Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: A Memory Of Light - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (Scott and Chris Review)


This is going to be a rather shortish review since to do a long one would require spoilers and I’d rather not spoil anything.

I came on board The Wheel Of Time late. I began the first book sometime in 2003-04 but didn’t actually get around to finishing it till probably 2007-ish. Slowly over the course of the next few years I caught up. So I have only TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT and (now) A MEMORY OF LIGHT in hardcover as books I awaited for release on. Everything else was already out and in paperback when I read them. I’m not going to go into the particulars on the series that everyone knows. The bloating of the story, the books where nothing happens, Jordan’s sad premature death, Brandon Sanderson finishing the series ect. It’s all common knowledge. So 23 years (and fourteen books) after the story was begun, we finally have an ending.

Was it worth it?

I’m a little under a week removed from finishing the book (which immediately afterwards I found I’d enjoyed it more than I realized I actually did now in hind sight), and in those few days I’ve gained some perspective, and the resounding answer to that question is…no.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that the story (initially meant to wrap up in 3 books) became an unwieldy behemoth with a thousand plot strands (some worthwhile, some not) that for all intents and purposes slowed to a crawl and should have been edited far better. It’s basically (in my head) a six book series bloated to fourteen unnecessarily. Perhaps it’s the fact that I recently finished Steven Erikson’s Malazan 10-book series and the fact that for the most part Erikson kept everything arrow straight and headed towards the ending he gave us (even with multiple plot strands and a thousand characters)…that the meandering of The Wheel Of Time ends up causing me major issues. I don’t truly know why.

Was it a good book? Yes, absolutely. Was it worth reading? Yes…to finish the series and put it behind me.

Let’s get down to it. The book is (for the most part) a 900-page battle. The Last Battle. Is it good as a battle? Err…yes and no. It has a few heroic moments (only a few), but more often than not you saw the words “trollocs”, “weave”, “gateway”, “channeling”, “exploding earth” simply repeated ad nauseum. It was one battle section after the next in which small things might be slightly different on a character level, but it was still just hordes or trollocs, evil channelers, and one or more of the Forsaken causing our heroes further problems. The character stuff ends up either falling short of what one might wish as a fan (some characters get throwaway deaths or unresolved abrupt endings), or ends up being something abhorrent to serve the story (ie. Tuon and the Seanchan not changing their slavery/torture ways and Rand and Co. having to accept this for the help the Seanchan will be against Shadow) which I find convenient and horrible.

Everyone gets a bit of the spotlight in this book, and while some characters sing in their roles, others kind of flop lifelessly around on the page. Like Boba Fett showing up in the re-mastered STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE, they are only there to say “Look, here I am!” or fulfill some other needed plot point which was left hanging by RJ and Sanderson needed to tie up. The main characters get the most screen time and that is fitting of course, but once you’ve waded through 500 pages of these activities, even their plotlines become more of an “Okay, let’s move this along now please?”

The one thing I find really works in AMOL is the use of the Forsaken in a subverted way to try to win against the armies of Light. I enjoyed how that was accomplished and resolved in the book and it’s probably one of the things I came away from enjoying most. It's a small thing, but it seems more than plausible and in character, aside from the armies of Light not expecting it.

Does the book resolve things? Yes and no. Like I said, the book is nearly 900 pages of battle. That includes the fact that the only epilogue we get is one chapter, and it takes place right after the battle and concerns one event. So where I assumed we might have gotten through the Last Battle and then had a hundred or so pages of wrapping up (this is the finale a fourteen book series FFS!), we instead finish the battle and get a short chapter after that explaining one immediate aftermath event, and that’s about it.

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Consider me disappointed by that. Jordan can take like six WHOLE books to tell us about every damned Leatherleaf tree and hummock of ground surrounding our heroes as they wander around aimlessly...but we don't get ANYTHING after the biggest Battle in history? Right. Good. I see.


