In Robert Jordan's Winter's Heart -- the ninth volume in his blockbuster Wheel of Time saga -- the prophesied Last Battle (Tarmon Gai'don) between the Light and the Shadow is imminent. But Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, stands in the Shadow's way. Conflict greets him on all sides, from both foes and allies. Darkfriends, Shadowspawn, and the Forsaken will try to kill Rand to prevent his participation in the Last Battle. Others, on the side of the Light, are afraid that Rand will go mad and cause another Breaking of the World, so they attempt to control him.
The world of Wheel of Time is one of queens and kings, nations and wars, and the One Power. Aes Sedai (women who can tap into the female half of the One Power, called saider) rule from the White Tower located in the city of Tar Valon. Even kings and queens are wary of Aes Sedai manipulations. Men who can channel the male half of the One Power (saiden) are feared because of the taint on saiden by the Dark One. They are hunted down by Aes Sedai and cut off from the power to prevent madness and destruction. However, the prophecies say that the seals on the Dark One's prison will weaken, letting him into the world, and a male Aes Sedai, the Dragon Reborn, will face the Dark One again.
Although Winter's Heart does add a few major plotlines, it mostly enhances the universe of the Wheel of Time. The unnatural summer has ended, bringing winter with its fresh set of problems, plus plenty of fresh activity. Elayne continues her quest for the throne of Andor. Perrin's wife, Faile, is captured by rebel Aiel. After an attempt is made on his life, Rand decides to go on the run to deal with rebel Asha'men. Later, Rand addresses the taint on saiden. Cadsuane tries to help Rand understand his humanity. Mat schemes to get out of Ebou Dar and away from Queen Tylin, receiving help from an unexpected source. A Seanchan princess -- known as Daughter of the Nine Moons -- arrives in Ebou Dar, while the Seanchan capture and consolidate more lands in the west. The Forsaken gather to plot against Rand.
Jordan has created a world of characters and places as diverse and complicated as those in real life. He weaves many stories, tales, and legends to create a colorful tapestry. However, the complex and numerous plots, plus the development of various characters, border on overwhelming at times. And remembering all the pertinent details from preceding volumes is next to impossible: what the characters have previously done, what they know, what they don't. The first few Wheel of Time books are among the finest fantasy writing ever, with tight story lines and fast-moving action. The most recent volumes in the series, including Winter's Heart, have featured less action and fewer grand plot arcs but have developed more character histories and shadings.
Reading the previous eight Wheel of Time books is essential to appreciate the many characters and plot subtleties of Winter's Heart. And although Jordan's latest effort may not be as heart-pounding as earlier books in the series, Winter's Heart adds welcome textures -- and pleasant diversions -- to the Wheel of Time series.
Don Ross is a freelance writer in northern New Jersey.