A Memory of Light: A Review and a Look Back

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I have now finished this final book in The Wheel of Time series, and I’ll get right to the obvious question: Are all the questions answered and all the loose ends tied up in the end? Well no, obviously, but the book does an admirable job of tying up most of the loose ends and bringing the series to a reasonable conclusion, though of course there are some questions that still remain. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone that is still reading or plans to do so in the near future, but I will say that the ending surprised me very much in some respects. There is one aspect of it that I honestly can’t figure out any explanation for, and I am wondering what Jordan’s intentions were, but overall, I found it satisfying and it made the journey through this series worthwhile.

I say that guardedly, because when I first picked up The Eye of The World (I got it simultaneously with the second book, The Great Hunt) back in December of 1990, I could not have imagined it would take over 23 years (has it really been that long?!?!) to reach the end of the journey. The first book was not terribly impressive, in my mind, and I might not have continued reading if the second book, The Great Hunt, did not intrigue me so much more.

The setup of the story in the first volume seemed unoriginal at best: a group of young people from an unassuming community have their lives turned upside down when great evil comes to town and it is revealed that at least one of them is not really just a farm lad, but is really The One. You know, The One Who Can Save The World. That’s not a particularly original story idea, as you can see connections to everything from J.R.R. Tolkien to George Lucas. Beyond that, Jordan’s execution of the story was not particularly compelling. There was awkward dialogue, and there was the annoying insistance on climbing into the thoughts of every single character for etended exposition and description and even constant exclamations concerning the horrifying nature of their predicament (Light! That gets old! Blood and bloody ashes!). It was not a great beginning.

And yet…And yet there was something that made me pick up the second book. Maybe it was just the fact that I already had it and didn’t need to go out and buy it, but there was something that kept me going. Maybe it was the characters, which have always been drawn vividly by Jordan. Maybe it was Jordan’s rather exceptional skill in revealing the patchwork of strange cultures that populate his world. Maybe it was the unknown future of the characters that Jordan hinted at in prophecies and visions. Maybe it was all these things and some unknowable chemistry in the book that made me just have to know what happened next, but the bottom line is that I did have to know. I cared about the characters and the story and I so I picked up the second book and began reading. Almost from the beginning of that book, I was much more impressed and by the end of it, I was hoooked. Jordan really hit his stride in that book.

But then the problems started. I had to wait until October of 1991 for the third book to be published, which wouldn’t have been too bad except that by the time it came out, I had forgotten much of the story and had to reread most if not all of the first two books before I could read the third one. The series continued to follow this pattern, with the books coming out about a year apart, and me re-reading some of the series in between each book, until the sixth book, after which things slowed down to an interval of about two years or even more between books. By then I had become frustrated by the sheer weight of the thing. The number of new minor characters seemed to be getting exhaustively large, the story appeared to be going in circles, or worse: nowhere, and the end seemed impossible to reach or even imagine. When each book came out, I still tried to get it and read it, and I re-read the parts of the previous books that I needed to read to know what was going on, but I was angry at Jordan and disgusted with the series by the time I reached the eleventh book, Knife of Dreams, in late 2005.

And then Robert Jordan died. I had not previously imagined that this could possibly happen, though of course it’s always a possibility that an author could pass on before finishing a book or a series. In Jordan’s case, I forgot all my frustration in a paroxysm of self-centered grief. I will never know the end! I thought. The story would forever remain unfinished, like a painting left by the artist with a bunch of empty white space where the lower half of the painting should be. Only this was worse, because a painting doesn’t leave you guessing nearly as much about what was going to be in that white space, whereas now we would never know the fate of Rand al’Thor or the other characters or the world they lived in. How could this happpen! How could Robert Jordan (and the universe) do this to me! In desultory fashion, I traipsed along through the five stages of grief and ended by resigning myself to utter futility when it came to ever knowing the end of this story.

Sometime later, I heard the rumors. Rumors that a new author was being asked to write the ending of the series. I was very skeptical at first, mostly because I thought this was probably an ill-advised, slapped-together project being put together by the publisher to wring some dollars out of the stalled series and stick an ending on that couldn’t possibly fit or bring any real resolution. I was convinced it would not only be unsatisfying but would probably ruin any good feeling about the series that I had left. But when I heard the author being asked to write the ending was Brandon Sanderson, and that the person asking him to write it was Jordan’s wife Harriet, I started to change my mind. Then I read Sanderson’s take on how he would attack this project, and I once again dared to hope, and to let myself be intrigued again about what might be in store for the characters and the story of The Wheel of Time.

