Book Review: A Memory of Light
Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
Tor Books, 2013
Not all the trollocs, flame dragons, and Car’a'carn that fill the 900 pages of A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final volume of the “Wheel of Time” fantasy series, are anywhere near as flat-out unbelievable as the promotional material both Tor and the book’s author, Brandon Sanderson, are spreading around. Right there on the book’s dust jacket, we’re told a tale straight out of Fairyland: that Sanderson has been “working from notes, scenes, and an outline left by Robert Jordan when he died in 2007.”
2007. Or, in numerical terms, seven years ago. If Tor believes – if Jordan’s legion of fans actually believe – that any writer in the history of mankind worked out plots, scenes, and outlines seven years into the future, I’ve got some choice oceanfront property in Arizona I’d like to sell them at a special one-time-only price.
The whole conceit is pure necrophilia, although understandable. In 1990, Jordan – a deadline-prose contract hack with no sense of plot or dialogue but a middling-sharp eye for effective set-pieces – published The Eye of the World, a stodgy, slow-paced Tolkien pastiche (the Third Age, the rise of the Shadow, the exact same map, etc.) about three ordinary young village boys, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, who are destined to play enormous parts in the very fate of the world as the force of light and darkness prepare to fight to the death in the long-prophesied Last Battle, the Tarmon Gai’don.
That first book had three very strong scenes in its 800 pages. Its sequel, The Great Hunt, had two. The third book, The Dragon Reborn, had one. All six of those scenes, spread out over 2600 pages, were surrounded by sloshing lukewarm oceans of bland, generic fantasy-prose: pointlessly excessive description of trifles, vaguely (and inconsistently) archaic language, characters talking in pronouncements instead of conversation, etc. After the third book, that sloshing, lukewarm ocean almost entirely closed over the land. Knobs and crags stubbornly poked above the endless, brackish verbiage of the next eight novels and 45,000 pages, but sometimes the non-brainwashed reader could go the entire length of a 700-page instalment without a single solitary thing actually happening.
And if you’re wondering why there were so many books at all, well, that’s the central blasphemy of Jordan’s legacy: he announced right at the beginning of “The Wheel of Time”‘s explosive popularity that he’d continue to write the series until they nailed him into his coffin, and he was true to his word – he died in 2007 with the series wide open and sprawled all over the place, without even the smallest discernible trace (pace the aforementioned legion of fans) of an over-arching plot that might be hoped to bring the whole mess to some sort of conclusion.
The super-energetic and brightly readable fantasy author Brandon Sanderson got the job of continuing the story – an direly ambiguous job, since it might have been financially good but it was undeniably aesthetically bad: the series should have been concluded around volume 3 or 4, and here a torch-bearer was being chosen to keep the massive, disjointed thing going.
Not forever, it turns out. Two big novels ago, Sanderson was already subtly working his many plot-threads toward an ending, and that ending is here at last. There were no notes. There were no outlines. There were no scenes. Robert Jordan’s name is printed on the cover of A Memory of Light (in bigger font than Sanderson’s) as a courtesy only; these books are entirely Sanderson’s.
An embarrassment or two have been creeping around that fact for three books now, and in this final volume they’re deafening – the foremost of these being the rather sizeable gap between Jordan’s writing abilities and Sanderson’s. Jordan could be counted on to muddy almost any prolonged scene he wrote; Sanderson couldn’t make himself write a muddied scene for all the polyhedral dice on Earth. Jordan’s characters invariably sound like understudies for King Richard’s Faire; Sanderson’s dialogue snaps and sizzles. Perhaps most pertinently for this present volume: Jordan famously doted on his characters to such an extreme extent that he’d hardly let them catch headcolds, let alone die, whereas in A Memory of Light the body count makes Antietam look like a thumb-wrestling match.
These things all add up to an even simpler embarrassment and one that can only work to the readers’ benefit: A Memory of Light is not only the final volume in the “Wheel of Time” series but also by a wide margin the best one.
All our characters are gathered here, of course, for their final showdown. Readers have been following many of these heroes and villains for a quarter of a century, and it’s obvious that Sanderson was probably one of those readers himself. He provides his fellow fans with one after another fantastic capstone scene to send these characters off into the sunset, and along the way tosses off countless other great moments, taut little dramatic payoffs of exactly the type that readers sometimes had to wade through entire novels of Jordan’s without encountering. Sanderson is faithful enough to keep most of his heroes as one-dimensional as he found them in the works of the master, but he invests his bad guys with a refreshing breadth of acuity. Sometimes they slip into a scene with silk:
Two guards came in. No, three. That one fellow was easy to miss. Mat shook his head at Tuon – they needed to find something more realistic to argue over – and glanced back at his maps.
Something itched at him about the little guard. Looks more like a servant than a soldier, Mat thought. He forced himself to look up, though he really should not let himself become distracted by common servants. Yes, there the fellow was, standing beside Mat’s table. Not worth paying attention to, even if he was pulling a knife out.
Mat stumbled back as the Gray Man attacked. Mat yelled, reaching for one of his own knives, just as Mika screamed.
And at other times (many other times, it must be admitted – this being high fantasy, after all), his villains (even the ambivalent ones) verge toward the film-serial operatic, as when one of them encounters Lan, the mighty warrior we met twenty-three years ago, here finally lashing out in all his military glory:
As he flowed into his next sword form, Lan brought his weapon up across his chest and stepped backward. A stone the size of a man’s head passed directly in front of him. Lan flowed forward, arm moving into his next form as another stone flowed around the path of a third stone, which missed him by a thumb’s width, rippling his clothing.
Demandred blocked Lan’s attack, but he breathed hoarsely. “Who are you?”
It’s impossible that A Memory of Light will please all those fans who made the “Wheel of Time” series such a landmark financial property. The series has spawned thousands of websites, chat rooms, and homages – it’s been the intellectual primer for an entire generation of readers, and this volume ends that long companionship. Sanderson handles that ending very cannily (the narrative fancy-dancing he does in the book’s final fifty pages would elicit an approving nod from the head writer of any daytime soap opera), and as for that long-forecast Tarmon Gai’don, that Last Battle, it gets a thrilling, absolutely masterful realization here. Writing an efficiently done action scene of 30 pages is a feat 90 percent of all working authors can’t carry off. In A Memory of Light, Sanderson’s chapter called “The Last Battle” is an absolutely stunning 200 pages long, catapulting along with scarcely a pause for breath.
Not in a million years did Sanderson intend it as such, but that book-long chapter of complicated and perfectly-orchestrated action acts as the ultimate rebuke of the worst tediums of the franchise Robert Jordan inflicted on the fantasy reading public a quarter of a century ago. It pierces the spell of that franchise even while seeing it safely home.