Wheel of Time Reread Part 5: The Fires of Heaven
The Fires of Heaven is about Rand ascendant. The first three books of the Wheel of Time was about Rand finding his place in the world. The Shadow Rising was Rand taking control. Fires of Heaven sees Rand actively and effectively pursuing his goals. He is know wise enough to see his enemies goads for what they are and strong enough to not play directly into their hands. Unfortunately, Rand is also losing something of himself in this. He now finds that he must use people, even his friends, to accomplish his goals. All that being said, the true star of this book is Nynaeve. Every book is about a further step in Rand’s journey, he is a constant presence, but other characters come and go. The Shadow Rising was as much about Perrin or even Elayne as it was Rand. Perrin doesn’t appear in Fires, and Elayne is mostly there to play off Nynaeve, who is finally forced through changes that her younger companions have been facing since the first book.
Fires of Heaven has a lot going on. It is easily the most expansive book in the series so far. The continued splintering of the the central characters is upped by POVs from new characters and more running subplots. There is Rand and the Aiel and all of the attendant characters: Aviendha, Egwene, Mat, Moiraine, Lan. Then there is Nynaeve and Elayne in the east. And Suian, Min and Leane traveling south. And finally, new to this book, Morgase plays a significant role. Each of these stories could have carried a book on its own, but they are all crammed in here. The structure of the book is such that Rand’s part of the story doesn’t really get going until about the halfway mark and by then Siuan’s and Morgase’s are mostly finished.
Siuan must deal with the radical change in standing that has happened to her. Before she was arguably the most powerful member of the world’s most powerful group, now she has not only lost her position, but also the very skill that made her part of that group. What is amazing about Siuan is that she doesn’t blink. Her life has been shattered? Well, she’ll salvage the pieces she can and keep moving forward. She has lost everything that defined her as a person, but manages to keep going on sheer anger. Characters think of stilling in WoT as fatal, but this seems to be primarily because most Aes Sedai define themselves by that ability. It is as though crack addicts were lauded for their drug use, but then when it’s taken away must deal with both the withdrawal and the loss of prestige. Siuan takes to her quest to unseat Elaida not for revenge, or at least primarily not, but because she needs that to keep her from becoming despondent over her stilling. She doesn’t need any help to realize this, she knows it and will do what she must to survive. It also gives her a reason to push past the indignities that she must suffer as a part of her loss of prestige. No one would deliberately embarrass the Amyrlin Seat, but plain old Siuan is fair game. Leane is not quite as strong as Siuan, but she realizes the closest thing to an advantage that her situation provides. Losing her old life means she can create an entirely new one; that she can become the person she wishes she had been all along. It seems kind of odd that someone as successful as Leane could have such great regret for her life choices, but it is not as though her change comes out of left field. Ever since Leane showed up in The Great Hunt she made no secret of her appreciation of men, commenting on Perrin’s shoulders and the like. The strength of The Wheel of Time is that comparatively minor characters, like Siuan and Leane, can carry large parts of a volume or two. Min, a more important character to the narrative than either of the two former Aes Sedai, doesn’t have anything to do until the next book. Her being with the others is only a way for her to get from where she was to where she needs to be.
Morgase has an even rougher time than Siuan, I would say. Readers have known since the third book that she was a thrall to Rahvin, but no one was really in a situation to help her. The Forsaken are everywhere and Rand hasn’t really been in a situation to confront them directly. Still, Morgase’s story is a tough one to deal with because she has essentially been raped. Raped and brainwashed. Nobody in the books seem to notice. Of course, as far as most of them know, at least in this book, she was merely in love with a douche bag; they do not know that she was compelled by one of the Forsaken. Rahvin goes almost out of his way to humiliate her in his path of taking the throne. He methodically erodes her support among the nobility and the army, moreso than he probably needed to since he is one of the Forsaken. We know he must get rid of her because he comments on how hard she is to control, even with compulsion, but I am not sure there is a character in this series that is more thoroughly degraded than Morgase.
