It is time to make your way in a bleak new world.
As a warning, the more books that are behind you in a series like this, the more spoilers will be contained by a review. This is the fifth book, and there will be serious spoilers when I touch on the plot at all.
At the end of The Shadow Rising, the Aiel were broken by revelations, their entire life, everything they believed was stripped away from them. The only real world comparison I could relate it to would be for a very religious person confronted, not slowly but instantly, with the realization that the God you believe in does not exist. What do you do?
It is not the primary plot point in The Fires of Heaven, but it is incredibly emotionally engaging, the different reactions. Some become angry, and lose hope, some throw away their arms and wander, trying to find meaning.
To continue with the religious themes, The Fires of Heaven further humanizes members of the antagonist’s faction, bringing people who are worshipped nearly as gods down. I mean, reading The Wheel of Time at a high level, it is an obvious religious allegory, but taken from every religion around the world, and you can really feel the religious influences upon Jordan’s writing in The Fires of Heaven more than you could in the previous entries in the series. There is a character that is mentioned in passing more and more often as the series continues that is so obviously satire of a specific religious institution I feel like it should probably not be mentioned–but giving at least some due warning is important, I guess.
The Prophet of the Dragon, mentioned in passing at the very end of The Dragon Reborn is almost a parody of the Catholic Church throughout the middle ages, though that could easily be missed by those who aren’t familiar with that particular brand of history. One might compare him to Saint Dominic, or perhaps some of the more aggressive members of the Spanish Inquisition. Just throwing it out there in the interest of full disclosure.
Robert Jordan makes the always controversial decision to leave one of the active, living main characters completely out of the book. I have the benefit of having the whole series here and ready for me to read, but I know I don’t relish the idea of being a fan of that character and having to wait four years to find out what has happened to them–perhaps it was there to build suspense, or maybe it is just that the character is doing absolutely nothing during this time period. I mean, there’s that.
One thing that many comment on is that the pacing begins to slow with The Fires of Heaven, a trend that continues for several of the middle books in the series. It isn’t that nothing is happening, it is just that there is so much to tell–the books feel like they are truly chronicling the lives of the characters, rather than telling a story. Is that for the good or the bad? That depends on taste; I personally love that style, it allows me to empathize with the characters in a way that no other series has (a fact I have mentioned in previous review entries).
An interesting plot device used by Jordan that tends to get called sloppy writing in other series that works very well in The Wheel of Time is that events just happen. There isn’t always foreshadowing, things just come out of left field and hit you across the face (or, as the case may be, the emotions). A character can just disappear from the series, no matter how much you think the eternal motto should hold (“It’s good to be a main character.”). The important thing is that it is not over used; you really feel it when a character exits The Wheel of Time, especially compared to a character removed by George R.R. Martin (“Oh, another character died. ‘Kay.”).
The characters are all growing, but not in a way that is “linear improvement”. Rand, particularly, is becoming more and more difficult to relate to, but that is by design. He is a farm boy, a shepherd raised in a small country village, who has been thrust into the role of the ruler of the world. Matt is becoming a character that can be related to, as much as it pains me to admit it; the things he does in The Fires of Heaven are things that are… Understandable, at the very least. I still think he is a bitch, but at least at this point in the series I can sort of understand people like him (even if I don’t).
As with The Shadow Rising, the ending to this book lends itself very well to immediately picking up Lord of Chaos and continuing to read as though there was no break between books.
And that is exactly what I did.
Rand's Storyline - 9/10
Matt's Storyline - 8/10
Moiraine's Storyline - 10/10
Nynaeve, Elaine, and Egwene's Storyline - 8.5/10
History - 10/10
Overarching Plot - 9.0/10
Other Characters - 8.5/10
The world of The Fires of Heaven is becoming a bleaker and bleaker place, but that is not a weakness of the series. A plot where everything always works out isn’t nearly so interesting, and Robert Jordan cultivates a healthy fear for the well being of the characters (though not in the same way as George R. R. Martin, thankfully).
The plot is heavy, and like anything that has this much weight, it moves a little slowly at times–but that is a function of the style of caring for the characters, not a weakness.