So what should have been a book that was full of win, ends up being just a book that finishes. It wraps up enough overall to be satisfied, but I am FAR from impressed. Where THE CRIPPLED GOD (the final Malazan book) left me bereft, emotional, impressed, and basically cradling my own brain and heart from the excellence (leaving me with a book hangover that lasted nearly two weeks)…A MEMORY OF LIGHT on the other hand felt like a petered out, final ending that I enjoyed, but it did not impress, it did not stun, or leave me with a book hangover of any kind. It just kind of IS.

“But Scott…” you say “The battle scene’s must have been worth it, right?”


Yes and no. There was some VERY cool stuff, very heroic charges and last stands…but a lot of it was posturing and action with stolen payoffs. In fact I think Perrin says things to himself along the lines of “Once more into the fray” or “here I go, one last time” about 4 or 5 times. The second time he does it, I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s doing this again.” It’s kind of a thunder stealer. The same can be said for Lan who has more than one heroic final charge. Demandred seemingly existed as a rock for heroes to throw and break themselves against. And while that plotline was amusing to watch, it also felt like a way to carve some characters out of the final book…but then again kind of steals something from them in the process. That is one of the worst offenses in the book; the stealing of emotional beats. It's rife with that sort of nonsense, and always felt like "chickening out" to me. Don't chicken out. This is book fourteen; big stuff is GOING to happen, be okay with that and let it happen.

A MEMORY OF LIGHT is not the ending I think I expected or wanted from this series, and even though it began well (the first 200+ pages absolutely SANG by) I felt it drew on far too long, ended too  abruptly and became a manic tying up of loose ends instead of the dovetailing it should have been.

It’s not the ending I expected or wanted, but it was AN ending. Let’s leave it at that.

And now I can sell the books to the used book store.

