Alas, I'm skipping books in Ms. Wells' chronological publishing order. Not my fault; blame the library system.
I started off Wheel with another enjoyable splash into another hugely entertaining setting. Monsoon season strikes Southeast Asia, it seems, with roads turned to muddy rivers, and jungles so dark you can't see a thing. I could practically smell it, having never forgotten my sojourn in Thailand a few years back.
Add to that a spirit of slightly antagonistic magic, a nature that fills with dark spirits when its rhythms are upset, and a cast of out-of-Empire guests who make the cosmopolitan flavor of Duvalpore complete. Oh, and a possessed puppet. *nods*
And we're off! Our heroine, Maskelle, has been cursed and banished, but now is being summoned back to her temples and companions: something's trying to destroy the world, and only she can stop it. This turns out to be more true than I expected, due to the deft plot detailing at work. There was a vague sense of details arbitrarily selected, of a spirit randomly out of its mind, until all at once, everything coalesced into excellent cohesion. I very much enjoyed the main thrust of the book's plot. It led me a merry chase through this or that side road, and in the end it delivered beautifully.
Alas, there were a few distractions along the way. The random attachment of Maskelle and Rian, seeming to hook up only so there can be emotional reasons for trying to save the other from danger, could have been explained better at the start to avoid the feel of an obvious plot detail. Again as in City of Bones, the otherworldly plane that arrives is described without attaching meaning, and comes across as arbitrary. If the details aren't important, why are they mentioned? It gives me the sense that there are meanings behind the appearance of the otherworld, but they're not to be shared with the characters. The characters of the current world are supposed to be left in the dark. But that wasn't mentioned either, so the one who was really in the dark was me.
Rian, for all his apparent hotness, didn't do as much as I expected him to. Rather, what he did was get into fights. I got the impression that Maskelle was keeping him around for his flesh rather than his brains, of which he exhibited less than usual. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little mystery in who the bad guys were; it was more a matter of proving it that delayed the plot. There was a sense of detective-novel around this story, combined with history-book from the continual detailed mention of the locations/directions of the canals and the locations of various rooms in the Marai temple. It felt like the author was looking over at a schematic, and was compelled to mention location because she could see it. Yet for all the mentioning, I was still lost half the time; there seemed little reason for me to need to memorize the order of the Marai chambers, courts and galleries. The second half of the book really felt weighted down by facts compared to the light and action of the first half. As if when the characters arrived in the city, they began to be surrounded by stone and darkness, and had to feel their way, confused, through the plot. And lastly, I kept picturing the heroine Maskelle as a Thai woman, despite her name not feeling right on my tongue compared with the other Empire names, because the author never described her skin tone, just her many braids (and why can't Thai have many braids? Huh?). What she does do is describe all the pale people as pale, but those pale people are all from outside the Empire. Yet on the cover art, Maskelle is portrayed as very dark-skinned. So are all of the Kushorit dark skinned like Maskelle, or are they Thai-toned (Angkor-toned?), to match the culture used in the book? It's a nice thought to imagine a world where no one notices anyone else's skin tone, but that's not the world I, the reader, live in. I enjoy the exotic flavors of mixed cultures. Just tell me what I'm looking at, so I can see the characters as the author sees them. All I'm asking.
The use of the sand art as a literal forming of the world was a fabulous detail. Pulled, I'm guessing from the sand mandalas of Tibet. Those just awe me completely, and imagining one turned to the task of drawing the world really held my interest. I enjoyed how it tied into the Adversary's fate; again, very well done plotwise.
Again, Ms. Wells blew me away with her cultural description and her setting. Top notch, 100%. Can not get enough of her settings. How does she do that? I have to read more of her books to figure that out. The character details were a bit flat, and the otherworld plane (is there one in every book?) was a letdown, but I'm still giving this three stars of five, because the beginning of the book was so incredibly strong that I couldn't put it down, even when things got dry.