On the one hand, I quite liked Jordan's approach in this novel since it barely had any chapters from Rand al'Thor's perspective and was almost purely from his friends' points of view. There's only so much "woe me, I'm the Dragon Reborn, and I'm going to go mad" a reader can take. On the other hand, it is in this novel that Jordan's portrayal of women started getting on my nerves. I was willing to give Egwene some slack with some of her issues since she had been the one collared by the Seanchan in the previous book, and I figured some of her behavior was a result of this temporary enslavement. However, I quickly became annoyed with their attitudes in general - they all seem to think they know so much better than everyone around them even though they have a lot to learn. I'm not sure if this was an issue in this novel in particular (I'm a few novels past this one as I write the review), but they are also so fucking judgmental of other cultures that it's ridiculous, especially considering how much traveling they do. And yet, every time they meet people that do things differently from them they are scandalized and then instead of trying to understand these different cultures, try to make them change to conform with their views.
Rand has mostly accepted that he is the Dragon Reborn at this point, and even has a few followers after the battle that concluded the last novel which was somehow seen in the sky across the land. However, he feels frustrated that he's wasting time (just wait until the later books, Rand!), so in an effort to speed up his destiny, he takes off alone to Tear where the famed, impenetrable Stone of Tear is located. One of the prophecies of the Dragon Reborn states that the walls of Tear will fall, and that the Dragon Reborn will claim the famous sword that isn't a sword, Callandor. Instead of following Rand on his travels, the narrative focuses on his friends who are split into three groups. There are Loial, Perrin and Moraine that follow behind him; Elayne, Nynaeve and Egwene who end up enroute south; and Mat and Thom, the gleeman. Eventually all their paths and goals converge on at the Stone. The three Accepted (after being punished for running away, Elayne and Egwene are raised) are on the trail of the Black Ajah - thirteen Aes Sedai vanished shortly after they left the Tower, led by Liandrin, stealing ter'angreal and leaving three dead women. Siuan can't use any of the other sisters because she doesn't know who to trust, and most of the White Tower doesn't want to acknowlege the existence of the Black Ajah.
Moraine and her party discover that Illiam is under the thrall of Sammael, one of the Forsaken, setting up for the next novel, and Mat discovers that Elayne's mother's new lover has some evil plans for Elayne, and decides to follow her to warn her and his friends that her with her. As the reader discovers, Morgase's lover is actually another of the Forsaken, and the Stone also is under the control of one. Obviously, in addition to Rand's quest to get Callandor from the Stone, Jordan is setting up for quite a few adventures later. He introduces Faile (falcon in the Old Tongue) after Min warned Perrin that she had viewing of a hawk and a falcon perched on his shoulders. The legendary Aiel also appear throughout the novel as they search for the Chief of Chiefs, or their version of the Dragon Reborn.
Especially now that I'm much further into the series, it is amazing how much Jordan packs into these early novels. Not only does he set up stories and plots for later, but he also has a mission or quest that ties the novel together while the rest simply adds depth to the story. Still, as I said, he really starts losing me around here with the portrayal of his female characters. Mat also kind of irritated me in this novel since he grumbles way too much about his friends, and the way he cannot deal with Rand's ability to channel at all - every time someone tries to kill him he blames Rand instead of acknowledging the fact that he is also important. However, his luck that will become such a huge trait later really starts showing itself in this novel as well as the fact that he is ta'veren. That's another thing that surprises me as the series progress - while Mat annoyed me in the beginning, he is now my favorite of the male characters (although at this point and novel 4 it is definitely Perrin).