For the most part, I think Sanderson has done a masterful job. Without changing the style or basic nature of the storytelling, Sanderson has been able to bring the story to a conclusion that seems right and rings true. It may seem odd to use that phrase in describing a fantasy novel, but what I mean by that is that it rings true to the internal truth of the world in which the story is set. That’s of paramount importance in a series like The Wheel of Time, because anything that doesn’t seem consistent with the story or the characters or the world as already revealed sticks out like an assault rifle in a Jane Austen novel.

Though we had to wait until 2009 to see it, I was thrilled with the first of Sanderson’s efforts, The Gathering Storm. It picked up the story where Jordan left off and moved it along at what seemed like breakneck speed toward the inevitable conflict of the Last Battle. The second Sanderson book, Towers of Midnight, suffered a little bit from being the middle book in Sanderson’s conclusionary trilogy, but it still admirably moved the pieces into place to set the stage for the battle to come.

And what a battle. You had to know that the final book would be mostly a chronicle of battle plans and the battle itself, but I don’t know of any fantasy novel that is more completely consumed with just detailed description of the alliances, plans and execution of an all-out war on several fronts as is this book. That makes it a much different book in some ways than all the others, and it’s possible that sheer battle exhaustion might overtake some readers, but for the most part it’s an exellent read that really brings the curtain down on the series, while remaining true to the spirit and Jordan’s original intent, or as much of that as can be perceived by the reader.

Part of that is due to the fact that Jordan actually wrote the ending. Sanderson read the final scene as Jordan wrote it back in 2007 and he placed it into the final book virtually unchanged. That’s remarkable in a way, but what is even more remarkable is that Sanderson was able to connect the dots between that ending and the state of the story at the time Jordan passed on. I don’t know the exact extent of the notes Jordan left, but I think no matter what state they were in, Sanderson has done a great job in seeing this series to the end.

Now that it’s finally over, I have mixed feelings about it. Relief is the most obvious sensation. Relief that I don’t have to continue to wait and wait to know the ending. But there’s also a certain amount of regret that it’s over. I didn’t really know until now how much I have enjoyed having this series around, and despite its problems, it has been fun and I’ve really loved reading it in so many ways. After re-reading the whole series prior to reading The Gathering Storm, I got to know the series in a way I hadn’t before, and I recommend reading the series that way, without the breaks between books that I originally had to endure, because it really works best when read all together. Sometime in the future I will probably start again, and get to know the story and the characters all over again, but for now I will just sit back and envy those who will be able to experience this story the way it was meant to be experienced, starting at the beginning, in that little town in the Two Rivers and seeing it all the way through to the end at Shayol Ghul. That journey covers almost 12,000 pages and over 4,000,000 words, and though I’m not convinced all of those words and pages were strictly necessary, I still think it’s a fun and worthwhile journey.

Here’s the list of things that I said before reading the final book would need to be addressed in order for the conclusion to be successful, along with my take on whether the book addressed the issue or left us hanging:

