A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
It’s kind of hard to believe that ‘The Wheel of Time’ has come to an end. Begun in 1990 with The Eye of the World, the series has spread now to fourteen novels, surviving the death of its author, Robert Jordan to come to a conclusion 23 years later. ‘The Wheel of Time’ is one of the first fantasy series I read when I first came into the genre, but my experience with it has been somewhat uneven. After the excellent first six or so novels, the pace slowed to an unbelievable pace, tortuous even by the standards of a genre unfortunately given over to padding and waffle. This all culminated in the truly dire tenth novel, Crossroads of Twilight in which almost nothing happened. I have never read a book so long containing less content. Despite this, I didn’t give up on the series, as the world of ‘The Wheel of Time’ is one of the most fascinating in the genre with a cast of characters as varied as it is vast. Although things picked up slightly in the less terrible, if not exactly riveting, Knife of Dreams, things weren’t looking good for the series until the unimaginable happened and Robert Jordan tragically died. The choice of Brandon Sanderson to finish the novels was an inspired one; my admiration for Sanderson will be old news to anyone whose read my five or so reviews of his novels, and as harsh as it may be to say, Sanderson rescued ‘The Wheel of Time,’ delivering in The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight the best novels in the series since the sixth, Lord of Chaos. Sanderson used those two novels to snip off some of the vast amount of loose ends Jordan had left hanging at the time of his death, so that A Memory of Light, the final novel, can focus upon the one thing which the series has been leading towards since 1990; Tarmon Gai’don, the Last Battle.
A Memory of Light focuses its setting upon a few battlefronts in which most of the novel takes place. Jordan & Sanderson create an appropriate sense of the scale of the conflict, as we see long time locations such as Caemlyn torn to pieces. We also witness significant appearance thus far of Shayol Ghul, the demesne and prison of the Dark One, with much of the novel taking place in the Blight. Jordan’s lengthy and, at times somewhat tiresome, worldbuilding is justified in this novel as it allows us to truly feel what is at stake. We know the cultures of Andor, of Illian, of Amadacia, of Tear, of the Aiel, and many more, and we don’t want them to end. This novel isn’t given over to worldbuilding, it’s world destroying, which is all the more tragic for the effort made to build up the setting by Jordan in earlier novels.
The novel opens with Caemlyn under Trolloc attack, as Talmanes and the Band of the Red Hand desperately attempt to preserve the city. The novel is fundamentally centred around six different conflicts, all vital to the success of the Light over the Shadow. We have Elayne’s attempt to preserve her nation of Andor, the attempts of the White Tower under Egwene to stem the tide of Trolloc’s out of Kandor and Lan’s desperate attempt to hold Tarwin’s Gap in Shienar, under the command of the Great Captains Davram Bashere, Gareth Bryne and Lord Agelmar respectively. We also have the more intimate conflicts playing a key role, such as Perrin’s battle with Slayer in Tel’aran’rhiod, the internal conflict in the Black Tower between those Asha’man loyal to the Mazrim Taim or Logain and, finally, the assault on Shayol Ghul and Rand al’Thor’s final conflict with Shai’tan, the Dark One.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and I found myself pretty much entirely captivated from beginning to end, something I haven’t felt in a Wheel of Time novel in a long time. Plenty of long term mysteries get solved, and most had satisfying solutions. We finally find out what Demandred, the most mysterious of the Forsaken, is up to, and the answer caught me entirely by surprise, yet in retrospect makes perfect sense. This novel is, in essence, one giant battle scene, and at times it could get somewhat wearying. There are some good quiet moments, a moving scene between Rand and Tam was a favourite of mine, as was the hilarious reunion between Rand and Mat, but this novel is generally fairly relentless from beginning to end. At the core of this novel is a chapter named ‘The Last Battle’, which is around 200 pages long; according to Sanderson, this chapter is made up roughly equally of work from himself and fragments from Jordan, and they weave together into a battle sequence almost unparalleled in its power and excitement. I’ve long felt that the characters of ‘The Wheel of Time’ have irritatingly strong ‘plot armour’; I struggle to think of many heroic characters who have died since the beginning of the series, but wow do the gloves come off in this one. Major characters die in such pointless and tragic ways that I thought I was reading a George R. R. Martin novel. In an odd way, this reminded me of the Battle of Hogwarts at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a crescendo culminating everything seen in the series so far, a conflict so vast and vital that the deaths of major characters can only be briefly remarked upon before moving on. Alongside all this is Rand’s more personal battle with the Dark One; I was very uncertain as to what form this battle would take, and I’m very pleased with what Sanderson/Jordan came up with. There are many dissenting views on this, but on reflection I think that the approach taken here was absolutely the right one, and one which interestingly threatens to undermine everything we thought we knew about this world so far.
