Volume 4 is considerably fatter than the previous three; more than a thousand pages long. It’s also less focused; a sprawl of different storylines going in different (physical) directions, great spoldgy-wodges of second-hand worldbling, and, er, that’s it. I enjoyed reading vol. 1; didn’t enjoy 2 at all; quite (despite myself) enjoyed 3. 4 was pure slog.
The structural glitch of the previous novels (a too-slow start followed by a deal of too-detailed wandering about) is magnified here: the start is fantastically boring and taxing, and the subsequent wanderings hard to keep a mental handle on. In this volume our pals split up: ‘Romaine’ Rand going, via magical short-cut, to visit the Aeil; ‘Reggie’ Perrin back to his provincial home, the Two Rivers. Meanwhile, representatives of the various coloured Aes Sedai (blue, red, etc) go hunting the evil branch of their movement. I’ll leave you to guess what colour the evil branch is. Mat goes into dreamtime for a bit and comes back with some more magical artefacts (a magical spear and a protective medallion). If the novels continue accumulating magical artefacts at this rate, the three pals will be able to open an extensive antique shop at the end of it all. Rand, meanwhile, is stretching his metaphorical magical muscles, making axes fly, ships crash and the like.
I read the book fairly rapidly, but I look back on it now trying to remember what all this diverse running-around, collecting, fighting and so on amounted to. To be precise: I look back trying and failing to remember. A fair bit has to do with the ‘Aiel’, a sort of Native-American/ Samurai/Fremen warrior race of people who live in the ‘Aiel Wastes’ and have some special spoken-by-prophesy relationship to the Dragon Reborn. But aside from taking us around their world and culture, and establishing to their satisfaction that Rand is indeed the Muad-Dib, sorry, the Dragon, I’m not sure what the force of this lengthy narrative detour was. There's also the Gipsy-like Tuatha'an—that’s one of their caravans on the cover, up top—and a character called Slayer. A nasty character, naturally.
Mat is menaced by the e-e-evil: ‘Time to die, Hornsounder!’ . I believe I once went to a tiny basement club in the Borough where the DJ was called ‘Hornsounder.’ I may be misremembering that. Anyway, as before Jordan intersperses lots of Trolloc combat to try and maintain flagging excitement levels. This fighting is ramped up (‘fiery explosions tore at the trollocs’, 729) from the previous books, in a diminishing-returns sort of way. Now, I like humans. And I like trollocs. But which is better? There's only one way to find out …
A good chunk of the novel is given over to the notional 'development' of the main characters, but this is all teen-soap-opera nonsense; and rubbish to boot. There are intimations of sex in the book, but instead of actual sex we get a load of schoolyard crushes, mooning about, kissing, jealousies and the occasional bottom-pinch. Egwyne—Rand’s girlfriend—announces that she doesn’t love him any more (‘People change, Rand. Feelings change … I love you as I would a brother’; 147) which frees him up to snog other girls. There are also occasional instances of topless serving wenches, attractive women discussing things whilst naked in saunas and beautiful women chained naked in dungeons, which would be less creepy if it were more honestly handled (handled, that is to say, with less mendacious cod-propriety).
But my main grouse here is the way it is all written. Vol 1 was written in a garrulous, occasionally creakily cod-archaic style, but was at least quite well-written, according to the rather limited aesthetic criteria of this kind of writing. But Vol 4 is really not very well written at all, even by those standards.
Perrin and Faile had made no effort to be quiet in climbing the stairs, but the three men were so intent in their watching that none of them noticed the new arrivals at first. Then one of the blue-coated bodyguards twisted his head as if working a cramp in his neck; his mouth dropped open when he saw them. Biting off an oath, the fellow whirled to face Perrin, baring a good hand of his swordblade. The other was only a heartbeat slower. Both stood tensed, ready, but their eyes shifted uneasily, sliding off Perrin’s. They gave off a sour smell of fear. So did the High Lord, though he had his fear tightly reined. This isn’t hopeless writing (aside from ‘eyeballs in the sky’ Ansibleable ‘their eyes slid off Perrin’s’ bit, which is indeed hopeless writing); but it reads like a first-draft that J. couldn’t be bothered to revise. The smell-in-harness at the end; the cliché; the fumbling-bumbling piling up of clauses. That all needs polishing. The paragraph that follows it, on the other hand, is pretty much beyond revision. You need to bin this and start again:
The High Lord Torean, white streaking his dark, pointed beard, moved languidly, as if at a ball. Pulling a too sweetly scented handkerchief from his sleeve, he dabbed at a knobby nose that appeared not at all large when compared with his ears.Now that’s bad writing: clumsily wrongfooting and unevocative. From whence did that knobby nose appear? Did the white streak his beard as he moved languidly? Which is to say, did his languid movement shake free some white from the upper reaches of the beard? The writing is all like this, either undercooked or actively bad: ‘a myriad of scents danced in his nose’ . 'Without touching her head she knew she had on some sort of helmet' . 'Ogier's ears went stiff with shock' . 'The woman frowned and lowered her chins' . You know the way that, when somebody throws a pencil at your nose, it squeezes perspiration from the whole spread of your skin?
Damp heat hit her like a stick between the eyes. Sweat popped out of every pore. Now some of this, I’ll confess, had to do with the rapidity of my reading of the book. Encountering the phrase ‘the fork bearded fellow with a ruby the size of a piegon’s egg in his ear’  I clocked the fork, egg and ear-insertion and thought ‘say what?’ But in such cases I can always re-read to get a clearer sense of what the writer is on about. Clumsily on about in this case.
Another feature of the style is the way Jordan scatters the text with cod-proverbial wisdom. He gets this from Tolkien too, I think; except that where Tolkien’s invented proverbs generally feel right (‘grief is a hone to a hard mind’), Jordan’s feel either flabby or else goatblinkingly-incomprehensible. Some examples.
"There's no time for winking at the men when you're busy bailing the boat."  OK. I get this.
"On the heights, the paths are paved with daggers."  Laid flat, this would surely result in a perfectly serviceable, if expensive, road. Laid edge-upwards, you’d probably want to walk alongside it rather than on it. Either way it seems self-defeating.
"As well you try to understand the sun, Perrin. It simply is, and it is not to be understood. You cannot live without it, but it exacts a price. So with women."  I don’t understand this one at all. What price? Is the meaning here: ‘if you’re staked out underneath a woman with your eyelids cut off you’ll go blind?’ Does that count as ‘proverbial’?
The sling has been used. The shepherd holds the sword.  Um. OK. This is one of those 'the wild geese fly south at noon' style statements.
A weeping woman is a bucket with no bottom”  But this can't be right. ‘When a woman weeps it’s like all the water gushes out in one go and then she’s dry’? Presumably not. ‘Don’t try gathering water in a weeping woman.’ What?
‘I could have shaved myself with one sneeze.’  What?
Otherwise, despite the addition of a metric tonne of detail, Jordan's imaginary world feels more-and-more ersatz/theme-park and less-and-less authentically rendered.
[It was] a large room with a high ceiling. A rope strung along waist-high posts would keep anyone from going too close to the things displayed on stands and in open-fronted cabinets. Can you imagine a room like that in Middle Earth? As the Old English proverb has it: better a dinner of herbs where authenticity is, than a stalled ox and a National Trust Property thereby.