how big this whole thing is going to be. Worth reading, but give up any notions about this being a story of Rand al’Thor, and instead, accept it’s the story of the world he inhabits, and everyone else within it.
I try and avoid actual plot spoilers in this section, but I do reveal some of my frustrations with the overall series to date, so you may want to read carefully if you’ve never read the books.
When I started the re-read, I had assumed that I pretty much remembered everything in the books. I was wrong. As the story progresses, and I get further through the series, I realise it has been a very long time since I read them, and the latter books are far less memorable to me in their detail. So it’s sort of good news, I’m enjoying detail that I don’t remember even if I kind of know where the overall story is going.
The Shadow Rising contains my favourite story thread so far, Perrin, Faile and their arrival in The Two Rivers. I looked forward to any chapter which started with Perrin or Faile’s name, and despite knowing how it kind of turned out, every single page with them in it was a joy.
My memory of the sections with Nynaeve and Elayne was particularly blank, and I know why, because their treatment of other people, especially Nynaeve’s treatment, just annoys me so much I don’t like reading it. Who wants to read about bullies? That’s the only way to describe her, and I don’t like it. The others try and temper her behaviour, but the bottom line is she’s offensive. I know that eventually she calms down a little and that is the only reason I can get through the sections.
Rand’s story is great, and I was looking forward to reading about him learning of the birth of the Aiel. I had forgotten how sidelined Moiraine was in this book, and I was a little sad we don’t get more from her PoV because she’s so interesting. She seems to have so much scope that I wish Jordan had dropped one of the other women and given Moiraine more PoV’s.
I had totally forgotten that it’s this book that Rand obtains a teacher (and it happens only right at the end). I knew it was coming, but felt sure it was book five or later, so that was a pleasant surprise. However, knowing about the tinkers in advance took some of the shock out of that section of the tale.
When I started reading the series again, there was one event that I wasn’t looking forward to reading about and that’s the betrayal of Suin Sanche. I will say no more, about which way that betrayal flows or what happens, but I was still sad when it did take place.
One new thing that struck me while I was reading, were comments from Verin and Moiraine (may have been in the previous book, not just this one), that they had been stupid not to realise all three Ta‘veren would be important, rather than just Rand. It strikes me that this could be Jordan admitting he didn’t expect Perrin and Mat to continue being such central characters, or his way of telling us we should have expected it as well. Or a bit of both.
Overall, The Shadow Rising confirmed my fears but gave me plenty of enjoyment as well. As I said in the review, I think this is the point where the story explodes away from Jordan’s control, and despite trying to show us all the threads, he struggles to keep it contained. There’s a sense of spending too long building up to each ending, as if it’s become a caricature approach based on the first three books. The redeeming feature is that the endings are very good when they finally arrive.
Another bitter-sweet read, so much to love, but plenty to frustrate, annoy and irritate as well.
The Angry Spoilers
There are spoilers here, for the book and possibly for the series. Stop reading if, somehow, you’ve never read these books before.
There are three things that make me angry about The Shadow Rising, and I’ve hinted at two of them already. Firstly, why does it take so long for the characters to get moving. There’s no good story reason, only that Jordan felt he had to include detailed descriptions of everyone who wears clothes and what everyone eats for every meal. Or that’s how it feels. I get that he wanted Moiraine to be chomping at the bit, frustrated by Rand’s lack of action, but that doesn’t mean he has to make us feel like that. 300 pages before anyone even leaves Tear, without much actually happening, is just too long.
Secondly, Nynaeve. To a lesser extent Egwene, then Elayne. They’re bullies. Nynaeve especially so. I don’t know if this is a gender bias on my part, or intentional on Jordan’s part, and I don’t know if female readers (or other male readers) get a different feeling. To me though, Nynaeve among them all is a bully. Maybe it’s fear on her part, maybe it’s just a personality trait, but it makes reading about her interaction with other people really hard work. If Jordan was trying to make us dislike her, he did quite well.
Lastly, general stupidity again. I wrote a long blog post on this one on my personal blog. In summary though, despite Elayne, Egwene and Nynaeve knowing about the Forsaken in Illian and Tear, they totally fail to spot the obvious reference to Morgase’s new advisor even though they discuss it in the same flipping conversation. I refuse to believe these people can be that stupid. Jordan either has little respect for them, or little respect for us.