After the thoroughly disappointing Path of Daggers, expectations for Winter's Heart were mixed. Maybe Robert Jordan had written the weak book that all series seem obligated to have and he could ramp things up again as the series drew towards its conclusion? At the same time, other, hungrier authors in the epic fantasy field were now clawing at Jordan's heels. Whilst he spent most of the 1990s as the unchallenged master of the subgenre, towards the end of the decade writers such as George RR Martin, JV Jones, Robin Hobb and Paul Kearney had started producing works that matched or exceeded the quality of the later Wheel of Time books, and Winter's Heart in particular suffered from coming out just two months after GRRM's A Storm of Swords and three months ahead of Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice, probably the two most critically-lauded epic fantasy volumes of the last decade. With his position no longer unchallenged and his critics mounting, Jordan had a lot to prove with this book.
The Seanchan Empire's attempt to conquer the Westlands continues apace. Its invasion force has conquered Tarabon, secured most of Amadicia and is sweeping north across Altara, its temporary defeat at the hands of the Dragon Reborn notwithstanding. The invasion force has received massive reinforcements from the Seanchan home continent with the arrival of the full Corenne, a vast fleet consisting of thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of settlers and soldiers. In occupied Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon recovers from his wounds and plots an escape, unaware he is about to come face-to-face with the Seanchan noblewoman prophesied to become his wife. In Caemlyn Elayne's claim to the Lion Throne has not gone unchallenged, and the Andoran noble houses scramble for power and influence. The Sun Palace in Cairhien has been partially destroyed by renegade Asha'man out to kill Rand al'Thor, who forces them to come to him in a place where their use of the One Power will count for little. But Rand knows he is losing precious time as more and more of the Asha'man succumb to madness, forcing him to take desperate, and dangerous measures.
Winter's Heart has a lot of storylines to follow and Robert Jordan's skills at juggling multiple, complex plots simultaneously and covering a lot of ground are sorely lacking at this point in the narrative. The book actually rewinds to a point some weeks before the end of Path of Daggers, meaning that Egwene is hardly in the book and the rebel Aes Sedai's storyline does not proceed at all (in a precedent-setting move, completely invalidating the cover blurb). Perrin's wife and several of her companions have been kidnapped by the Shaido Aiel, forcing Perrin into a desperate alliance with the insane Prophet of the Dragon to find her...but this storyline barely crawls forward from where it had been at the end of Path of Daggers, and Jordan's characterisation suffers a loss of credibility when Perrin, having accepted Masema's explanation why he won't use Travelling to move around the continent at speed, seems to forget it instantly at the start of this book.
The book succeeds more in its depiction of life under Seanchan occupation, and Jordan showing the more positive aspects of their society without letting the reader ever forget these are people who still hold slaves and base their power on military force. Tuon is something of a disappointment, however. The Daughter of the Nine Moons has had a bit of a build-up in the books leading up to this one and she is distant and uninvolved in the story. However, Mat's plan to escape from the city makes for fun reading, mainly because he comes up with the plan, overcomes obstacles and executes it within this one novel, a story with a beginning, middle and end contained in one volume, which is something of a rarity this late in the series.
Jordan tries for something similar with Rand, but in Rand's case his story is nonsensical. Far Madding is an interesting city, well-described, but it is simply far too late in the day for the series to be romping off to as-yet unvisited spots on the map simply because they might be cool. Rand wanting to track down the rebel Asha'man is logical, but to do it in this city and to spend weeks on it whilst everything he's spent eight previous books building up is in danger of being toppled and destroyed really doesn't make sense. There is definitely the feeling here that Rand is more or less ready for the Last Battle, but Jordan keeps having to give him stuff to do because he hasn't maneuvered Mat, Perrin, Elayne and the other characters into the positions they need to be in before the Last Battle starts. Why he then doesn't decide to simply keep Rand off-stage as he's done before and even in this book (Egwene barely appears, and only has a few lines of dialogue) in favour of resolving the other characters' storylines is a bit of a mystery.
As usual, Jordan gives us a humongous climax and this one should have been a doozy: a massive, full-on battle between Rand's assembled Asha'man, Sea Folk, Aes Sedai and ex-Seanchan damane allies versus almost all of the surviving Forsaken outside Shadar Logoth, whilst Rand and Nynaeve attempt to undo an act of pure evil that the Dark One itself carried out. However, all we get of this massive conflagration are a few confused scenes and an anticlimactic finale. Disappointing, to say the least.
Winter's Heart (***) is a flawed book, although Mat's storyline is enjoyable and Rand's reveals some new and interesting worldbuilding. Elsewhere, it does appear that Jordan's immense story has gotten out of his control and he is having significant problems wrestling it back into submission. However, Winter's Heart immediately wins half a star purely for having some decent scenes of men and women working effectively together, whilst past books in the series have been rather juvenile in their depictions of male-female relations. Here, there are indications that he may be moving past that. Jordan's writing remains interesting and readable, but there is definitely the feeling that the series is now way past its best. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA.