Yarr! There be spoilers for the series ahead. Ye’ve been warned!
The Shadow Rising is considered by many fans to be the current pinnacle of Robert Jordan’s near-legendary Wheel of Time series. Despite being the longest volume, clocking in at 393,000 words, The Shadow Rising is a showcase of Jordan’s writing where his strengths are in full evidence and the weaknesses that bog down later volumes have yet to become overwhelming. It’s even less concise than the preceding volumes, and already Jordan’s tendencies towards rambling narrative and long-winded, repetitive internal dialogue and self-conflict continue to escalate in frequency and annoyance, but The Shadow Rising also contains many of the series’ most genuinely terrific moments that those flaws are if not unnoticed at least forgiven.
One interesting addition to the series are the ‘Bubbles of Evil’ that Jordan introduces early on in the novel with three of the most memorable scenes in the entire series (in particular, Mat’s fight against the figures from the playing cards has always been one of the most ‘otherly’ and interesting scenes I’ve come across in an Epic Fantasy). These acts of seeming randomness allow Jordan to keep Rand and co. on edge by constantly hovering the threat of violence over their heads. It’s one thing to know that Trollocs can pop out of any shadow (and, by this time in the series, the reader has more-or-less lost any sort of respect for the threat they pose, having seen Trollocs dispatched in absolute droves by the end of this novel), it’s entirely another level of anxiety to know that the sand littering the floor can erupt into a maelstrom of razor-sharp wind trying its damnedest to shred you to pulp.
Jordan manages to regain some effective threat from the Trollocs, and bring back memories of the simpler times in the early volumes of the series, by matching overwhelming numbers of the beasts against a small group of essentially unarmed and untrained villagers. Mixed into this crowd are Perrin, a couple of Aes Sedai, their warders and some Aiel, but the adept are few and the enemy are many. Sure, it’s a little hard to believe at times (Manetheren blood is a mighty thing, I guess), but it’s a tense affair and a thoughtful way for Jordan to explore Perrin’s insecurities and inner demons. Ultimately, though, as much as I sorta enjoy Perrin and his woe-is-me-I’ll-just-get-married character development, the whole plot thread felt tangential and secondary to the rest of the events in the novel, especially Rand, Mat and Egwene’s developments in Rhuidean.
After much sitting around in Tear and bemoaning their situation at the beginning of the novel (seriously, after the Bubbles of Evil episode, the novel takes forever to get going on all fronts) the girls-minus-Egwene mosey off to Tanchico to hunt down the Black Ajah (because it totally makes sense to send an untrained Princess-cum-Aes-Sedai-Accepted into a powder keg situation like Tanchico). Nynaeve continues to be mostly awesome (except for the endless and infamous braid tugging) and angry, and Elayne gets drunk.
This is the first volume of the series, however, where Jordan’s strange gender issues really start to come to a head, in a way that negatively impacts the storytelling. The women all begin to disparage the men, levelling no respect towards any of them (except, though not necessarily always, if they’re in love with them) and the men all turn into incomprehensible idiots with no rationality or intuition about divining the ‘mysterious’ minds of the fairer sex. It’s a frustration about the series that has been written about ad nauseum, so I won’t go further, but it’s dreadfully annoying.
Undoubtedly, this novel belongs to Rand and the Aiel. Through the first three volumes, the Aiel are a mysterious, antagonistic group of people with a nebulous role within the conflicts facing Rand. This changes at the end of The Dragon Reborn and the group are explored with great, satisfying depth in The Shadow Rising.
The Aiel themselves are interesting both on a macro and a micro level. As a society, it’s curious to see a group of people who draw influence from so many different real-world cultures and societies that rarely cross paths. At a first surface-level glance, and despite their Celtic complexion and hair, the ‘shoufa’-wrapped warriors seem exotically middle eastern, but exposure to them reveals a depth to their stoic culture and draws equally from the cultures of the Zulu, Native North American and Gaelic people, and even the Samurai of Feudal Japan. It’s an interesting mish-mash of ideologies and philosophies, but Jordan makes it work for the most part. Let’s just ignore the idea that the Waste, a blasted desert with almost no water, and certainly no agricultural/farming, could support any kind of population, let alone the tens-of-thousands (hundreds-of-thousands? millions?) of Aiel that form the 12 clans. As individual characters, the Aiel, Ruharc and some of the Wise Ones in particular, are quirky and constantly surprise the reader as they flip between easy dry humour and ruthless seriousness.
The two chapters that detail the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of the Da’shian Aiel, their descendants, the Path of the Leaf and their incestuous relationship with the Aes Sedai is a fascinating journey and is likely Jordan’s crowning achievement as a writer. There’s so much there for old fans to dig into, so many secrets buried deep in the series’ lore that only reveal themselves on re-reads, and so much promise, mystery and melancholy for new readers. It’s the first time in the series that I found myself thinking, ‘This is really fucking serious.’. Jordan makes many mistakes in The Wheel of Time, but scenes like this one remind me of why he can be forgiven for those other grievances.
Another strength of the novel, and, really, the series as a whole is Rand’s rise to power. Say anything for the length of the series, but it allowed Jordan to really dig into the idea of power and leadership and what it takes to gain the authority and right to claim that power. In too many Epic Fantasies, the young farmhand gains the throne based solely on his/her hidden lineage or by fulfilling prophecy. Rand, of course, hits all of those check boxes, but through the thousands of pages and millions of words that comprise The Wheel of Time, the reader follows along as he works alongside other leaders, is trained by tacticians and groomed by the Aes Sedai for a position that he’s destined for, whether he’s ready or not. The story isn’t so much about whether he will defeat the ultimate evil, but whether he will be able to grow into the man who is capable of successfully uniting the forces of ‘good’ against the forces of ‘bad.’ The Shadow Rising is where this transformation begins.
If there’s one novel in the series that proves Jordan’s vision, it’s The Shadow Rising; it’s unfortunate, though, that this level of quality and this style of storytelling could not continue throughout the rest of the volumes, for if it had, I’m sure fans would have had a series as critically lauded as George R.R. Martin’s excellent A Song of Ice and Fire. Is The Shadow Rising the best volume in the series? Yes, I believe it is. Is it also a prophet warning readers of what’s to come. Yes, unfortunately, it is that, too.