Tuesday 8 January 2013

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Last Battle has begun. The fate of the world and time itself hinge upon Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, and his allies. The great city of Caemlyn burns, the Borderlands are overrun and Lan Mandragoran's army at Tarwin's Gap has been overwhelmed. Rand must convince the nations of the world that they must stand united against the Shadow or face oblivion.

For Rand's allies, they have their own struggles to face. The Black Tower is in jeopardy of falling to the Shadow, and it falls to the least-powerful of the Asha'man to try to save the day. Mat Cauthon must convince his wife, the proud Seanchan Empress, to join the great coalition against the Dark One. Perrin Aybara hunts the wolf dream for the creature known as Slayer. And Egwene al'Vere must confront the possible annihilation of the Pattern itself, which is in danger of unravelling from the use of the forbidden weave known as balefire.

On a day that dawns twice, the forces of the Dragon Reborn and those of the Shadow meet in two titanic conflicts. On the Field of Merrilor, millions will fight and die in the greatest battle the world has seen in three and a half thousand years. In the shadow of Shayol Ghul, Rand al'Thor must confront the Dark One and end this struggle once and for all.

The Wheel of Time is finished. That's a statement that's going to take a while to get used to. The first volume of the series, The Eye of the World, was published in January 1990. George Bush Snr. and Margaret Thatcher were still in power and the Cold War was still ongoing. Fourteen books, four million words, eleven thousand pages and over fifty million sales (in North America alone) later, the conclusion has finally arrived. Can it possibly live up to the expectations built up over that time?

It is a tribute to the plotting powers of Robert Jordan, the writing skill of Brandon Sanderson (who took over the series after Jordan's untimely death in 2007) and the hard work of Jordan's editors and assistants that A Memory of Light is - for the most part - a triumphant finale. Given the weight of expectations resting on the novel, not to mention the unfortunate circumstances under it was written, it is unsurprising that it is not perfect. The novel occasionally misfires, is sometimes abrupt in how it resolves long-running plot strands and sometimes feels inconsistent with what has come before. However, it also brings this juggernaut of an epic fantasy narrative to an ending that makes sense, is suitably massive in scope and resolves the series' thematic, plot and character arcs satisfactorily - for the most part.

It is a familiar viewpoint that The Wheel of Time is a slow-burning series, with Robert Jordan not afraid to have his characters sitting around talking about things for entire chapters (or, in one case, an entire novel) rather than getting on with business. However, Jordan at his best used these lengthy dialogue scenes to set up plot twists and explosive confrontations further down the line, pulling together the elements he'd established previously in surprising and interesting ways. This reached a high in the slow-moving sixth book, which ended with what is regarded by many as the series' best climax to date at the Battle of Dumai's Wells. Steven Erikson (whose Malazan series is the most notable recent mega-long fantasy series to have also reached a final conclusion) used the term 'convergence' for such structural climaxes and it's fair to say that this is what A Memory of Light is: a convergence for the entire series. All thirteen of the previous novels lined up plot cannons in preparation for the Last Battle, and in the closing chapters of Towers of Midnight Brandon Sanderson started triggering them.

The result is not The Wheel of Time you may be familiar with. A Memory of Light is a brutal, bruising, 900-page war novel that kicks off with all hell breaking loose and doesn't pause for breath until the ending. The prologue starts with a well-paced sequence as we find out the state of play for the major characters, intercut with Talmanes and the Band of the Red Hand engaging hordes of Shadowspawn on the streets of Caemlyn. The rotation of scenes between the desperate street fighting and more familiar politicking is highly effective and is exhausting in itself. Immediately after this we alternate between Rand's attempts to pull together a coalition against the Shadow whilst a small group of Asha'man try to save their organisation from destruction against overwhelming odds. No sooner is that over than the Last Battle is joined in full force. Vast armies clash, channellers engage one another in One Power exchanges that dwarf anything seen before in the series and lots of stuff blows up. There's more action sequences in A Memory of Light than the rest of the series put together, more than earning the adage 'The Last Battle'.

The action sequences (which make up almost the whole book) are, for the most part, impressive but benefit from unpredictability. Jordan has been criticised for making his characters too safe, with almost no major character of note (on either side) dying in the previous books of the series. This limitation has been removed for the Last Battle. Major characters, middling ones and scores of minor ones are scythed down in this final confrontation with near-wild abandon. Some get heroic, fitting, blaze-of-glory ends. Some die in manners so unexpected, offhand and callous that even George R.R. Martin might nod in approval. Many of the survivors are seriously wounded, either in body or mind. Jordan's experiences as a Vietnam vet informed Rand al'Thor's arc in The Gathering Storm, and resurface here when one major character is tortured by the Shadow before being rescued, but spends the rest of the book suffering the effects of his experiences. The war scenes are suitably epic and exciting, but Sanderson remembers to include moments counting the cost of such a struggle.

