Publication of The Gathering Storm, the 12th book in Robert Jordan's epic (in many senses of the word) fantasy series The Wheel of Time, was long overdue. The last volume, Knife of Dreams, was published all the way back in 2005, before the author's untimely death in 2007. I have to take a moment to reflect on the series, because since the first book was published (1990), my investment has slowly moved from "hey, this is a neat story, let's see where it goes" to "DAMMIT, I read all the others, I have to see this through to the end! Please promise me there will someday be an end?" A fantasy-reading endurance test, if you will. I am happy to report that The Gathering Storm is an improvement over some of the later installments of the series, particularly in terms of pacing and action. I do believe that Brandon Sanderson is absolutely the right author to continue and conclude the series (based on what is reputedly a large body of unfinished work left by Jordan). Sanderson's skill at big-picture plotting is vital to the task of bringing a giant mess of characters, motivations, and events to some kind of coherent endpoint. And if he can actually do it in the next two years/two volumes, well, I salute him.
The Gathering Storm, as its name suggests, sets the stage for the Last Battle between Rand al'Thor (the Dragon Reborn) and the Dark One. Despite being rather heavy on the storm imagery, and omitting or reducing some viewpoints (Elayne, for example) that have been prominent in previous installments, the action moves along quickly and several large plot points are resolved. Mat is relegated to a comic relief role, Perrin hardly appears, and, PS, The Last Battle is coming! I don't have the energy to summarize the details here, but the reader spends a lot of time with Egwene, who is trying to restore the White Tower to unity, and Rand, who is (as usual) struggling with his sanity and becoming more and more of a pain in the ass à la Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix. There is a lot of moping and staring people down. As is customary after I take a multi-year break from this series, if I had a nickel for every minor character I had to look up (particularly various Aes Sedai), I'd have at least $2.00 right now. However, there's no way that I'm going back and re-reading every freakin' book again, because this is my Year of Not Re-Reading. Also it would take forever. I was satisfied with the character development and plot movement in this volume, although the urge to smack Rand upside the head was often very strong, and the ending seemed appropriate to the trajectory of the plotlines, leaving me optimistic about the next (and penultimate) volume. Bring it on!
Look, if you've read the others, you might as well read this one. Just do it.
I always struggle with Jordan's representation of women. On the one hand, there are some great, complex female characters, and we get to spend a lot of time with them. On the other hand, they almost universally seem to think that men are "wool-headed" idiots. Then there's the question of homosexuality. In a fictional world as huge as The Wheel of Time, it seems a bit odd that none of the viewpoint characters are gay. I read an interesting article at the Thirteenth Depository about "pillow-friends" (same-sex attraction and sexual activity among the Aes Sedai and others), but I'm convinced that the world could benefit from additional viewpoints beyond the men-are-stubborn-but-noble and women-love-those-ornery-men dichotomy.