Monday, January 07, 2013

Review: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Back in 1994 I caved to the recommendations of a number of m cousins and bought The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, the first book in The Wheel of Time series (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). I have always been a big reader and The Eye of the World was not my first venture into fantasy, but I still have to consider it to be my ‘gateway drug’ into the world of fantasy reading. I lost many hours reading away in my dorm room. I blew my meager budget buying up the rest of the books that were available at the time. And when I finished reading those I immediately began my first re-read of the series, the first of many, though I now do re-listens with the audiobooks. So you must realize that A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, the 14th and final book in The Wheel of Time series (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), is the book I’ve looked forward to reading the most in my life. These characters have become my friends as the books bring the comfort of nostalgia. Over the years this series has led me to the internet, led me to discussing these and other books on message boards, which inspired me to start a blog, where I can interview authors, through which I’ve had the opportunity to interact with many and have dinner with Brandon Sanderson, which eventually gave me the opportunity to read the final book in the series just a little earlier than pretty much every other fan. The ending that I’ve so craved to know – I know it now. It is awesome. It does justice to the millions of words leading up to it. It is appropriate. And now I mourn, yes mourn for the end of The Wheel of Time. While I can always reread (or re-listen to) the books, the end has come. I’m just remembering the times. The series is over now. That part of my life has truly passed. At the same time I celebrate the series and all that it has brought to me, I do mourn its passing, though more often with a celebratory drink than tears.  

He came like the wind, like the wind touched everything, and like the wind was gone.

Now some of you are probably asking why I chose to begin this post as I did – this is supposed to be a review a book, no more. Well, it is more, and if you are looking for a simple review for the concluding volume of a fantasy series, you will need to look elsewhere. Few things in my life have been with me as long as this series. Few things have consumed the time and mental energy in my life as this series has. Few things have I waited for with more desire. I cannot simply review this book or even this series (though I will try) without touching on the relationship I have with it. I know that many fans will be able to relate. Others may understand without relating. Others will simply roll their eyes, not understanding at all (though I imagine they already gave up if they ever started reading this in the first place). With and through this series I have grown from teenager entering college into a husband and father, a homeowner with a mortgage, a respected contributor to my industry, and a mid-list blogger. It’s a journey that’s been shared, a journey that has reached an ending.
Note: I have not included what I would consider spoilers in this review. I do discuss some events and some of the advanced information that is widely available for those who look. I do discuss some of the more ‘thematic’ developments of the book. I do discuss my reaction to them. I don’t consider anything that I am writing about to be spoilers, but some fans may disagree. Consider this a warning – while most people will consider this spoiler-free, some disagree on the details. In this separate post, I blatantly throw around spoilers and my reactions to them – but this review is ‘safe’ territory.