That said, there is an annoying discrepancy in the Last Battle sequence compared to earlier novels. Based on the army sizes in previous volumes and the number of channellers in each faction, the good guys should have brought the better part of a million troops and five thousand One Power-wielders to the Last Battle, and the Shadow several times more. There is no indication that such vast numbers are present, which seems rather odd. There is also the fact that the channellers suddenly seem to be much less effective in mass combat than previously shown. This is most blatant when Logain is angrily told that he and a couple of dozen Asha'man cannot hope to defeat a hundred thousand Trollocs by themselves. Given this is exactly what happened in one scene in Knife of Dreams, I can only conclude that the channellers were deliberately reduced in power for this book, which is very strange.

For the most part, this is the level of problems A Memory of Light presents: something mildly irritating to those who prefer consistency from fictional works but ultimately not hugely relevant to the overall thrust of the narrative. Similar issues can be found with a number of very minor subplots that the novel fails to resolve (or even address) from earlier volumes. In some cases these may be examples of what Robert Jordan himself said would happen in the last book, with some elements left deliberately hanging to give the illusion that life goes on after the last page is turned. In other cases, it may be that Jordan did not draft out how those storylines ended, so Sanderson chose to leave them rather than risk too inventing too much of his own material. Sanderson even refuses to name an important river that Jordan did not name himself, resulting is a slightly awkward battle sequence where characters talk about the 'river on the border', the 'river on the battlefield' and so on, which is a bit laboured.

However, whilst the war scenes rage there is also a philosophical struggle at the heart of the book, and of the series. This struggle is shown in the confrontation between Rand and the Dark One in which their visions of the world and the Wheel are shown in conflict with one another. Robert Jordan was convinced that whilst there were certainly complexities and shades of grey in real life, he also believed that real good and real evil existed, and these ideas form part of the philosophical struggle that takes place alongside the battles. How successful this is will vary (perhaps immensely) from reader to reader, but is not helped by some muddling of the issues. The primary struggle of the books has consistently been Good vs. Evil, but in this philosophy-off the idea of the Creator personifying Order and the Dark One Chaos also arises, possibly as their primary roles. This is in conflict with the rest of the series and is also more tiresomely familiar and predictable. Once that interpretation arises, it's impossible not to think of the ending of the Shadow War in the TV series Babylon 5, and the resolution we get is not a million miles away from it (Rand even gets a line almost as awful as "Get the hell out of our galaxy!").

On the prose side of things, it's pretty much the same set-up as The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight: acceptable, faster-paced and a bit less prone to unnecessary introspection. Where Sanderson comes undone (yet again) is his very occasional use of terminology and language that Jordan would never have used, particularly modern words and terms. Though relatively rare, they still jar a little bit when they appear. The book's centrepiece is a single chapter that is almost 200 pages (and 70,000 words) long in hardcover, with some 70 POV characters playing a role. Apparently both Sanderson and Jordan wrote parts of this chapter, and a few minor inconsistencies aside their writing styles mesh very well. The very last section of the epilogue, written by Robert Jordan himself before he passed (including, rather eerily, Jordan's epitaph from his own funeral), is indeed a fitting way to end the book.

Taking everything into account, A Memory of Light (****½) is a lot better than perhaps we had any right to expect. The book is a relentless steamroller of action, explosions, plot resolutions, deaths and philosophical (if somewhat confused) arguing. Some elements are under-resolved, or a little too convenient, or not fleshed out enough. But that's par for the course with any ending to a series this huge. The big questions are answered, the final scene is fitting and the story ends in a way that is true to itself, which is the most we can ask for. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Unknown said...

"...the good guys should have brought the better part of a million troops and five thousand One Power-wielders to the Last Battle".

Are you serious? If I read that they mobilised one million troops, I would have thrown the book in the bin for being stupidly unrealistic. Just think about it for a moment, where would they sleep, how would you transport that much food and water? Even with the population of Earth today, there would be no army able to mobilise that many troops for a single engagement. Maybe thousands of little engagements spread across the world, but not for a single engagement. In the medieval setting of Mr Jordans world, it would be impossible.

