[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome.]
This is a companion book to the series, released after A Crown of Swords, in 1997. According to Wikipedia, it's considered to be "broadly canonical" -- which is to say that it (unlike the RPG) was developed with Jordan's input, but that any new information it introduced was eligible to be contradicted later on. (Whether or not that happened, I don't know; I didn't see anything in my read-through that struck me as being off.)
Interestingly, the reason the book can exist in that nebulous middle zone of accuracy is because it's treated like an in-world document, written by some unnamed scholar living in the time of the series. This is not done as well as it could be: the scholar is left completely undefined, in terms of who they are and why they're writing. I know it would have introduced difficulties if they became a person in a specified position -- then you'd start wondering how they got that information -- but it would have added a degree of flavor that I, personally, would have enjoyed. (As it stands, about all you can conclude is that the writer isn't Aes Sedai, because the book talks about how the Tower probably has records they don't let outsiders see.) And it does fall down in a few places; the section on the Age of Legends discusses their achievements with terms like "molecule" and "anti-gravity" and "genetics" that are not, I think, generally known to Third Age inhabitants (nor are they presented as half-forgotten terms from the past). But overall I think the approach works fairly well.
The book is divided into six parts. The first -- and frankly the least interesting -- covers "The Wheel and the Power," and goes over basic cosmology, including channeling. The second, "The Age of Legends," expands on what we know of that time period and how it ended, then gives little potted biographies of each of the Forsaken, as well as descriptions of various kinds of Shadowspawn. The biographies, I have to admit, pall pretty rapidly: by the time you get to the fifth instance of "and this Forsaken's career as the governor of a conquered province was marked by horrible atrocities," they all start to blur together. But that's a general problem with the Forsaken, rather than the book itself.
Things get more interesting in Part 3, which is also where that "in-world scholar" approach most plays to its strengths. This consists of six chapters, describing the formation of the White Tower, the rise and fall of the Ten Nations, Guaire Amalasan and the rise of Artur Hawkwing, Hawkwing's rule, the War of the Hundred Years, and the Aiel War. The information here is fragmentary -- sometimes contradictory -- but plausibly so; it really does come across as being what historians have pieced together after the fact. (There are even digressions about how the information on subject X comes from a book which was thought lost until seventy random, non-sequential pages from it were found in somebody's attic. Which is a thing that happens in the real world, too.) I'll have more to say about this section in a bit.
Part 4 amuses the hell out of me: "Some Narrative Paintings of Questionable Authenticity." By which we mean, the covers for the first seven books in the series. Questionable, indeed.
Then we move on to "The World of the Wheel." This, along with the history section, contains the most new information, at least at the time it was published: it devotes a chapter each to worldwide geography -- including a brief note on the so-called "Land of the Madmen," which is the third major continent -- Shara (aka the place on the other side of the Aiel Waste), Seanchan, the exotic animals of Seanchan, the Sea Folk Islands, the Aiel, the Ogier, the Ways, and Tel'aran'rhiod. I admit to being less than enthused by some of the info here, though; the moral of the story seems to be that "Randland" (I don't think there's any other name for the area seen in the main map) is the only continent that managed to achieve a non-shitty balance where channelers are concerned. Seanchan was torn apart by despotic "Aes Sedai" until Luthair fixed it by chaining all of them up; Shara locks away all of its channelers except they might actually be the ones despotically running the entire show; the Land of the Madmen is basically Seanchan pre-Luthair. Oh, and they're all rigidly stratified by caste, too. To be fair, the Sea Folk and the Aiel go the other direction; they handle channelers just fine, without the stupidity the White Tower indulges in. But given that all of those groups are positioned as exotic Others to the inhabitants of Randland, it carries a whiff of "primitive barbarian/noble savage." At least to me.
Finally we go to "Within the Land," which breaks down the countries of Randland (including chapter for the White Tower and the Children of the Light). It, unfortunately, is less interesting. Much of this is, again, rehashing of what we already know, or providing minor details like the names and flags of rulers that hadn't yet come up in the story.
Conclusion? As companion books go, it's decent, though some parts are definitely more fresh and engaging than others. There's also new art, by Todd Cameron Hamilton; on the one hand it looks pretty amateurish (especially the faces), but on the other hand it isn't Darrell K. Sweet, so it has that going for it. Mainly, though, I'm reminded of what I said in my post on the roleplaying game: this, not the RPG book, is what I would hand to any player who hasn't read the series. Pair it with the system hack of your choice, and you can run a Wheel of Time game just fine.
In fact, reading through this book made it clear to me what the RPG could have done, and didn't. Remember how I said Part 3 was the most interesting to me? That's because reading through it gave me campaign ideas. You could run several different games off the Hawkwing material alone, because the book gives you enough information to use, without filling in all the holes and leaving no room for your own story. You could, for example, pit Guaire Amalasan vs. Artur Paendrag Tanreall, with the PCs on either side of the equation. (Hell, if I were running that, I might fiddle things so that Amalasan could have been the Dragon Reborn. Maybe all those "false Dragons" who could channel were actually the Wheel attempting to spin out Lews Therin's soul again, but getting thwarted before he could take his place in the Pattern. Sure, it contradicts actual WoT cosmology -- but I'm of the camp that says you should feel free to do that if it makes for a good game.)
Or -- and this is my personal preference -- set the campaign at the end of Hawkwing's reign, when he suddenly and violently turned against the White Tower. Because the book is written as an in-world document, it presents a variety of speculations for why he made that shift: Bonwhin had too much power; Bonwhin was trying to undermine him; Bonwhin had killed his first wife and children; Tamika (his second wife) was a renegade Aes Sedai; Hawkwing just succumbed to megalomania. But of course we, the external audience, give more credence than the in-world author does to the notion that it was the fault of Hawkwing's new adviser Jalwin Moerad, who, after the High King's death, went around "advising" a lot of other rulers who might have been able to hold the empire together . . . except that they all died not long after he showed up to help.
Seeing as how the section on Ishamael mentions the fringe theory that he got out of prison on a sporadic basis after the Breaking, and ran around messing things up whenever he was free, we know what to make of Moerad.
This isn't even a gaming book, and yet it's a better gaming book than the actual RPG. It doesn't have mechanics, but it gives you the information that might help you come up with and run a campaign of your own -- one that doesn't involve the PCs trailing along in the wake of the real heroes. If I had the time and an interested player base (neither of which I actually possess), I might try to run something in Hawkwing's era, and see if my system hack works. As it stands, though, anybody who wants it is welcome to take these ideas and have fun with them.
In other news, Sanderson's work meter recently jumped from "2nd Draft -- 100% done" to "4th draft -- 79% done," so he seems to be making good progress. If no delays get announced there, I will post about "The Strike at Shayol Ghul" in August, then dive back into the actual book analysis in September. See you all then!