A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan

AMOL_cover_lgI promised not so long ago to give my thoughts on each book of The Wheel of Time. I’m about thirteen books behind. But since I just finished the last book, A Memory of Light, I figured I’d go out of order and begin with my thoughts on the end. SPOILER ALERT!

1. Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re a fan of TWOT, you have to read AMOL. Reviews are really beside the point.

If you’re not a fan of the series, then frankly AMOL is not good enough to slog through the rest of the books. But my guess is you would have given up a long time ago.

2. Brandon Sanderson is a masterful plotter, as he showed in his own Mistborn trilogy, but even he has trouble with the dozens of unresolved threads that AMOL must wrap up. Many threads end in deeply unsatisfying ways, sometimes with mere cameo appearances. Padan Fain, for instance, gets just a scene or two despite his long presence in the series. Perrin’s fight with Slayer gets a lot more attention but also ends with a whimper: we never fully understand who Slayer is or why he did what he did for so many books. (Indeed, I’m convinced the whole Slayer plot could have been eliminated without hurting the series at all.) And poor Logain, despite all the prophecies of his glory, is forced to settle for the sympathy of widows and orphans.

Other threads get no resolution whatsoever. The Seanchan’s enslavement of channelers has been a lurking issue since the second book; it’s discussed plenty here without anybody deciding to do anything about it. (As much as I like Mat, his blithe acceptance of this slavery in the last few books is deeply disturbing.) Aviendha’s dark visions of the Aiel’s future barely get mentioned at all. And Shara, the mysterious land east of the Waste, makes a very significant surprise appearance, but there is neither forewarning nor follow-up about an entire subcontinent’s involvement with one of the Forsaken.

3. All of these criticisms are about sideshows, though, since the main feature of AMOL is the Last Battle. And it is a doozy. Sanderson tracks a huge number of POV characters through a very long and complex fight, and rather than falling to pieces the story just gets more and more exciting. There are so many spectacular moments it’s hard to do justice to them all, but just off the top of my head: the corruption of the great captains; Androl showing off his talent for gateways; Egwene unleashing vengeance; the Seanchan’s return; and poor Bela.

Seriously: however dissatisfying other aspects of this book (and series) may be, the Last Battle itself is a gut-wrenching thrill ride.

4. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the Last Battle too. One increasingly ridiculous trope is the comedy show of protagonists riding off solo to challenge Demandred in hand-to-hand combat. Another issue is the lengthy setup to the battle itself, which involves both tedious logistical planning (thanks for letting us know where that caravan is going!) and an absurdly unrealistic political negotiation about post-Battle affairs.

But the most serious problem is Rand’s long-awaited encounter with the Dark One. As it turns out, this is not an actual fight but more of an ideological debate. Yes, folks: Rand spends nearly the entire book in a battle of the mind, and the Dark One ends up being less of a villain than the concept of villainy itself. So abstracted, the struggle between these two antagonists — which is supposed to be the apotheosis of this entire series — ends up being a bore. (No pun intended.)

5. That takes me to the actual ending. When Jordan died, we TWOT fans were assured that he had not just decided on an ending, but had actually written an epilogue describing the fates of all of the characters. With all due respect for the dead, I have the sinking feeling that Jordan’s vision ended up shackling Sanderson rather than fulfilling the series’ potential.

The key defect with the ending is that it’s so abrupt. The Last Battle ends — and within pages this fourteen-volume series is over. We don’t get any real sense of the long-term implications of the world-shattering events that have just occurred. We don’t get the characters’ own reflections on what just happened. In fact we barely get to see the dead buried before Jordan gives each of the remaining protagonists (well, most of them) a tidy little scene that is supposed to be their send-off.

It’s not enough. Different epic series have adopted different approaches to endings, with varying levels of success. But the one essential is giving the readers a chance to breathe, to linger within the shared dream for just a little longer before saying goodbye. AMOL doesn’t provide that opportunity — the final flaw in a memorable, imperfect, frustrating, and glorious series.

★★★★☆

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Redshirts, by John Scalzi

7238735-LThis is a book that really shouldn’t work but then really does. Its basic concept is a joke about the hapless crew members of sci-fi starships who always end up dying on alien planets while the clearly identified main cast survives against all odds. This is a well known phenomenon that became famous during the various iterations of Star Trek (which gave rise to the actual term “redshirt,” due to these expendable crewmembers’ uniforms) but has a long and sordid history throughout fiction due to authors’ and other creative types’ understandable reluctance to kill off their protagonists. (There are related tropes, such as Black Dude Dies First, that are motivated by even more sordid concerns but there’s no need to get into that here.)

The basic premise of Redshirts is that the redshirts are the protagonists of this book. They slowly start realizing the extreme hazards of their menial positions, as well as the confounding invincibility of the captain, science officer, chief engineer, etc. And, as new crewmembers quickly discover, there is an informal and very creepy assignment system to ensure that the guaranteed-to-be-fatal Away Missions are given to the newbies who haven’t yet copped to the problem.

So far this sounds like a pretty thin basis for a story — and it would be if that’s all there was. But Scalzi does a couple of things. First he takes the story on a bizarre meta-fictional turn that many people won’t like; I was only lukewarm to it myself. But then, in the midst of this postmodern twist, he reaches for the heart strings and really scores a punch.

