The ninth installment in Jordan's sprawling Wheel of Time saga is as bountifully pregnant with plot threads as its predecessorsDand as bewilderingly esoteric for readers who have yet to commit its previous episodes to memory. Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, seems no nearer to fulfilling his destinyDto unite the embattled races of his domain against the Dark OneDthan he was in The Path of Daggers. The warmongering Seanchan are pouring into Ebou Dar, setting refugees in flight and complex schemes in fidgety motion. Perrin Aybara is distracted from his mission to shepherd the prophet Masema to Rand when he pursues the rebel Aiel who have kidnaped his wife, Faile. The mystical sisterhood of the Aes Sedai remain divided between Elaida, pretender to the title of the White Tower, and Egwene al'Vere, ally to Elayne, Queen of Andor. Elayne, Rand's lover, barely escapes poisoning, and Rand himself, still smarting from the unhealed wound of an assassination attempt, shapeshifts through a variety of disguises to pass unnoticed in hostile territories. Jordan can always be counted to ground his dizzying intrigues in solid chunks of cultural detail, and he here rises to the occasion, with chapters as dense as Spenserian stanzas with symbols and rituals. Not all of his subplots tie together, and fewer than usual of his vast cast of characters make a memorable impact. Nevertheless, he manipulates the disorder of his narrative to credibly convey a sense of an embattled world on the verge of self-destruction, and he entertainingly juxtaposes the courtly civility of his villains with the precarious chaos they cause. Devotees accustomed to this ongoing epic's increasing lack of focus will no doubt find it on target
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