Tarmon Gai’don (the Last Battle): Check. The last battle is fought, almost interminably, in this book.
The Aiel: Their fate is addressed, but not totally determined, by the end.
The Seanchan: Check. Their role in the last battle is shown.
The Aes Sedai: Check. The fate of the White Tower and their plans for the future are shown.
The Sea Folk: They play only a minor role in the final book.
The Ogier: Loial makes an appearance and the Ogier play a role in the last battle.
The Borderland Army: Check. The issue of the Borderlanders leaving the Blight is addressed and their armies play a central role in the last battle.
Lan’s ride to Tarwin’s Gap: Double check. Lan is front and center in the last battle. What a stud.
The Seals on the Dark One’s prison: Check. The seals play a central role in the plot, though I’m not convinced the weay they are handled totally makes sense.
Shadar Haran: He is mentioned, though again, the way he is handled is not very satisfying at all.
Rand and Lews Therin Telamon: Check. The relationship between the two is explained pretty well, although there are still unanswered questions.
Nynaeve and Lan: Check. Nynaeve also plays her expected role and their fate is shown.
Moiraine and Thom: Check. Both play a role in the last battle, and their fate is shown.
Egwene and Gawyn: Check. Both play very central roles in the last battle, and their fate is shown.
Galad and the Children of the Light: The fate of the Children is not really specified, but is implied. Galad’s fate and his relationship with Berelain is shown.
Lan as King of Malkier: Check and double check.
Luc and Isam/Slayer: This is disappointing because it is never really adequately explained what Luc has to do with Isam or how they became linked, and whether one or both is actually Slayer.
Tel’aran’rhiod: Disappointing. Shown only with Perrin as part of the Wolfdream. The other characters’ knowledge and expertise in this area is just dropped. A lot of unanswered questions here.
Perrin and Faile: Check, although with qualifiers. They play central roles in the last battle but their part of the story is somewhat disappointing, especially with regard to Faile.
Mat and Tuon: Check. They play very central roles in the last battle and provide a lot of humorous moments.
Matt and the Band: They play very central roles in the final battle and their fate is shown.
Rand and Elayne/Min/Avienda: Check. The fate of Rand and his three girlfriends is shown.
Elayne’s twins (finally): No. We get no birth scene!!!
Birgitte Silverbow and Gaidal Caine: Check. Birgitte plays an important role in the last battle and their fate is shown.
Moridin: Surpisingly, he really plays only a minor role in the last battle.
Moridin/Ishamael and his link to Rand/Lews Therin Telamon: The link isn’t explained, but it plays a major role in the end.
Demandred: Check. He plays a starring role in the final battle, which is good because we’ve seen almost nothing of him until now.
Graendal: Check. She plays a role in the final battle and her surprising fate is shown.
Cyndane: Check. Again, her fate is a surprise.
Moghedien: Check. Her fate is kind of expected.
Logain and Mazrim Taim: Both play central roles in the last battle and their fates are shown.

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14 thoughts on “A Memory of Light: A Review and a Look Back

  1. I think he brought things down very well. It did help that Jordan always started with a clear end in mind, something he would repeat in correspondence when he started to fall prey to spin out (where you keep introducing new threads so you can explore new parts of your world). He was also gracious in responding to correspondence, even mine.

    On the other hand, the last battle felt more like three divisions, a couple of battalions and a few squads on the side of the light rather than Army Group Center on the western front.

    I’ve been thinking of it, and I suspect it was the need to get it all into the same book, but he really should have talked with someone like Glen Cook who has handled some large battles/wars and made them feel large.

    Otherwise, I was grateful to be able to finish the series, having started with it so long ago.

  2. I agree, Stephen, there was an odd feel to the last battle. It seemed like the hordes of Trollocs had no end, but there was barely anyone fighting for the good guys.

    Yes, grateful is a good word. After so long and after despairing of an end being written, it was nice to have one, and a pretty good one too.

  3. I’ve been on this journey a long time too (not as long as you) and I’m glad to be this close to the end. (My wife’s reading the book now, I’m sort of waiting for the Kindle version.) Can’t wait, but obviously, still am. =)

  4. Interesting that Harriet wouldn’t let them put out the electronic editions at the same time as the hardcover. She’s old school.

  5. Yeah. I’ve completely converted over to e-books now surprisingly. (I was a long time doubter but a way to read in the bathtub converted me) I still have a large stack of unread paper books but I doubt I’ll buy many paper books again. So the delay in the e-book version surprised me. I wonder if it has something to do with how the contracts were written?

    I disagree with the view of the first book. I think the first two books are fantastic. The best of the series. Yes it’s not terribly original but then neither was the first Star Wars trilogy. I think originality can be overrated. I think it was after the trip to the Ariel waste that things started to fall apart. Really up until then I thought things were moving really well. Then, as others have noted, he focused too much on minor characters whose arcs really went nowhere. He’d have been far better off keeping primarily with the POV of the major characters in book 1. I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of the flaws of the later books by Jordan were due to his deteriorating health. Like so many though I felt compelled to continue to read.

