The seventh volume of The Wheel of Time carries us over the halfway point of the series (with the final book now being split into two volumes, bringing the series total to thirteen) in terms of wordcount. However, in terms of the actual story we're much closer to the end. Robert Jordan made a decision in the latter part of the series to reduce forward story momentum in favour of developing subplots and character interactions, a rather controversial choice that has resulted in the series' overall mixed reviews across SF&F fandom. By this seventh volume, we are starting to see the impact of this decision.
The book opens in the aftermath of the massive Battle of Dumai's Wells, when the Dragon Reborn, imprisoned by the Aes Sedai loyal to Elaida, was rescued by his supporters and both sides had to fend off an attack by the Shaido Aiel. During this battle nine of the rebel Aes Sedai swore fealty to Rand to prove their loyalty and the Asha'man, a society of male channellers created by Rand to use in the Last Battle, proved their worth. Resisting the urge to revenge himself upon Elaida, Rand prepares for his much-foreshadowed confrontation with Sammael, whilst at the same time trying to finally win over the Sea Folk and the Cairhienin rebels to his cause. Meanwhile, in Ebou Dar, Mat, Nynaeve, Elayne and several other characters are trying to find the Bowl of Winds, an important artifact that will restore normal weather to the world. In Amador, stronghold of the Children of the Light, a shift in the balance of power puts Morgase's life in danger, and from the south and from the west an even greater threat is emerging to challenge the alliance Rand is hoping to assemble against the Shadow.
There's a lot going on in A Crown of Swords, and the book conveys a feeling of momentum and movement compared to the largely static Lord of Chaos, which makes it a moderately more satisfying read. There's also a widening of the worldbuilding, with the Sea Folk presented in more detail then we have seen before, the introduction of the Kin (a secret society of female channellers) and the revelation of a new form of magic, the True Power, and a convincing reason given why we haven't seen it before (although we have, kind of). We also get to meet a deadly new form of Shadowspawn which presents a real sense of menace, just as we were starting to get bored of Trollocs and Myrddraal. As with the last three books, multiple storylines proceed in tandem and build to a series of large-scale, epic climaxes which shift the balance of power in the world and the story and leave the reader eager to plunge into the next book.
However, several key problems emerge or are solidified in this book. There is a lot of talk and overlong chapters in which very little happens. Forward character development proceeds satisfyingly for several characters, but others (most notably Elayne) seem to be stuck going round in circles to the increasing frustration of the reader. The fact that one of the most interesting and morally complex characters in the entire series dies in this book is also rather irritating (given how reluctant Jordan is to kill off characters in this series). The introduction of the Kin also feels like a redundant step too far. On top of the Aes Sedai, the Aiel Wise Ones and the Sea Folk Windfinders, we really didn't need yet another group of female channellers and their attendant politics. On the other hand, Jordan sometimes gets criticised for his introduction of a whole new bunch of characters among the White Tower Aes Sedai who are assigned to flush out traitors, but he doesn't devote much time to them and they are clearly essential for the resolution of the Aes Sedai civil war storyline.
A Crown of Swords (****) is largely a satisfying continuation of the story despite the increasing longueurs in some of the storylines. Some of the new characters and elements introduced are more successful than others, but broadly there is still the sense the story is going somewhere with continuing hints that we are moving towards a definitive conclusion. Unfortunately, this is the last time for several volumes that this is apparent. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and from Tor in the USA.