In my memory, 'The Shadow Rising' was the book that started the decline of 'The Wheel of Time' as a series before it recovered itself at the end. Uh, I was very, very wrong. In many ways it is the strongest book yet.
Rand is growing in power and has had a few shaky moments where he realizes how much more he needs to learn if he going to survive to the Last Battle. The Aiel had cropped up in two earlier books, most dramatically, of course, at the end of 'The Dragon Reborn'. There is also the matter of prophecies among the Aiel that name Rand as a great leader and it is in their homelands, the Waste, rather then in the squabbling Westlands that his next steps must take him. So he goes, along with Egwene and Mat (and a diminishing Moiraine).
Meanwhile stories with the weight of truth have reached the Stone of Tear where everyone has been recouping of Whitecloaks - a military order of religious fantatics - attacking the Two Rivers and searching for certain young men, by name. Perrin resists following Rand and travels with Loial, Faile and three Aiel to do whatever it takes to protect his home.
Lastly, Nynaeve and Elayne feel obligated to continue their quest for the Black Ajah, and clues in the World of Dreams point them further East to war-troubled Tarabon. With them go Thom and the streetwise Thief-Catcher Julien. They travel by Sea Folk ship and eventually meet up with a certain antiquarian-collecting trader turned smuggler Doman Bayle who was last seen in 'The Eye of the World'.
Oh, and there is a small matter coming to a head in the White Tower that make things very difficult for Min, Siuan and Leane.
In some ways its conservation of characters, but in others it seems like Jordan has a Plan for many of his apparently minor characters. When first reading the series it kept me alert at every interaction in the books, paying close attention because there was a legitimate feeling that a closer reading of the series would be rewarded.
Each book expands the world of this story and lays groundwork for the series, but 'The Shadow Rising' introduces the twisted door ter'angreal and the answers/gifts they provide, the World of Dreams/Wolf Dream and the prophecies that abound there. More significant viewings from Min are also introduced. The events of this novel irrevocably alter the world that the people from the Two Rivers thought they were adjusting to, and more formerly secondary characters become fixtures and important POVs.
The Wheel of Time
Next: 'The Fires of Heaven'
Previous: 'The Dragon Reborn'