In a series so heavily focused on prophecy, from the Karaethon Cycle prophecies of the Dragon , to Egwene’s dreams and Min’s viewings, there were lots of things that we knew were coming in this novel. Most of these are dealt with in satisfying ways, but with so many plates spinning it’s unsurprising that a few smash on the ground. One of Min’s viewings in particular, which had particularly intrigued me since it was first mentioned years ago, ended up coming to nothing in a spectacular cop out. While most plot lines are resolved in a highly satisfying manner, some plot threads feel cheated and rushed. The most egregious of these is the resolution of the Padan Fain/Mordred story line; Fain had become one of the most interesting wild cards in the series, unbelievably sinister and powerful, yet still unaligned from the Shadow and the Dark One. I had hoped that Fain would play a key role, but he is dealt with as little more than an afterthought next to Rand’s battle with Shai’tan.
One of the many impressive things about A Memory of Light is the way in which Sanderson and Jordan’s prose weave together. It can at times be noticeable, but I never felt drawn out of the narrative by it. Both have a fairly plain, no-nonsense writing style, so they mesh together remarkably well. Sanderson and Jordan are both masters of crafting fantasy warfare; we saw this during Sanderson’s excellent The Way of Kings and in Jordan during the thrilling Battle of Dumai Wells at the conclusion of Lord of Chaos. Although perhaps the scale of the conflict isn’t quite conveyed as much as intended, we instead have a battle which zooms in on individual stories and characters, rather than the broad strokes. This is an army of dozens of individual, distinct units moving in concert, from the Aes Sedai to the Asha’man to the Whitecloaks to the Two Rivers bowmen, with each individual aspect forming into a coherent whole.
It’s the characterisation which always redeemed Jordan at his worst, and with a few exceptions Sanderson has picked up the mantle remarkably well. Many have held issue with Sanderson’s portrayal of the brilliant Mat Cauthon, a wonderful character, but I felt that these problems were fixed here. His excessive flippancy is still in place, but I never felt that this wasn’t true to the character, and the good, heroic man lurking underneath is always visible. Other characters such as Lan and Egwene, characters who have undergone some fascinating progression as the series went on, are on great display here. Sanderson actually improves some of Jordan’s more rote characters, with Talmanes of the Band of the Red Hand really coming into his own as a laconic badass. I actually really enjoyed the story of Androl, an Asha’man attempting to subvert Mazrim Taim and bring the Black Tower under the control of Logain, and his Red Ajah Aes Sedai companion Pevara. The natural distrust between a Red and a channeler of saidin undergoes a gradual and believable journey into trust and even affection. I grew incredibly fond of these two, characters who I hadn’t really paid any attention to in their previous appearances. Sanderson doesn’t fare quite so well with some others however; he’s never seemed to quite get a handle of Aviendha and Min, but considering the challenge he had ahead of him this can be easily forgiven. Some major characters don’t quite receive the screen time we may have hoped, particularly Nynaeve, Moiraine and Thom Merrilin, but considering how much is going on in this novel, it’s impressive that each character receives as much as they do!
A Memory of Light is not a perfect ending, but it is an incredibly accomplished and satisfying one, which stands as one of the best conclusions to an epic I’ve ever read. Endings are difficult, and they’re even harder when you join a series three books before the end, and Sanderson and Jordan have absolutely excelled in this release. I don’t know if it quite redeems those difficult middle books, I’d still hold back from recommending the series in the knowledge that Crossroads of Twilight exists, but I can confidently say that ‘The Wheel of Time’ has a fantastic conclusion which reflects the series at its best, not its worst.