That the twelfth book in a series is entitled The “Gathering” Storm probably points to a fundamental problem with the series. I mean, we’re eleven books (long, long books by the way) down and the storm is only just “gathering”? And anyone who has stuck with The Wheel of Time thus far (which I’m assuming is pretty much everyone reading this because otherwise why the heck are you reading this?), knows that pacing has been a big problem in Robert Jordan’s work, especially after the first few books. I wonder, in fact, if part of the reason for the title was a special publisher’s plea to wavering fans: “the end is coming! No, really! It’s almost here!” Though in that case, perhaps announcing that the final book was going to be split into three wasn’t such a smart idea…
Well, I can say that, whether intentional or not, The Gathering Storm does mostly deliver on its seeming promise of a quickening end. Brandon Sanderson, in place of Robert Jordan, has offered up a book that moves more quickly than its 800 pages would seem to indicate. It doesn’t match the compelling joyful pace of the first few WOT books, but it does mostly zip along, resolving plot events from earlier books, opening up new paths, clearing away some of the narrative and character underbrush. I’d say it’s a somewhat stronger version of Knife of Dreams in that regard (though I consider KoD a pale version of the first 3 or 4 novels). While The Gathering Storm does still have some side-plots that dilute the potential impact of major storylines, new narrative lines seem a bit more focused on getting us where we need to get to. And some of the more repetitive aspects of previous plots have been dropped, though a big one — Rand’s hardening of himself — has been wearing a bit thin and continues to do so in The Gathering Storm. Not that it isn’t a good arc; it’s just been too stretched out.
That said, while lots of separate things happen in The Gathering Storm, and while I’d say most of them need to happen in order for us to reach the end, it feels like the narrative moves along more speedily on the micro rather than the macro level. What I mean is that you feel the whoosh of singular events, but I can’t say by the end you feel any closer to the final confrontation, despite the crossed Ts and dotted I’s of prophecy and the unshackling of certain characters.
Beyond pacing, the plot is mostly serviceable, another similarity to Knife of Dreams. I can’t say there are any particularly stirring scenes, nor any particularly emotional ones save one nicely quiet one. There are a few pleasant surprises (which I won’t mention, of course) that feel well set-up and fully necessary to the plot as opposed to a twist for a twist’s sake. We don’t spend much time with Perrin, for which I’m quite thankful, as I’ve found his subplots to be by far the weakest. Matt’s storyline is semi-interesting but feels quite detached, more as if he’s simply being kept busy to remind us he’s around rather than being an integral part of the story. Egwene’s story was for me the least plausible, though I won’t go into specifics to avoid spoilers. I’ll just say I had a hard time accepting the premise of her situation, the length of it, and its resolution. Actually, the single most implausible scene involved a Forsaken: painfully, laughably implausible, and an example of one of the infuriating ways these books can be so inconsistent and so bad at points (a later scene involving that same Forsaken was better, though it could have been mined a bit more for impact). The ending — no spoilers, don’t worry — is a big jump forward in many ways and makes sense in terms of plot and character, but I found it far too abrupt and a bit too easy. I’m assuming and hoping that it turns out to be not as easy as it appeared.
There is mostly slight movement in characters (and one welcome change); some are humbled, some strengthened, some finally choose a side or change sides, most of them grow a little wiser, which is good to see. Development is slight, and self-awareness only burgeoning, in some, but believably so. And there is a lot less inconsistency in characterization — much less leaping from adamantine to simpering in a single bound.
Power has always been a major thematic element in the series and that continues in The Gathering Storm. What is power, where does it lie, who should wield it, what is the impact on those who do so, what lines (if any) are drawn, when do the ends justify the means, what are the responsibilities of those who wield it or give it up, etc. are explored through character and sometimes through interior monologue. This has always been, I think, one of Jordan’s strongest and most subtle (usually) aspects and it remains a strength here as characters and readers alike wrestle with these and similar questions.
The prose, like the plot, is adequate. There aren’t any truly memorable or beautiful lines, but overall I’d say Brandon Sanderson’s prose is an improvement on Robert Jordan’s. Unfortunately, we still experience some of those same tics which I’m guessing are from Jordan’s own passages. Thus we get the “hands folded beneath her breasts,” some braid-pulling, “flimsy” and “diaphanous” gowns, various busts and bosoms, and bottoms being spanked. It feels like there’s less of all this, but it still stands out. In general Sanderson has kept the flavor of Jordan’s prose, for all its good and bad points, but has streamlined, and thus improved, it.
Overall, The Gathering Storm is better than many books in the series, though nowhere near as good as the best ones. It lacks the major flaws of earlier books and has reduced the minor niggling ones to only a few occasions. And it leaves us ready, it appears, to move (let’s hope) more quickly toward the end. There’s no reason for a recommendation as — let’s face it — if you’re reading this review you’re going to be reading The Gathering Storm (if not, you really need to find a better way of entertaining yourself), but I do think The Gathering Storm will leave most readers feeling that WOT is in good hands and is pulling itself out of that hole it dug for itself.