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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The Wheel of Time Ends

MoL_logo_med_KO1Fifteen years ago, nearly to the day, was the last time I read a Wheel of Time book. The occasion was the publication of The Path of Daggers, the eighth book in the series, which I borrowed from a friend and read over winter break. I remember feeling frustrated at the slow pace of the series and vowing I would not read another word from Robert Jordan until the end was in sight.

Well, the last Wheel of Time book comes out today. It has the best title of the series — A Memory of Light — and it is written not by Jordan, who passed away several years ago, but by Brandon Sanderson, a more-than-capable fantasy author whose Mistborn trilogy was one of the best original works of fantasy of the last decade. When Sanderson announced on his blog that A Memory of Light would be released in January 2013, I remembered my vow and immediately penciled in a date to start rereading the series anew.

I’m not quite up to date — in a fitting coincidence, I’ll probably finish The Path of Daggers this week — but I have been enjoying myself far more than I thought I would. Fifteen years is long enough that I have only dim memories of the high points of the series, leaving plenty of room for suspense and surprises. At the same time, I’ve grown up enough as a human being and a reader that the series’ faults have become ever more glaring. 

There are plenty of very interesting retrospectives on The Wheel of Time out there. But I might as well provide my own in this vanity space. I’m planning to begin with a post on the overarching weaknesses of the series, at least as far as I’ve gotten. And I’d like then to do a post on each book with a few scattered thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of that volume. Let’s see how far this goes.