    I think Sanderson did a good job on the previous ones he dealt with. In contrast to some I noticed a very different style and I think he was wise to not try and ape Jordan’s style. However it’s clearly a joint effort with apparently sections that were largely just copied from Jordan’s drafts with minor editing. (I’ve heard this is more dominant in the final book)

    Writing big battles is hard. I’m curious as to whether the criticisms on this point are apt. In some ways its better to just bite off a small part of the battle rather than cover the scope.

  6. According to Brandon, the delay in the ebook release is purely the decision of Harriet, Jordan’s widow. she based her decision on the way that the best-seller statistics are compiled. She wanted to ensure that the final book would reach #1 on the bestseller lists as the pevious volumes have done. She felt that ebook sales would not be counted properly and would jeopardize the bestseller status of the book.

    I’m now picturing you reading in a bubble bath, Clark, and it’s not pretty. Do you get a mani-pedi afterward or before your bubble bath?

  7. My mistake.

    You said you think Sanderson’s style is very different from Jordan’s. Can you give examples of that?

  8. Oh geeze. That’s hard to do offhand. Basically Sanderson is more to the point than Jordan is. Less going on about each character’s aside annoyances at other characters. Sanderson, to me as I read the last two books, was much more recognizable as Sanderson. I found that a plus, mind you, given Jordan’s deterioration as a writer. Frankly, like Stephen King sometimes, he needed an aggressive editor IMO.

  9. I agree, Clark. Jordan’s editor was his wife, Harriet, and that sums up a lot of the problem with Jordan’s work.

    I agree with you that Sanderson’s writing in the final three books is much more succinct than Jordan ever was, and the pacing is more brisk, and Sanderson himself said that he didn’t try to immitate Jordan’s style.

    But on the other hand, there is a lot of the same type of writing in the last three books as there was in the others. I’m thinking mostly here about Jordan’s penchant for frequent and extended thought sequences, puctuated by exclamations in what I’ll call “Wheel of Time vernacular” (“Light!” “Burn me!” “Blood and ashes!” etc). Those specific idiosyncracies of Jordan’s writing certainly continued under Sanderson, and I didn’t see any effort by Sanderson to assert a very different “style” that would show an obvious break from the other books. That’s what I was wondering about. Sanderson’s other work isn’t very similar to Jordan’s style, but I think the last three WoT books are. I think this was partly forced on him because he needed to use some passages in the books (especially including the final scene) that were previously written by Jordan.

  10. I disagree about the Aiel’s fate not really being determined. They have found toh to the whole freaking world by sending their male channelers to the Blight and allowing them to be used by the Shadow. I would say their toh and purpose is restored? There was a point where there was an exchange between Aviendha and the Wise Ones.

    Besides that, they are now the mediators for all countries.

    Purpose and purpose, check, check.

    Unless I am missing something?

  11. I think the point I was making there was that the visions that Aviendha and others saw about their future were devastating and it appears that the future they saw was averted, but we don’t really know for certain because there was no other vision confirming that. In other words, yes, the things you say are probably true but we don’t know for certain what their future will be, or that the devastation that was seen in vision was completely gone. That’s all I meant.

  12. I think the future conflict between the Aiel and the Seanchan would be largely hinge on Mat’s suggested meeting between Hawkwing and Tuon, and how that went. If it even ended up happening at all. When Mat suggested it to Hawkwing, I was REALLY looking forward to reading that meeting, but then NOTHING! Really disappointed me. I seriousy wanted to see Tuon’s reaction to actually MEETING Hawkwing and get knocked down a peg or fifty, and then see HIS reaction to the society the Seanchan had created in his name, and then his horror at how they use women who can channel as slaves. I don’t imagine anyone who was as renowned he was for his sense of justice to be happy with slavery being practiced in his name. Especially since he was free of Ishamael’s influence and wouldn’t have had his unreasoning hatred of Aes Sedai anymore.

    I kind of found the book to be a little… deflating? Anti-climactic? It felt too rushed to me. I still liked it, but not nearly as much as feel like I should have, especially after having waited for this book for twenty years.

  13. I can understand that, Aaron. I totally agree with you on Seachan/Hawkwing, it would have been good to see that.

    Unfortunately, though this book has been 20 years in the making, it was written in a relatively short amount of time, and I think it shows. There’s no way at this point that it could possibly live up to the expectations of all the readers of this series, but despite that, I think it did a reasonable job of hitting the points it needed to.

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