Remember, even though this is a work of fiction, the author has to actually attempt some sort of reality to be in any way believable.

Adam Whitehead said...

The armies are constantly resupplied (with food, water and ammunition) by gateway. One of the benefits of a magical setting is resources that would not be available in the real world ;-)

The problem is that the numbers of troops available to the good guys has been reported frequently through the previous books. We are then told that they all being brought into one location, a large stretch of countryside about 10-15 miles across. Based on the information we have and, even with the losses they have sustained, those are the numbers that should be involved.

In addition, millions of troops have indeed been mobilised and assembled (and supplied and fed) on single fronts before. It happened frequently during WWII. The Red Army mobilised 2 million troops for the final assault on the city of Berlin by itself.

Anonymous said...

hey Adam, totally unrelated comment, but I've been following your blog for a while and it's pretty kick-ass. The reviews you write are so in-depth, insightful, and well-written. They've helped me make good, educated decisions about what books to buy on many occasions! lol

Anyway, I was wondering if you make a decent amount of money from your blog. I know you don't have many ads but surely a site with so many quality articles must generate a sufficient amount of traffic to make a few bucks? Hope it's not too personal a question, I'm just curious.

Keep up the great writing! :)

-Tom K

insurrbution said...

I've been buying this series ever since Book 10. I own them ALL in paperback...so I have another year to wait. Here's hoping that the paperback comes out Dec. '13 or Jan. '14.

Great series in the 'typical Tolkien adventure fantasy' and great fun to read. My favorite though, remains 'A Song of Ice and Fire'. Apples and oranges!

Larry Nolen said...

This book sounds like a huge steaming mess structurally. I'll read it, but I have little expectation that it'd be good for anything other than providing "an ending."

Terez said...

It was the Battle of Cairhien when we first started to get a good idea of the scope of the armies; there were several hundred thousand Aiel involved in that battle alone.

"If the Aiel scouts could count, Couladin had nearly one hundred and sixty thousand spears – Shaido and those who had supposedly gone to join their societies among the Shaido. A hard nut to crack, and prickly. This side of the Spine of the World had not seen an army like that since Artur Hawkwing's time....

...The Shiande, the Codarra, the Daryne, and the Miagoma. Between them, they apparently had at least as many spears as Couladin; they had not left many behind, if that was true. The seven clans with Rand almost doubled that, easily enough to face Couladin or the four clans. Either or. Not both, not at once." (TFOH, Before the Arrow)

And that's just the Aiel. The Seanchan have more, far more including the nations they've conquered, and then there are all the other Randland nations. And the Trollocs.

Wert, you wouldn't happen to remember the scene with the river issue? I asked on Malazan but then I realized it would probably be better to ask here.

dredd i knight said...

Dude. A day I once doubted would ever come has finally arrived, and now I must put aside caliban's war, download this to my kindle, and begin the end... Thanks for a comprehensive spoiler free even handed review... And happy new year!

Adam Whitehead said...

"Anyway, I was wondering if you make a decent amount of money from your blog"

Not really. I don't like ads. The donations have brought in a bit under £200 since I started doing them, which is great, but it's going to be a long, long time before blogging can be a full-time job :-)

"Wert, you wouldn't happen to remember the scene with the river issue?"

The battles in Kandor. The river between Kandor and Arafel (a tributary of the Erinin) is mentioned several times but never named.

Johan Sporre said...

I just finished the book after two days of intense reading. After 16 years a fan (during many of my teenage years I read the first books over and over) I have to say this was a satisfying end. Not perfect, but I didn't expect that.

Apart from the size of the good guys' armies I also found it illogical that during the war conference at the Fields of Merrilor no one mentioned Mat's name when they discussed who should command. The setup for how he'd come and rescue them later was a bit obvious.

What did I like that bit extra?
* Though the road there was a bit clichéed I really like how the battle between Rand and the DO ended; how Callandor, Moridin, Nynaeve and Moraine fit in.
* Time-distortion of Shayol Ghul was a clever idea to make Rand's fight co-exist with the other battles.
* Lan's final battle, the hornsounding and the subsequent waking of the heroes had me at the edge of my seat and also crying a tear or two. Found it beautiful. I feared for Elayne and her babies for a couple of pages there.
* Pevara's and Androl's story. Androl was such a great character.

Anonymous said...

from the autor's blog:

Question: Why a delayed ebook release for A Memory of Light?

