When Robert Jordan's entire Wheel of Time series was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award this year, I knew I wouldn't have time to read all of the books. While you might think that's due to laziness, it should be noted that the series consists of 14 books, 10,000+ pages, and 4.4+ million words. According to my Goodreads stats, I'm averaging something like 12,000 pages a year, and given the fact that I only had a few months before votes were due, it was basically impossible. Fortunately for me, I didn't particularly care for the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, so reading the entire series became unnecessary. That being said, the publisher, Tor books, was exceedingly generous in making the entire text available in the voters packet, so I thought I'd give the series another chance before voting. I got about halfway through the second book, The Great Hunt, before I had to cast my votes for the Hugo, and I felt good about my ballot. I finished the book not long after, and I must say, it's a big improvement over the first book, even as it suffers from many of the same issues.
The story picks up where we left off, with our heroic band of misfits taking refuge in a town, waiting for a bunch of Aes Sedai to consult on the happenings of the first book. Nynaeve and Egwene plan to accompany them to train as Aes Sedai, while the rest plan to return home. Our nominal protagonist, Rand al'Thor, has definitively been identified as "The Dragon Reborn" (basically a "Chosen One" type of situation), and is thus developing some major trust issues. Not long after the arrival of the Aes Sedai, the city is attacked by Darkfriends, and two powerful artifacts are stolen, including the cursed dagger which is magically linked to Mat, so it seems that our three farmboys are headed off with a large search party to retrieve the stolen treasures. Meanwhile, foreign invaders called the Seanchan have begun to encroach on the border, and there are all sorts of other weird happenings throughout the world.
There are a lot of similarities to the first book here. There's an ancient, powerful artifact that is in danger, there's a bunch of epic journeys, tangential episodic adventures, hearty stews (of course), our band of heroes is separated, and eventually reunited - you know, high fantasy tropes galore. The difference between this book and the previous is that each element here is better done and more memorable. It's still bloated and sloppy, but at least there's some more interesting stuff that's happening. It helps that we already have a pretty good handle on the cast of characters, despite a few new ones, so little time is wasted rehashing what we already know.
The episodic stuff actually works reasonably well. For example, at one point Rand, Loial, and Thurin (the latter being a new character) are separated from the search party and find themselves in a town called Cairhien, where they play something called "The Great Game", an intrigue-charged game of politics and maneuver amongst the various factions of the city (I'm guessing the name here is historically based). For various reasons, Rand appears to be a Lord to the city, so he is expected to play. His instinct is to simply ignore various invites and overtures, but it turns out that this is taken to mean that he is even more important than he appears. His inaction is interpreted to be a rather extreme action. And so on.
Nynaeve and Egwene have a couple interesting episodes as well. Their training with the Aes Sedai leads to a lot of additional knowledge about how things work in that weird magical lawyer/mafia hybrid environment. They meet up with Elayne and Min (both characters had bit parts in the first book, and were a welcome addition here), and have a rather disturbing run-in with the Seanchan later in the book (this is one of the more memorable tangents, actually).
There are plenty of other tangents that perhaps don't work as well as the above examples, but for the most part, the characters are growing. Rand is still a little whiny because he doesn't want to be the Chosen One (a fair complaint, to be sure), but he is also nowhere near as passive or blank as he was in the first book. He has spent some time training as a swordsman, and his chosen one powers are starting to add up (even if he's scared that they will eventually make him crazy). Mat is still a bit of a turd, but he's still cursed, so that's to be expected. Perrin makes himself useful, further developing his latent talent to talk to wolves. Nynaeve and Egwene are both learning a lot, and having to deal with some interesting problems. Moraine and Lan get some more background and motivation. Many of the side characters are further developed. A handful of new characters seem to have some interesting stuff to do.
All of this would still feel rather unsatisfying, except that Jordan manages to bring everything together for a big climax towards the end of the book that is genuinely involving and even exciting. Don't get me wrong, it's still bloated and overlong, but there is an actual payoff at the end of this book that is encouraging. When I finished the first book, I wasn't upset or anything and I had enjoyed myself well enough, but I wasn't that interested in exploring more of the series. This book does indicate that such a thing might actually be possible, and so I'm thus marginally more inclined to pick up book 3 at some point. None of this would have changed the way I voted for the Hugos, of course, but it's still encouraging.
From what I understand, the series bogs down for a while in the middle books, but eventually all the pieces are assembled for the final battle, which sounds like it could be an interesting experience. I'm planning on reading a bunch of 2014 books and stories in preparation for next year's Hugo nomination season, but if I read two books a year... I should be finished sometime around 2020. Er, ok, so maybe not. Still, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility, which is more than I could say after the first book, and you never know. After all, I already have all the books on my Kindle. Ah well, the Wheel turns...