Winter’s Heart shows Rand reacting to an attempt on his life at the conclusion of the previous book. As with the pair of books before them, The Path of Daggers and Winter’s Heart are like halves of a book dealing with Rand’s ego and the vipers he has brought to nest at his side. The assassins who hid among his followers are symbolic of the choices he is making, which are leading him astray from where he must go. His attempt to destroy them for their betrayal only aggravates the situation, leaving him with fewer and fewer people to trust.
Rand’s eventual apology and plea to Cadsuane provide him the help he needs when he needs it most. A highly symbolic series of events in Far Madding represent his life without the Light, and with it. As soon as he embraces the Light, in the stern form of Cadsuane, he is able to cleanse saidin, representing his own cleansing.
Nynaeve nearly gets Rand and Lan killed through a mistake that is also symbolic of her role as protector. She left Emond’s Field to save Rand and to gain Lan’s love, and she fails them both. This is the first time we see Nynaeve end a book in disgrace instead of victory. She is pardoned, via Rand’s control of the link they form when they cleanse saidin.
Padan Fain surprisingly returns for the first time since cutting Rand with his knife. Fain uses the Shadow’s own tactics against it, and he represents Rand’s potential to do the same.
The Forsaken collectively attack Rand but are repelled by people with a common goal, including one who shares that goal despite being Black Ajah. Verin’s compulsion of Elza and her subsequent destruction of Osan’gar represent the Shadow’s own tactics turning on itself, just as happened in Aridhol. Evil simply cannot get out of its own way.
This battle was the first to show men and women linked together. Enough has been made of the need for cooperation in the Last Battle that this development is exciting, though lacking in some insight as to the possibilities and limitations. The author doesn’t want to give too much away yet.
Other sections of the book jump from established characters to newcomers. These newcomers act as very subtle symbols of greater events occurring in the story and Rand’s conflict. So subtle, the reader must ask what the point of them was. Approximately 6000 pages into the story, readers have significantly less interest in characters that have never featured before and appear unlikely to again. Even knowing what future books hold, I struggle to find why these characters needed such a strong presence in the story.
Several romantic angles are covered, with Perrin, Mat, and Rand each finding difficulties in their relationships. Perrin’s identity is centered on his wife, Mat’s identity is contingent on not having a wife, and Rand’s identity will depend on the romance with his three loves. Each of these relationships is somewhat symbolic of faith. Perrin is accused of losing faith or betraying it, Mat rejects it, and Rand feels he cannot afford to have faith, seeing it as a weakness.
Elayne begins her quest for the crown, but it feels like her quest to become the ideal ruler. If Rand represented the Light when he was bonded to the three women, and Cadsuane represents it later, then Elayne is attempting to become the embodiment of the Light, searching for that perfect balance between strength and compassion.
Several Seanchan points of view emphasize the direction the series will take from here on. The Seanchan are ingrained and cannot be removed or repelled.
This was the first book to skip a full calendar year in the publication schedule. Readers can forgive delays when they get what they want in the end. Adding to the sense of delay is the virtual absence of Egwene, whose storyline jumped ahead a month at the end of the previous book, and the unfinished plotlines involving Perrin, and Elayne. Although each of these reaches a turning point, they are in no way as complete as Rand’s plotline was. Readers expect to wrap them up a year later, when the next book is published.
Overall the book offers a baffling mix of new and old characters and a few dangling plotlines, which are overcome by potent scenes in Ebou Dar, Far Madding and Shadar Logoth.
Introducing new pivotal characters late in the story can frustrate your longtime readers.