You can review A MEMORY OF LIGHT as a standalone novel, in and of itself, or you can view it in the larger context of the Wheel of Time saga.  Both approaches are equally valid and both will spit out some pretty interesting conclusions.
Regardless of your approach the end result is, unfortunately, supremely unsatisfying. The WoT story has been a going concern now for nearly a quarter of a century. It’s reached powerful highs, equally formidable lows, had an aborted prequel, lost its author (Robert Jordan), found another (Brandon Sanderson) and finished with a 900 page bang.
As time wore on and the series ground closer to its conclusion readers met new entries to the saga with a snazzy set of emotional baggage and an increasing amount of fatigue at having to remember all the ins and outs of an incredibly expansive story with a growing range of characters, settings and increasingly convoluted plot points.
Somewhere around book six or seven I started to lose track of some of the C-listers swirling around Perrin, Rand, Mat and their chummy fantasy entourage. And I didn’t have the patience to start from the beginning every time a new book came out just so I could find the two paragraphs buried a third of the way through some early novel that summarized everything I needed to know about a particular character.
But I knew that the WoT series was in trouble when some of the original three characters stopped appearing in the books entirely.
It’s a failing common to any long running narrative. As our principal heroes travel to new places and have new adventures they quite naturally meet new companions who have their own ongoing stories. To his credit Jordan refused to take the easy way out, embracing these new characters and enfolding them into his increasingly ambitious chronicle. But with so many new faces clamouring for the reader’s attention the pacing of the story started to buckle and the whole damn thing threatened to derail.
(see George R.R. Martin’s struggles with the same expanding cast problem in his A Song of Fire and Ice series for context)
AMOL isn’t like any previous entry to the WoT story. The bulk of the ongoing sub plots and character development came to a close at the end of Sanderson’s previous entry TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT. With a clean slate to work from Sanderson has changed genre gears in AMOL, moving from a dramatic epic fantasy to a higher octane action adventure with fantastic trappings.
Essentially AMOL is one long battle scene, punctuated by short intermissions to pull back the curtain and check in on our ever dwindling cast of lead characters. If that set up doesn’t sound like your flavour than you probably won’t find this book to be your speed. If you’re a dedicated WoT reader like myself then you’ll definitely have to jigger a couple mental switches or two to get on board with the new mood.
AMOL has some failings. It’s hard to keep the workings of what is essentially 900 pages of a pitched running battle fresh and interesting. Sanderson tries his best switching rapid-fire between locales, switching up characters, strategies, tactics, threats, whatever it takes to help the reader escape the monotone nature of the material. And I think he succeeds for the most part. The ebb and flow of an ongoing battle with multiple fronts is going to result in the overuse of some awfully familiar plot motifs. (Seriously, how many one on one sword fights is Demandred really going to have in this story anyway? I’d think awfully hard about doubling my honour guard after the first one slips through.) And yes, Sanderson does stumble occasionally here, putting characters on a treadmill of repetitive story actions. But thankfully the rapid swift cutting between scenes ameliorates the worst of this ongoing déjà vu and quickly deposits us in another scene before too long.
Sanderson uses the Last Battle as a background to finally experiment with new uses of the One Power in earnest. Whereas new uses for the One Power used to be teased out over the course of book suddenly anyone who can channel a lick is testing the limits saidan and saidar in order to save their lives.
It’s fascinating to see the transformative effect these new weaves have on the WoT world, turning tried and tested military tactics on their head. Like everything else in AMOL these new additions to the One Power tool box come fast and furious, tumbling out fully formed onto the page.  Although I’m sure the odds are stacked against it I couldn’t help but wonder what a WoT sequel would look like now that the Age of Legends had seemingly been rediscovered, perhaps a less traumatic version of Aviendha’s vision of the future.
It was nice to see almost every surviving character from the entirety of the WoT saga get a paragraph or a moment in which to shine. Supporting players who’d been waiting in the wings for their part to play in the Last Battle are almost too numerous to mention. Some get only a passing reference, others get whole chapters. Readers will surely argue amongst themselves about whether Character A deserved more screen time than Character B.
But on the whole I think Sanderson respected the material and the characters who populate it as much as he could. There are simply too many ongoing characters in the WoT saga to give each one their proper due and it’s inevitable that some of them will be given short shrift. Having said that I was impressed how Sanderson was able to give some of the smaller characters moments to excel that could have easily been given to one of the central protagonists.
The ending was a bit disappointing, but not very surprising. AMOL suffers under the expectation of a thirteen book lead in and regardless of Sanderson’s interpretation of this epic showdown the end result was always going to be vaguely unsatisfactory. I think Sanderson did his level best to portray Rand’s final showdown with the Dark One in the only way that made sense. And his cute little time dilation trick was an interesting hook that allowed him to spread out a short conflict over almost the entirety of the book.  
Final thoughts? I’m just glad the series is over to be honest. Good, bad, indifferent – at one point or another the Wheel of Time saga embodied all of these aspects. There’s just so much real estate to the story that at times I feel buried under the weight of it all. It was still possible to enjoy the finished product, but more and more reading it felt like work that I was lucky enough to enjoy. But no matter how much you like your job, work is still work and it takes something out of you in the end.
I’ve suffered through the bad parts, been swept up in the good stuff and slogged through endless pages of unneeded description in order to get to a paragraph of actual content. It’s the first serialized fantasy story that I’ve ever liked and at one point I used to fret for years between new books. I’ve paid my dues.
A MEMORY OF LIGHT perfectly encapsulates the extreme swings of WoT saga, a somewhat flawed but ultimately enjoyable read.  I’m glad to know that, even if it was unfulfilling at times, the story has come to an end and I feel like I can move on to other tales that don’t have so much mental baggage to weigh it down. So I doff my hat to Rand, Mat and Perrin. A trio of lads of whom I have many warm memories but I don’t think I’ll be checking in with them again anytime soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review. I gave up on book five or six back in 1994ish. I have had wandering idle curiosity on whether I should pick it up and finish. Sounds like I don't need to (or want to)



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