A polite notice: this review contains spoilers! The book was published a year ago and I can’t imagine any circumstance where someone who actually cares about the fourteenth and final book of ‘The Wheel Of Time’ hasn’t read it already, but nonetheless; you have been warned.
This is ‘A Memory Of Light’. It is over three hundred and fifty thousand words long. It is written in the most part by Brandon Sanderson, working from the late Robert Jordan’s notes. There are scenes from Jordan scattered here and there and Sanderson has said the epilogue which caps the entire series is entirely as Jordan wrote it. These, by the way, are not the spoilers. They’re just designed to give you a healthy appreciation of my suffering.
The book relates the events of Tarmon Gai’don, the long prophesised and inexplicably apostrophised Final Battle between the forces of Darkness and…well, everyone else. Yet incredibly, with the Dark One’s low-rent orc substitutes marching on civilisation in their countless thousands, it still takes one hundred and eighty pages for the nations of the world to quit their bickering and scheming and finally agree now might be the time to work together.
A hundred and eighty pages of the same fairly bland politicking that made up most of the last eight books! This was supposed to be the book where things finally happened! Where final things happened!
Yet more time is spent describing the planning of the war, with characters debating over a map table. There are preliminary skirmishes and some of the more epic-level characters get to unleash themselves a little bit, which is what we’d all been waiting for, right?
But these skirmishes demonstrate the limits placed on those characters by circumstances. The enemy has hit squads in reserve, watching for displays of excessive power. Should the series’ uber protagonists reveal themselves, they can expect to be up to their necks in magical assassins before the first dozen Trollocs have finished twitching. Narratively convenient, given the power levels Rand and his pals have demonstrated in the past, but nicely thought through.
There are other nice touches that demonstrate Sanderson (and/or Jordan) has given some serious thought to the implications of massed magic users on the battlefield, particular given their ability to open gateways from one place to the next and march whole armies through.
Hidden or roving command posts, gateways in the sky overlooking the battlefield, for a god’s eye view of the carnage, instant access to off-field medics and arrow and artillery barrages fired through gateways from an unassailable position. The detail and obvious thought that’s gone into this makes it a pleasure to behold and does a lot to liven up what could have been a dull and lengthy exercise in armchair strategy.
It’s still tiring, but once the battles kick off in earnest, Sanderson manages to maintain more pace than you’d reasonably expect for something which goes on this long. If I’m being fair, which I reluctantly feel I should be, the only one of the staple WoT criticisms which really applies to ‘A Memory Of Light’ is the sheer length of the damn thing. But given the sheer number of plot threads which needed to be tied off, untangled or set on fire, it’s small wonder the book’s so large.
The final battle is fought on a range of fronts and Sanderson does well at portraying the sheer scale and chaos of the conflict. Meanwhile, like a magic-slinging equivalent of Chekhov’s Gun, the one Forsaken who’s remained almost entirely off-screen finally gets involved in the plot. In the absence of a physical manifestation of the Dark One itself, it’s Demandred who gets to act as this final novel’s Big Bad.
His surprise appearance is one of the novel’s genuine ‘oh crap!’ reveals, although anyone who’s pored over the WoT novels’ lengthy glossaries (usually in desperate need of a reminder on who, where and why) and wondered why one particular unvisited area of the map has such an in-depth entry will probably see him coming.
When he does, however, Demandred comes across a little bland, characterised only by his stiff formality and intense hate-on for Rand. Which makes canonical sense, given he’s been described throughout the series as the world’s second-best at everything, always standing in the shadow of the Dragon and resenting the hell out of number one.
That also explains why he spends much of the novel stomping around like Godzilla, crushing the white-hat opposition in what feels like a bizarre retelling of the three billy goats gruff (only with legendary swordsmen instead of goats) and issuing challenges to Rand. Who is, unfortunately, several thousand miles away. In a cave. Debating philosophy with the incarnate manifestation of evil.
But enough about that later. It’s enough to know that Rand’s out of the picture, giving Demandred his moment to demonstrate why he was the (second-)best general, the (second-)most powerful channeller, the (second-)best swordsman and so on. Which is fine; given the power and resources the good guys are throwing around, the villains needed to up their game a little and Demandred gives all the appearance of a genuine threat.
Sanderson seems happy to double down on that threat, killing off characters with relative abandon. Final books in a franchise, particularly a long-running one, are always interesting in that nothing is off the table; every character, from the minor to the main supporting cast, is stripped of their plot armour and anything could befall them.
If ever there was a series that could have benefitted from culling the cast somewhat, it’s ‘The Wheel Of Time’, but while this might not be too little it’s definitely too late. Having to look up the recently deceased on ‘The Wheel Of Time’ wiki in order to remember who they were does somewhat rob the death of narrative impact.
So, about that cave? It’s a long-established trope of high fantasy that the nations of the world march to the final battle as little more than an epic-level distraction, while the hero and his chosen few sneak through the enemy’s heartland to deliver. So while the world goes to war, Rand spends the entire battle grappling metaphysically with the embodiment of the Dark One in a cave thousands of miles from the battlefield.
While some handy time-dilation effects mean that Rand’s struggle and the war occur in broadly equivalent time, Orbit Books have yet to invent page-dilation technology, so the need to lay out complex tactical and strategic states-of-play ensures Tarmon Gai’don gets the lion’s share of the page count. The primary effect of this is to render the climactic showdown and the only bit of the plot which really matters, almost an afterthought in its own story.
Nonetheless, when you’re given a chance to appreciate them the scenes between Rand and the Dark One are impactful and well-assembled. As in his earlier WoT books, Brandon Sanderson shows that he has the talent to grant unexpected depth to a well-trodden cliché. The end, when it comes, is as satisfying as it could be.
It’s only a shame Sanderson didn’t politely set Robert Jordan’s epilogue on fire rather than reverently include it in ‘A Memory Of Light’, because it’s an unwelcome reminder of ‘The Wheel Of Time’s worst bits. Bloated and self-indulgent, it undermines the intensity of the closing chapters and feels like a cheat.
I honestly can’t think of much to say about the book other than that. Epilogue aside, it’s perhaps a better end than the series deserves, while still being Not Very Good by any objective measure of quality. There are, as there have been in the other books of ‘The Wheel Of Time’ since Sanderson took over, a number of decent scenes, but these are thinly spread indeed, and (the opinions of the homeopathic community) aside, diluting something does not make it more effective.
But at last it is over and I can rest.
(pub: TOR/Forge. 363 page enlarged paperback. Price: $34.99 (US), $39.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2595-2)