“Men always believe they are in control of everything around them. When they find out they are not, they think they have failed, instead of learning a simple truth women already know.”
The irony, of course, being that the female characters throughout Wheel of Time appear more bent on being in control of everything than the men do. The not so subtle war between the sexes threads through this novel as one of the stronger themes.
The Wheel of Time series presents many cultures where women and men relate from a stance of separate but equal. The Two Rivers area so many of the characters grew up in have a Women’s Circle with equal (if not more) power of the traditional town council. The Mayor (male) and Wisdom (female) of each town hold the authority for the local community. The Aiel have their male Chiefs for each tribe, yet the female Wise Ones and Roofmistresses again hold an equal or higher power. The Aiel even have female warriors, but they have their own society and stay together rather than being integrated with their male counterparts. Even magic stands divided; the female half of the power remains pure and female magic wielders have great power. The male half has been tainted and male users go insane and die from it.
The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book of The Wheel of Time series, analyzes this duality at an individual level. Nynaeve, one Wisdom of Edmond’s Field and now training to be Aes Sedai, provides one of the main voices throughout the novel. Her growing group of companions now include an ex-court bard, a thief catcher (something like a private investigator), and a legend come back to flesh. Together with Elayne (heiress to a kingdom and fellow Aes Sedai in training), Nynaeve tries to evade the evil forces looking for her and find the rebel Aes Sedai to ally with them. Mr. Jordan drags Nynaeve and crew through a long and often aimless journey that includes spending time in a carnival and encountering many secondary characters that have been off scene for a while.
For the first time, Nynaeve begins to face her own faults. Her slow growth can be frustrating to read, as for every two steps forward she takes one step back. She also has very strong sexist views; men should obey her and are incapable of doing anything on their own. However, she finally begins to see her own flaws and slowly changes for the better. Elayne begins to find herself as well, embracing the chance to be something other than the princess and Aes Sedai her people expect of her.
Rand leads his allies in pursuit of a group of Aiel gone rogue (the Shaido). The resulting battle offers Mat a chance to find himself. He may long to embrace a playboy lifestyle but he has a strong sense of right that drives him. As the battle progresses, he finds himself a leader solely because he cannot bear to leave men to be slaughtered when he can see a path to victory. His role in the upcoming Last Battle becomes clearer. Meanwhile, Rand managed to find a healthy relationship with Morraine only though her complete surrender. Yet, Morraine may be the only female in his life that has stopped trying to manipulate or control him.
The Forsaken, Lanfear, continues to view Rand as her personal love property. However, Rand has enough other women problems that being loved by one of the major evil figures seems mild. Rand’s romance with Aviendha has been consummated but she continues to keep her distance. Yes, Rand has three women after him: Elayne (heiress to a throne and magic user), Aviendha (warrior turned magic user), and Min (who can see glimpses of the future). From the first book, Min’s viewing of Rand’s future love life gave readers plenty of time to adjust to the idea that all four (Rand and his three women) will somehow coexist. To date, he has kissed Elayne, slept with Aviendha, and thought longingly on Min. Mr. Jordan keeps the sex scenes off stage, a style I enjoy. So, while the characters have grown into adults and do have sexual relationships, the details remain hinted at rather than detailed.
Meanwhile, Min and her companions meet up with the rest of the Aes Sedai who stand in rebellion against the current ruler of the White Tower. Siune Sanche, the deposed leader of the Aes Sedai, begins to manipulate the rebels towards her own goal while Min longs to return to Rand’s side. Perrin does not appear in the novel at all, the glimpses through the world of dreams remind readers of his existence. Egwene steps out of the shadows of others and begins to express herself as a leader. However, her focus increasingly becomes selfish as she moves further away from her companions of earlier books.
For readers of epic fantasy, The Fires of Heaven can be frustrating. Great epics often rely on the eternal friendship of the main characters to drive the plot along. Mr. Jordan provides us with characters that remain friends yet often get angry with one another and even more startling, work from motives that differ from one another. Whether than being a united front against evil, they allow normal petty motivations to lead them to be in conflict with each other from time to time. Lastly, Mr. Jordan violates the traditional epic fantasy premise that the characters fighting for good must be spotlessly good. Not one character in the Wheel of Time epitomizes good; they each have weaknesses that cross that ethical lines. While other books touched on this, The Fires of Heaven really begins to explore this theme.
This book also marks the complete transition from story lines completely encompassed within one novel to being a true serial. Like a soap opera, all the story lines continue from past books though this book with little resolution. Despite that, the ending still had the feeling of being an ending (just not THE ending).