I can't remember the last time I zipped through a book in this series quite so quickly. Don't get me wrong, with all books in the series, I felt a need to know where it was going and what was going to happen so they kept me engaged, but there were also quite a few chapters that were a chore to get through. Sanderson, however, has definitely breathed new life into the series. Now, I feel bad saying this since the only reason he took over the series is because Jordan died, but this book is the best one in a long while. Jordan, of course, gets the credit for creating the storyline and the plot, having carefully drafted his vision ahead of time, but Sanderson actually made the novel engaging and quick paced. I wonder how Jordan would have handled the last novel in the series, and somehow I feel like he may not have done as good with the prose aspect. Originally Jordan had intended one final novel which Sanderson broke into three separate novels - I wonder if Jordan eventually also would have decided to do this if he had the opportunity to continue writing - if he hadn't, the final novel would have felt very rushed as he finally tied all the plot lines together, and he probably still would have spent too much time talking about clothes and then breezed over the important plot developments as he did in a few previous novels. I also liked that Sanderson didn't feel the need to incorporate a chapter for every character - while I have complained before about Mat or Egwene not being in a novel that's because they were cut out after cliff hanger endings. It was a wise choice to leave Elayne out of this novel - she gained the crown after way too long of a discussion about it at the end of the last novel, and there was really no need to talk about her pregnancy. As I said in my last review, I had hoped that separating Aviendha from Elayne would lead to some more development for Aviendha rather than simple side kick, and there were a few chapters from her view (she was a bit dense, but ends up enroute to Rhudean for her test to join the Wise Ones).
A large chunk of the novel is devoted to Rand, and while some of Rand's attitude about needing to be hard (confusing strength and hardness) is getting a little old, his chapters are still much more interesting than they have been in a while. Still, with all the women plotting to keep him from getting too hard (they fear if he is too hard, he will only be worried about the battle, and not what he leaves behind for the survivors), it seems like if they had just sat him down a few novels back and tried to reason it out with him, it might have worked better than attempting to manipulate him, thus making him untrusty and harder.
Mat had a few chapters but not too much plot development for him. His army is enroute to Caemlyn, and he encounters different adventures on the way. He definitely added some humor - some of it was cheesy, but still enjoyable compared to the overall seriousness of the book. He has promised Thom to help him rescue Moraine so that will probably be one of the main plot lines in the next novel.
Now as annoying as some of the Aes Sedai are, some of my favorite characters are Siuan, Verin, and Egwene, and Egwene completely owns this book. Her quiet and dignified stand against Elaida in the White Tower continues and her poise and logic gain her the respect of many women in the tower. Gawyn finally wakes up from whatever hill he was under, and discovers that Egwene is the Amrylin Seat for the rebels and that he is fighting on the wrong side (he also finally gets news that his sister is properly sitting on the throne). In the past few novels, Gawyn has annoyed me because he keeps picking the wrong sides - instead of trusting that all the women he loves are doing the proper thing, he stayed on the opposing sides, and only now switches over. One thing that quite amused me about the Amazon reviews, is that while most of them think Sanderson is doing a good job, others complain about his prose and how it took them right out of the narrative. I admit one of the lines they mentioned wasn't quite fitting, but as for the rest? One particular line seemed particular fitting for a character view from Gawyn because he is a whiny brat, and it's not like Jordan was a master of prose. Run on sentences, repetitive description - yes; master of beautiful phrasing - not so much.
One other good thing is that Sanderson tones down on the sexist portrayal of women. Yes, Nynaeve still pulls her braid but that's a character quirk so he couldn't completely get rid of that, and of course he had to have the women sniff here and there, but a lot less crossing of arms under breasts. Also, even though there wasn't much of Perrin and Faile, she didn't come off as shrill, and instead was portrayed as an intelligent woman that has to make tough decisions. Finally, a woman that can't wield the Power that might actually be well portrayed. Basically, if Sanderson keeps this up, the series is definitely going to end on a high note. He actually made me start caring about the characters again.