Treating The Wheel of Time as one long novel, the Books from The Shadow Rising to Winter’s Heart make up Act 2. This is the middle of the story, where we expect to find conflict and a growing problem that the heroes can’t solve, leading into the conclusion of the story in which victory is achieved.
The Shadow Rising picks up with Rand having accepted that he is mankind’s saviour. He sets out determined to act out his role, only if he can do it without guidance or prodding. He rejects help from Moiraine, preferring to set out where his parentage leads: to the Aiel waste. With the help of Lanfear, he gains leadership over the Aiel and captures a Forsaken to teach him. Lanfear later strikes out at Rand in jealousy, and he loses his mentors.
Rand becomes a leader, and builds an army of soldiers and male channelers. He learns that followers have more say over the leader than the other way around. His arrogance leads him to make a mistake that gets him kidnapped. His treatment hardens him, and he grows ever more protective of his emotions. He resolves to firmly impose his will over both enemies and followers. For a time he appears to succeed, leaving dead Forsaken and wrecked armies wherever he goes. Eventually, the people he constrains wiggle free or fight back, reinforcing his attitude. Rand is well on his way to becoming a tyrant.
At this late juncture new potential mentors appear, Cadsuane and Sorilea, who see that a saviour who imposes his will is not much better than the Dark One. Their challenge is to save Rand from himself, before it is too late. At the last, Rand stumbles into a trap of his own making, yet recovers enough to gain Cadsuane’s help. He cleanses the taint, metaphorically erasing his past mistakes, but the question remains what path will he follow?
The villain Ishamael has returned in a new body, naming himself Moridin. He reveals his plan to be not to try control Rand yet. A board game serves as a metaphor for controlling Rand. It can be as dangerous to hold Rand as to let your opponent hold him. Moridin has cast doubt in Rand’s mind, now he plans to sit back while the heroes fulfill those doubts and set Rand’s path towards the Shadow. The only hitch so far is Rand’s cleansing of saidin, a danger so great to the Dark One that all the Forsaken were commanded to stop it even if Rand is killed in the doing.
The cleansing of the taint is the single most important event to happen in the world, opening up the possibility of men and women working together to defeat the Dark One, and acting as the opening blow of the Last Battle. As a pivotal moment, it makes a logical place to end Act 2.
Robert Jordan deftly creates obstacles of character, making the heroes’ choices directly responsible for how events play out. Nowhere is this clearer than with the battle for Rand’s identity, where his most personal defining choices dictate the fate of the world.
Supporting characters have been propelled into positions of leadership throughout Act 2. Elayne, Egwene, Mat and Perrin have assumed the responsibilities of leadership without going through the difficulties that Rand has created for himself. Notably absent is Nynaeve, who acts as Rand’s protector and conscience, disposing of threats to him, and she therefore has no leadership duties to assume.
All of the characters have had romantic interests identified and the majority have cemented them. Where stories frequently are resolved by acquiring the romantic interest, the fact that this story has tied most of them up this early may signify that the most important role of the relationship is to make men and women work together, like saidar and saidin. Resolving the romance at the end of the story would be counterproductive in achieving this goal.
The World of Dreams, Tel’aran’rhiod, is a place where identity and force of will shape reality. The early part of Act 2 had a heavy focus on this realm which was conspicuously absent in later books. This is distraction on the author’s part, diverting the reader’s attention from the possibilities of its powers until their eventual use in the final act.
Several of the books made use of a magical item or spell in the climax of a plotline, such as the Bowl of the Winds, balefire, a’dam, or the Choedan Kal, but these are far less obvious quests than in the earlier books of the series.
The broadened cast of characters and more frequent use of minor characters’ viewpoints greatly expand the world. Readers understand that the whole world is at stake, because they are exposed to the entire world and its myriad cultures. This wider tapestry has the side effect of bogging down the story a bit; most often when the readers can’t see how a scene affects the characters they have been following for so long.
The story carries the best pacing and enjoyment when readers are treated to several chapters in a row featuring the same locale before jumping to a different one.
Continuing the theme of American fantasy, the books of Act 2 reflect a far less certain time, reminiscent of the Vietnam era and its outcome, and the internal conflict it created. Rand and America have stepped forward to claim the privileges of adulthood, and then made an apparent bungle of things with hardened arrogance and ego, the type of errors in judgment such as any young man might make. These events are part of the modern American mythology, along with the self-questioning that comes with it. These books are about the search not only for what outcomes are right, but what actions are right to reach them.