What I’ve always liked about Scalzi is his total lack of fear about big emotions. He doesn’t care about being melodramatic or mushy or whatever. He just swings for it, portraying love, loyalty, passion, what have you — without irony, and with complete conviction in the rightness of his characters’ feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you end up feeling a little bit left out. But more often than not his novels end up feeling big and warm and emotionally fulfilling, and it’s all because he’s ballsy enough to have his characters feel, and feel hard.

This book is no different. All sorts of characters, in all sorts of bizarre ways, get the opportunity to confront their deepest fears and desires (that’s why the book needs “three codas,” as its subtitle promises). It’s artificial and manipulative — and, for reasons that escape rational explanation, effective. Redshirts won’t work for everybody, but it worked for me.

★★★★☆

The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias

Here is a test. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account that paid an interest rate of 2% a year. If you leave the money in the account, how much would you have accumulated after five years: more than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102?

This test might seem a little simple for readers of The Economist. But a survey found that only half of Americans aged over 50 gave the correct answer. If so many people are mathematically challenged, it is hardly surprising that they struggle to deal with the small print of mortgage and insurance contracts.

The solution seems obvious: provide more financial education. The British government just added financial literacy to the national school curriculum, to general acclaim. But is it possible to teach people to be more financially savvy? A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reported that: “Unfortunately, we do not find conclusive evidence that, in general, financial education programmes do lead to greater financial knowledge and ultimately to better financial behaviour.”

115463-LThat quotation, from an article in this week’s Economist, gives me an excuse to mention the best personal finance book I’ve ever read: Andrew Tobias’s The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need. Self-aggrandizing title aside, the book is genuinely fabulous because it is hard-headed, practical, and best of all right.

Here are the takeaways from Tobias’s book:

1. There are no get-rich-quick schemes. Your goal should not be to become rich, but to become financially secure.

2. Forget about the stock market and other fancy investments. Instead, earn more than you spend. Then reduce your spending even more. It is easier to save a dollar than to make one.

3. If you must invest, put your money in low-cost, broad-based index funds, every month, for the rest of your working life, regardless of market conditions. (This is known as dollar cost averaging.) You are not smart enough to make money on fancier investments — and this includes ordinary blue-chip stocks.

And that’s basically it. (The book actually goes into some more advice on specific stock-picking tips, but I found that inconsistent with its earlier message so just ignored it.)

The one thing that I don’t believe the book really covers is the corrosive effect of comparing yourself with others. Who hasn’t felt a little bit envious of a friend who happened to purchase a ton of Apple stock on the cheap, or the co-worker who somehow manages to flip her house every few years at enormous profits? But the truth is that these are all distractions. There are always people who get lucky. Your goal shouldn’t be to chase that luck — a path that usually leads to disaster — but rather to control what you can and be conservative with growth options.

What does all this have to do with the opening quotation? What Tobias’s book does a good job explaining, especially in the opening chapters, is that personal finance isn’t some kind of mysterious alchemy. Sure, there are always new ways of making (and losing) money. But the basic principles that guide your decisions should be simple, practical, and most of all immune to fads. Save more. Spend less. And don’t sink your money into risks you don’t understand.

(Also, understand that 2% interest compounded over 5 years will get you a little more than  $10 on top of your $100 investment.)

★★★★☆

TV Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2

agot2I had serious doubts about HBO’s ability to translate George R.R. Martin’s sprawling series A Song of Ice and Fire to television. The books are so complex and eventful that a mere ten episodes did not seem like enough time to capture each volume. And frankly Season One of the show — renamed Game of Thrones, after the first book — did little to allay my concerns. Although the acting was surprisingly good (the kids in particular were fantastic), I thought that the show felt more like a synopsis of the books, rather than a freestanding creative work.

Season Two of the television series is very different — and much, much better. The deviations from the books have gotten greater, but almost invariably the changes are improvements. In particular, the scenes between Arya and Tywin Lannister, the two best actors in the show, are a delight. The characters never meet in the books. But in the show Arya becomes Tywin’s servant at Harrenhal, giving her access to his war councils, but more importantly giving us access to Tywin’s more human side. It is clear that Tywin becomes very fond of Arya, to the point of divulging more and more about his most private thoughts. And it is equally clear that every word Tywin speaks, however kindly, is poison to Arya’s ears. In one scene Tywin speaks longingly of his children and of the burdens and joys of being a father — and the camera flashes to Arya, who remembers very well her own father’s treatment at the hands of the Lannisters.

In other areas the show improves by subtracting from, not adding to, the books. The Night Watch’s expedition beyond the Wall, for instance, is treated in far more summary fashion, at the expense of Sam’s development, but to the benefit of accelerating Jon’s relationship with Ygritte. Theon’s storming of Winterfell, and the Stark boys’ escape, is told surprisingly well despite occupying only a few scenes. And the tense relationship between Tyrion and his sister while they await Stannis’s siege of King’s Landing takes only a few minutes but loses almost nothing in the translation.

There’s no question that the television show lacks the books’ rich texture, including much of the mythology that makes the Night Watch sections such a pleasure to read. But overall Season Two’s condensing of the second book is so successful that it makes me wonder whether Martin could have edited his own story a bit better. I am aware that Martin is scripting many of the television episodes. Hopefully he will take back from that experience an impulse to prune away at some of the books’ growing excesses.

★★★★★