OK, so let’s get to it. Did I like A Memory of Light? Do I think the series ended well? How did Sanderson do with the final volume?
I loved A Memory of Light. I think it ended well and appropriately. For me, I can easily say it’s the best conclusion to a fantasy series that I’ve ever read. However, the paragraphs above should put my opinion in the context it deserves – that of a crazy and dedicated fan who has been reading and rereading this series for nearly 20 years. I think that Sanderson did a wonderful and admirable job in a very difficult situation. No, he did not do things exactly the way Jordan would have – he couldn’t have, and thankfully, he didn’t try. He finished off the series as Jordan wanted – he honored what Jordan had done, he incorporated the ideas Jordan left behind and he filled in the blanks as best as he could.
The criticisms that some have of Sanderson’s handling of the final three Wheel of Time books will all hold up here. There are plenty of what people are terming ‘Brandonisms’. Sanderson breaks the 4th wall several times, seemingly speaking directly to the hard-core fans and theorists of the series. His relative lack of subtly in comparison to Jordan continues. Those who criticize the way Sanderson has broken out the timeline and presented the story may become extra ornery on the issue as there is a ‘get out of jail free card’ with time itself breaking down, especially the closer one is to the bore. Some of the characters still feel off – Matt at times, Aviendha, and others. But, it’s not always a bad thing. For example, Sanderson breathes fresh air into the character of Talmanes, rounding him out and making him whole rather than a cardboard cutout. Talmanes leading the Band through the battle of Caemlyn is simply awesome, and Jordan would have never written something like that. And it’s becoming increasing clear to me that many fans over overly eager to blame Sanderson for things that most likely are almost all Jordan in their origin – just how many ‘Brandonisms’ are simply ‘WOTisms’?
One of my biggest criticisms of Jordan’s writing is the way he finishes off the books. Basically, there is meticulous build-up of events, carefully setting up the climatic moments of his books. But too often the climax itself, the ending, the culmination of all that build-up feels rushed, or anti-climatic in its brevity. One way of looking at A Memory of Light is that we’ve now had 13 books of build-up and now we are at the payoff, when all that has been built up comes crashing down. Is it rushed? Yes, but not to the same degree as others. A Memory of Light is easily the most action-packed book in the series. In a series where it can be easily argued that there are far too many wasted words, A Memory of Light has very few, if any – even as it clocks in at 909 pages. All of the necessary pieces are here, though I would have been a bit happier with some more.
Jordan spent a lot of time on side-plots, many will argue way too much time was spent on them. Unfortunately, many of these were sidelined in this final book. It’s not that I crave the resolution to each of these – I realize that not everything should be resolved. However, I would have liked at least one sort of concluding point of view from each character we had become invested in during the series, even the relatively minor characters. For example – something from some the few remaining Black Ajah hunters, or the factions within the Aes Sedai rebels that we endlessly followed. Etc. There were also several confrontations that have been set up for quite a while that never materialized. I realize that this would have been nearly impossible to fit into the book, but I can still wish for it and consider it missed opportunities as often an extra line or paragraph would have been enough to satisfy me (but certainly not all). Of course, where we do get this sort of revelation (and there are several), it is sort of jarring to the flow of the story (see the discussion on ‘Brandonisms’ above). So, perhaps the balance is just right and it’s simply the invested fan in me always wanting more.
However, my above criticisms are really very minor when compared to my overall feeling toward the book. Sanderson did a great job finishing things up. Jordan’s final scene, which I understand is printed pretty well exactly as Jordan first wrote it, is a perfect ending to the series. Though admittedly, if parsed out of context it won’t hold up well. And the main character ARCs – Rand, Egwene, Mat and Perrin all hold up well. They finish appropriately and honestly, even with a bit of teasing. But be warned, there isn’t the happy Harry Potter Epilogue where we get a view in the future of how perfectly things are in the future. The Wheel turns, an age ends, and the story with it – but the world is not finished, more events will happen and many of our beloved characters have a future that we will not see.
The phrase ‘laughter and tears’ comes up often in the series, and laughter and tears sums up my reaction to the book as well. After playing such a big part in my life for nearly 20 years, I have a lot invested. Seeing the end game play out was and continues to be an emotional experience for me. Yes, I did laugh at Mat and Gual and Rand and Vanin and Talmanes. They provide some good times. And yes, I shed tears at Mat and Rand and Perrin and Egwene and Loial and Lan and many others. They were tears of joy and sorrow, but always with a bit of celebration. Because even the sorrow is celebratory in this book. In case you haven’t guessed it, I will reveal the biggest spoiler possible (one that Jordan revealed years ago, so it’s not really anything surprising): the good guys win. The Light is victorious. There are deaths. The fight didn’t go exactly as planned for any of the good guys. But they win. And in that victory come even more tears of joy and sorrow.
Throughout the series, Jordan has explored many themes – be it a take on archetypes, myth and legend, communication, sacrifice, predestination, original sin, triumph over adversity, good versus evil, duality, etc. – there is one theme that dominates the final volume: letting go. Letting go of guilt, hate, anger, what one cannot control, certainty, prophesy, predestination, inevitability, etc. It’s been there since the beginning – the void, embracing saidar, seizing saidin – these are all examples of letting go in one way or another. But in A Memory of Light, the message is delivered in the form of father figures. Two of the three central characters we have been following since the beginning learn this lesson as it’s taught to them by the father figures in their lives. It’s very well done and will provide a few tears for the fans out there, though in all honesty, I would have preferred the inclusion of a more concrete example with one of the female characters to balance out the wheel.
So, the wheel has turned. An ending has come. Jordan may have left the world prematurely, but his vision lived on through his widow, Harriet, Sanderson and the rest of Team Jordan. A part of my life feels complete. The same part of my life feels a bit lost as it is now a thing of the past. It brought me laughter and tears and years of good memories. I will listen to the tale again. I will discuss it more. And it will fade away. But the ending was as it should be. I’m torn with half wanting more – the promised prequels, the outriggers, more short stories, etc. and the other half knowing that it ended as it should. Fans have craved and dreaded the moment of the end. They will love it and they will mourn for it. It will be celebrated. The Wheel of Time is a classic epic fantasy and it will be remembered. And now fans everywhere will experience the end and know that it is good.  
“There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of the Wheel of Time.”
 “But it was an ending”
Thank you Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Team Jordan and all of the fans I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with over the years. It is an ending…but it’s a beginning too.

EDIT: Thanks to the folks over at Macmillan Audio I have an audio sample from Chapter 3 to share with (no big spoilers). I love the audiobooks and have been using them as 're-reads' for years, so give it a shot.



Anonymous said...

I understand why your blog is popular. Friggin awesome review, man.

As an SF late-bloomer, I am too many books behind on this one. Hopefully I can catch up some day.

Anonymous said...

I started reading these books in -96, so I haven't read these as long some have but for 17 years all the same and now I will finally have the last book delivered to me in a few days. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I am glad that others have gone through the review and creation process of this series so that I can just enjoy it. I am reading the last book right now, and by reading I mean savoring. Pacing myself. Taking everything in. I am pretty sure it will take me four times longer than any comparably sized book would ever take me to read. In this life you rarely get to determine how you can react to the ending of something that has been a part of your life for 24 years. I get to do that now. I will give thanks, cry, laugh and feel everything knowing it is the end.


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