Answer: This is not my decision or Tor's decision, but Harriet's. She is uncomfortable with ebooks. Specifically, she worries about ebooks cutting into the hardcover sales. It isn't about money for her, as the monetary difference between the two is negligible here. It is about a worry that her husband's legacy will be undermined if sales are split between ebooks and hardcovers, preventing the last book of the Wheel of Time from hitting number one on either list. (Many of the bestseller lists are still handling ebooks in somewhat awkward ways.)

Graeme said...


Same here, Johan. I've been reading this series since the mid-1990s and have read it through a few times. I recently re-read the first five books and then used Adam's excellent summaries and a couple from the WoT wiki to get refreshed. I thought it was a really excellent ending to the story. Not perfect, but better than I had hoped.

I agree with all of Johan's points. I especially liked the Androl/Pevara arc (the whole gateway fight was awesome). I thought the slowing down of time at Shayol Ghul was a very effective plot device that allowed Rand's battle to coincide with everyone else's in a fairly logical way.

A couple other points I liked were:
- I was glad to see the Sharans included, although it would have been nice to get some of their perspective.
- The book was very fast-paced and kept me reading long after my bedtime.
- It was really nice to have most of the angst dealt with in the previous books. I was tired of the whining about their fates and responsibilities and it was good to have a book mostly free of that.
- Cutting off Nynaeve's braid was one of the best things to ever happen to the series.
- Most of all, I liked that Rand got to live and was free of being the Dragon Reborn. After 11,000 pages, I am attached. I mean, SOIF is good for what it is, but I would have been upset if Jordan and Sanderson went all GRRM in the last book.

There were a couple of problems that I noticed, such as the numbers of troops and ineffectiveness of channelers (as pointed out by Adam). I also wonder how Faile got from the Blight to Merrilor so quickly.

All in all though, it was a great read and a fitting end to the series.

Zizoz said...

I actually didn't mind that the river between Kandor and Arafel wasn't named; I suspect it even saved me from flipping to the front of the book to look at the map a few times.

Justin Pyle said...

@Graeme - Faile Traveled to Merrilor through a Gateway from the supply camp in the Blasted Lands. Her group pretended to be a DF supply run.

Graeme said...

@Justin, I must have missed that. Last I remember, Faile was on a horse running away from the supply camp and gateway as she was chased by a group of trollocs (p.768) When do they explain her appearance?

Anonymous said...


It was a satisfying conclusion... but I thought the dialogue between Pivara and Androl at the Blac Tower got a bit tedious. Also, the Characters of Min, Elayne and Avienda seemed to lose some of their differences as they related to Rand. At least, somewhere in the first couple chapters Avienda refers to Rand as a "wool-head" and it seemed really out of carácter for her.

I was really happy that, to my mind, Gaidal Cain is revealed to be Olver. (appologies for spelling, I read this by audio book) The way Bergita says, "I will only be a few years younger" and the fact we never see Gaidal Cain among the heros of the horn. Also, Olver is refered to as ugly throughout the books, which was a distinguishing feature of Gaidal.
Well written review!


Anonymous said...


I thought the exact same thing when they were discussing who would command... Everyone know's Mat was the man for the job, so to not even get a mention made me a little quizzical.... I have not read much further than that so ill refrain from my views until I close the book,

Jared said...

As much as it seems the opposite, Gaidal isn't Olver. Gaidal was born after Olver was already 5 or 6, and Jordan confirmed that though time runs weird in Tel'aran'rhiod, it does not run backwards. Everything else fits, but not that. I assume we never got to see whoever Gaidal was reborn as, since he would have been around one year old by the end of the last book.

Alex said...

Since my hardback got lost in the post, I decided to try the free trial of Audible and listen to the audiobook on my walk to and from work. I finished this morning and had to stand outside my office for 5 minutes to let it all sink in.


I thought Fain's plot line ended in a damp squib that wasn't particularly logical either. Perhaps in my mind I had built up the thing he'd become replacing the dark one as the force of evil in the world but for Matt to simply off him with a stab to the heart was a bit naff IMHO.

Egwene's death was well realised and after Birgetta's decapitation, gave a real sense of Elayne's life being in proper peril, again in contrast to the manner that a lot of the characters always seem "safe".

Alivia's role in helping Rand die didn't make a great deal of sense to me but perhaps the foreshadowing of her role was a little overplayed in previous volumes.

All in all though, final volumes are almost always a let down, and this is very much the exception to the rule. I don't think since I read To Green Angel Tower have I been as satisfied by an ending.