I was very fond of The Eye of the World, the first novel in the series and one which managed to nicely encapsulate a lot about what I enjoyed about high fantasy. It wasn't the most original fantasy novel in the world but it gave us likable characters, believable interactions, and a fun climax which heralded things to come. The Great Hunt is an excellent follow-up but suffers, in some respect, by the fact is meant to be the second installment in a twelve-part series with a lot of the twists already telegraphed by the book's blatant foreshadowing.
The premise is hero Rand al'Thor trying to ignore his recently discovering channeling. Given male channelers invariably go mad, this is understandable. Unfortunately, Rand is also the Dragon Reborn so there's no getting around his destiny. It's his job to punch the Dark One, Satan more-or-less, in the face. Complicating this inevitable showdown between good and evil is the fact the continent is being invaded by an eastern empire called the Seanchan.
Basically, evil Knights of the Round Table, the Seanchan are descended from past conqueror Arthur Hawkwing and believe themselves entitled to all lands in the continent. When two magical artifacts are stolen from the Aes Sedai, Rand and company must go off to find them before his best friend Mat dies of a magical curse. It may seem like I'm spoiling a lot but I'm not even touching on the various twists and turns this book possesses.
The Great Hunt's plot amounts to a very extended chase scene with a lot of fascinating diversions. I've seen worse plots for a book, though, and many of these diversions go in fascinating directions. For example, there's tests which take place in alternate timelines and worlds as well as a question of what would happen to this one if events played out differently. Parallel realities and alternative history is nothing new to science fiction but is a surprising addition to a epic fantasy series like The Wheel of Time.
The book's primary appeal is in its characterization of the cast as well as introduction of many new figures. We get a lot of new insight into Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, and some characters I didn't expect to see a return of like Domon the boatman. Rand is struggling with his channeling and needs his friends more than ever but none of them are there. Instead, he is befriended by a beautiful and mysterious newcomer to the group who promises him the world. Poor Rand is way, way out of his league with her and why she's interested in him can only relate to his terrible destiny.
I also like how Robert Jordan expanded on the Aes Sedai from their rituals and practices to specific members. The Black Ajah is a great idea and one which adds an immense amount of tension to our heroes' interaction with their nominal greatest allies. I do think a reveal toward the end of the book would have been more effective if the identity of the traitor hadn't been revealed earlier, though, and we get a much better one latter on down the line. The Darkfriends are getting a surprising amount of characterization despite being literal servants of the Devil, showing how one might go from being an otherwise normal person to a member in a doomsday cult out to destroy the world.
There's a lot of great moments in this book with my favorite being what happens to a character who falls into the hands of the Seanchan. While no physical violence is done, the sheer emotional abuse done to a sympathetic and lovable character is horrifying. It made me hate the Seanchan with every fiber of my being and I hope they get what's coming to them in future books. It's strange but I hate the imperialist conquerors more than I hate the literal servants of evil. I also loved the character of Selene, the aforementioned mysterious woman, who brought a very different energy to the book and Rand's adventures.
Less enjoyable was the diversion of the heroes to the nation of Cairhien, which ostensibly is mired in intrigue from top-to-bottom. The problem isn't the premise but the fact the Cairhien seem to be less astute players of politics than a bunch of catty high-schoolers who just so happen to rule a country. Rand's complete disgust with the whole thing was one of his more enjoyable moments. I also thought Rand's self-pity and angst about being a channeler went a little over-the-top in places.
I'm hoping Rand will be better about seizing his destiny in the next book but I'm not hopeful. It's hard to believe not only are men willing to follow Rand but four women are already in love with him. The downgrading of favorites from the last book, Thom Merrilan and Moraine, was also unwelcome. Thankfully, both characters still got important scenes which furthered their character arcs.
In conclusion, The Great Hunt was a bit slow in places but I came to love numerous characters inside it. It's still a heavy complicated read for those individuals who prefer things a bit snappier but if that's what you're looking for, The Wheel of Time probably isn't what you're looking for anyway.