My favorite book in The Wheel of Time is The Shadow Rising; in fact it is my favorite book ever. A great many fans also point to this book as the highest point of the series. Why is it considered one of the best?
The book follows three narratives, each one an independent short novel on its own, interwoven for pacing, but not for their effect on each other. There is no confusion over dates or which event came first; all the reader needs to know is simply which group of heroes they are following for the next chapter. Sometimes information in one storyline is relevant to another and helps the reader interpret events. Sometimes more than one viewpoint is used in a location, such as Nynaeve and Elayne, or Rand and Mat. In all, eight main heroes have viewpoints, but five of them carry the bulk of the story. So, the structure is simple. Jump from one group to the next, don’t confuse the reader.
The cast of characters is just enough to feel crowded, but not so much that the reader loses track of them all. In Tanchico, there are Nynaeve, Thom, Elayne, Juilin, Bayle, Egeanin, Rendra, the Seeker, Bethamin, Carridin, the Black Ajah, Amathera, the King, and Moghedien. A dozen or so easily distinguishable characters. In the Two Rivers there are more: Perrin, Faile, Loial, Gaul, Bain, Chiad, Slayer, Luc, Byar, Bornhald, Fain, Tam, Bran, Abell, Haral, Alsbet, Marin, Daise, Verin, Alanna, the Warders, and a host of local men and women. With a cast of twenty or so, the young men of the Companions tend to blur into one another unless they have very distinguishing characteristics, but none play so significant a role that a distinction is necessary. The reader is unlikely to be confused. In the Aiel Waste we find Rand, Mat, Egwene, Moiraine, Aviendha, Lan, Amys, Bair, Melaine, Seana, Rhuarc, Adelin, Couladin, Kadere, Natael, Isendre, Keille, and a variety of Aiel. As with the Two Rivers folk, the Wise Ones and Aiel tend to blend together unless something distinguishes them. Mild confusion about the Wise Ones does not prevent being able to follow the story. The number of characters and the roles they play are justified and well suited to the length of text accorded to each of the three storylines.
The heroes themselves develop and grow. In earlier books, they were at the mercy of events, now they attempt to drive events. Each of them makes missteps, some costly. Each of them overcomes more challenging obstacles than ever, and they do it on their own with minimal interference from others. It is their own wits, intelligence, perseverance, planning, leadership and courage that let them win. Their identity is not being dictated by prophecy or plot; the heroes are forging new identities for themselves. Nynaeve beats a Forsaken! Elayne finds she is a better ruler than Amathera! Perrin defeats Slayer! Rand captures a Forsaken!
Two of the storylines have deeply personal stakes for the heroes. Perrin’s defense of the Two Rivers is harrowing and provides most of the traditional action. Rand’s discovery of the Aiel secret history and their vain sacrifices is heart-wrenching and is the best writing in the series. His decision to use them, even at the cost of destroying them with this knowledge, will set him down a solitary path. With this military force at his disposal, he needn’t worry about trusting Moiraine again. He has achieved freedom of one kind, but is now bound to the Aiel.
A multitude of magical and fantastic locations are shown. The realms of the Aelfinn and Eelfinn. Rhuidean. The Age of Legends. The Tower of Ghenjei. Tel’aran’rhiod and the Heroes of the Horn. The Aiel Waste. The Ways.
In the background, when no one was paying attention, the White Tower splits, and the world’s chance of surviving just got lessened. Even as the heroes claim victories by fending off foes, others lurk in waiting or will return. Lanfear, Moghedien and the other Forsaken. The Black Ajah. Padan Fain and his pet Myrddraal. The Children of the Light. Elaida. Couladin.
The broadened world put on display in The Shadow Rising is cause for liking the story, but it is the controlled balance of the story that makes it work so wonderfully. The expansion of the cast of main characters and of the secondary and minor characters is restrained enough to prevent confusion, but big enough to give a feeling of unfettered exploration to the reader. The personal nature of the threats and the victories provide an emotional impact that is difficult to match. Everything is at once epic in scope and intensely personal in importance. Keeping the storylines self-contained in this book provides closure of a kind that later books lack. In short, there is little that was mishandled, and in most respects The Shadow Rising surpassed expectations created by the previous books.
Four word summary: The heroes gain allies.
Writing Lessons:Use the minimum number of characters necessary to achieve your goals.