And wow, am I really not a fan.
I'm kind of surprised by this given how well I've taken to authors like Mercedes Lackey, David Eddings, and to a lesser extent LE Modesitt (to speak only of the fantasy genre). But overall I found this book amazingly boring and derivative.
As I read it I felt like I was ticking off a checklist. "This is ripped off from Tolkien, this is from Eddings, Tolkien, Lackey, Tolkien, Eddings again, this bit was done in 'Doctor Who', Tolkien again..." And I know that it's hard to throw a stone in the epic fantasy genre without hitting something that you can trace back to Tolkien but here it feels like the writer is lazy. We spend the first 2/3 or so of the book on a sort of travelogue across the country by traditional means, but when it's time to move the story along but the protagonists are surrounded so we conveniently find The Ways -- a magically created sort of extradimensional highway/tunnel system which reads just like the trip through Moria (sans Balin's tomb anyway) complete with someone surreptitiously tailing the group behind in the total darkness. And the Fades are Black Rider clones with cloaks that don't move with the wind. Oh, and did I mention that the guide is also royalty in exile with an unclaimed title? Argh.
The name/language bits are mostly hokey, too. The thing that really sells Middle Earth is the thing that Tolkien was good at -- Language. And I don't mean all the made up Elf crap, not directly at least. What I do mean is how things like place names don't feel awkward within the given languages. There's a connectivity to them even between languages, like the rough edges have been sanded off of the words and people have been using them for centuries. Jordan tries to replicate this by having multiple names for things, like "Fade" or "Myrddraal" -- even though the first is intended as a commoner's term its currency is lost by the second which sounds made up and dumb without the characters giving other bits of linguistic or cultural underpinning. This actually works sometimes like with Shadar Logoth and Shayol Ghul but it's really hit or miss. The term "Darkfriend" really sticks in my craw for how it's supposed to be some deadly insult but when I read it I get the same reaction as when a white person is referred to as a "honkey".
The climax of the story is odd to me. Rand gets separated, of course, and then finds himself with an umbilical cord of light, which teleports him to a battlefield so he can unleash a Matrix-style can of whoopass on the bad guys and then climb a stairway to heaven to confront the Devil (and without having to play a fiddle). And after the lingering detail Jordan usually gives, the clash between good and evil happens quickly. Plus, the energy thread or whatever it was is never really explained and doesn't really dovetail with the use of magic in the rest of the book. Rand is teleported back to where he started only to discover he's more powerful than you could possibly imagine and able to tap vast powers reminiscent of another nascent sorceror (and Neo a decade later). I found that lacking in reward as a reader.
Also, the first time through a story (and often the second, third, and fourth too) I'm usually pretty blind to plot holes. But this has a pretty annoying one. Nynaeve doesn't ride with the group out of Two Rivers, yet she finds them in Baerlon like she's got a GPS. We soon learn that she does, in fact, have a homing beacon of sorts due to her contact with the True Source which gives her a special tie to Egwene in particular. However, shortly afterward the party is scattered but now that it doesn't help the story this gift of Nynaeve's is never mentioned again. Oops.
I'm also skeptical about the travel in mixed company. Lan and Moraine don't pose a problem, but as things moved along it seemed to me that there should be some raging hormones from time to time with the mix of Egwene, Perrin, Mat, and Rand (the book is pretty clear that Nynaeve (damn that is a hard name to type) is still young but is older than the others). Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there should have been massive amounts of teenage shagging going on while the characters were on the run, but particularly when Egwene and Perrin were on their own before meeting the wolfpack it felt naive that there wasn't even a hint of Blue Lagoon there. Especially when shortly afterward Jordan goes to great length to develop a kind of sexual tension when Egwene spends time with the Tinkers and is touched on too when Rand and Mat are limping toward Camelyn and a couple of the farmers' daughters gives them the eye.
And as much as gets made about the teeming mass of characters in the series, I wasn't really impressed. Most of the characterization is telling rather than showing. I don't get a lot of difference in dialogue or tone between the main characters unless they're being influenced from the outside. Thom sounds like Rand sounds like Lan, so when everyone is together it's sometimes hard to pick out who's talking. This is emphasized while Mat, Rand, and Thom are boating toward Whitebridge with a boatload of exaggerated accents.
I will say though that I did appreciate the political alignments that don't line up symmetrically, although having up to three different flavors of Aes Sedai (Red, Black, and Moraine says at one point she's Blue) again gets pretty complicated when you're also juggling Children of Light and Tinkers and Queens and the Dark One. That was probably the most interesting part of the story to me, with Thom Merrilin a close second. While I had thought early on that perhaps he was a plant for the bad guys, at first I was disappointed when he wasn't but came back around and grew to appreciate the mystery around him to the point that I think he's my favorite character.
Anyway, enough bashing. I'm sure I've pissed in at least one person's Cheerios here, so let me apologize if that bowl of cereal was yours. I really tried to like it, and I'm sort of annoyed that I don't like it given how it seems to have fairly broad popularity, and Rand gets a name check in the "G33K and G4M3R Girls" song. You can't win 'em all, I guess.