Which brings us to Nynaeve, and Elayne I guess. Nynaeve gets crapped on in Fires of Heaven. By everybody. Some, much even, of it is necessary. Of all the people that came out of the Two Rivers, she had changed the least. But she had to learn that she was Wisdom no longer. She needed to admit she had much to learn so she could begin learning it. At the end of The Shadow Rising she bested Moghedien, but that was mostly a combination of luck and surprise. Now Moghedien knows to be on the lookout for her. The best part about Nynaeve in this book is her complete lack of self-awareness, despite be pretty good at deciphering what other people’s problems are. She gets all of her preconceptions about herself broken down from the start. Nynaeve thinks she knows everything about herbs and healing without the power, but early on she is shown just how incomplete that knowledge is when she and Elayne are doused with forkroot. She also realizes that she does need Thom and Juilin around to watch her back. Then she has to let Elayne take charge, due to their masquerading as Lady and maid. Then there is the big shift in power between Egwene and Nynaeve. Before, Nynaeve had been a teacher to Egwene, a friend, but a friend in charge. Now with her newfound World of Dreams skills, Egwene turns the tables on her. She forces Nynaeve to face some the punishment’s she doled out as wisdom. Yes, Nynaeve ceded her authority by lying to Egwene, but Egwene only presses her advantage to cover her own lies. Nynaeve’s comeuppance was overdue, but Egwene was not is a position to deliver it. I know this is just another step on her path to becoming Amyrlin, but Egwene comes off as seriously childish and petty in that scene. It’s this big pivotal, necessary scene and instead of showing her growth as a character, Egwene comes off as a heel. After their forays into the World of Dreams, Nynaeve and Elayne meet the now Whitecloaked Galad. I think Elayne serious underestimates how Galad feels towards his family here. He does always try to what’s right, but I think for family makes it a big right for him, given his family history.
So they run away and join the circus. And again Nynaeve has a hard time. She inadvertently flirts with Valan Luca, another example of her complete lack of self awareness. She fights with Seanchan Elephant trainer Cerandin, and with the bear tamer. To cap it all off, she gets in an altercation with Moghedien in Tel’aran’rhiod, nearly getting herself killed and causing Birgette to be ripped out of there. Then she has to be the fake target for Birgette’s archery show. For 90% of this book Nynaeve is having bad things happen to her. Which makes her eventual triumph over Moghedien all the sweeter. Nynaeve gets broken down over the course of The Fires of Heaven, then builds herself back up better than before. Though she gets little training at the tower, this is Nynaeve learning how to be an Aes Sedai.
Now we have Rand and friends, whose story is actually pretty straightforward in this book. For most of the book it is Rand and company chasing the Shaido into the ‘wetlands.’ Rand and Aviendha consummate their ‘romance,’ but everyone knew that was coming. Mat becomes a General, with was a great twist. I love how he tries to aviod it, but can’t help spilling out his knowledge at the slightest provocation. He tries to run, but the battle for Cairhien won’t let him. Despite his every effort, Mat becomes a hero. There is Moiraine, who makes tons of cryptic comments about her future, but I was still surprised the first time I read Fires of Heaven. This book does more the cement her as a hero than any of the previous ones, despite all the good she’s done. She finally stops trying to order and lead Rand and starts advising him. And then she has more pull than she ever had before.
After Couladin and the Shaido are defeated it seems like everything is winding down to the lowest key ending the series has seen. Then some of the various story lines intertwine. Morgase escaping Rahvin forces him to proclaim himself King of Andor, which causes Rand to assume that he’s killed Morgase. Rahvin had no way of knowing how Rand would react to that. So Rand uses his newly discovered traveling method to launch a raid on Rahvin, but is interrupted by Lanfear attacking. She is not just a crazy ex-girlfriend, she is the craziest ex-girlfriend. Rand, who had been teetering but ultimately successful thus far absolutely fails against Lanfear. Which means it is time for Moiraine’s crowning moment of awesome, taking out the much more powerful Lanfear. It is an amazing and terrifying segment. Which makes the deaths of everyone else in Rand’s inner circle in Caemlyn about 20 pages later all the more numbing. At this point I could believe that anything was possible. Fortunately, Rand defeats Rahvin, with help from Nynaeve, with Balefire, restoring all those he recently killed. Robert Jordan absolutely knew how to write an ending. Even though I still don’t quite understand how the battle with Rahvin went, the whole last few chapters of Fires of Heaven are amazing.
Despite the lack of Perrin, Fires of Heaven is one of the best books in the series. This is the last glimpse of hope for quite some time. After this book things get progressively darker. At one point Min (or Elayne, I’m not sure) comments that they are winning and the other replies “Are you sure?” For the longest time I was with the thought that the good guys were winning. With this reread I am not so sure.