Saturday, 22 June 2013

A Memory of Light and The Wheel of Time series reviews

It took more than two decades, 14 books and more than four million words. Hundreds of characters fighting and angsting and sniffing through dozens of intertwining and sometimes interminable plots. But finally, finally, The Wheel of Time fantasy series came to an end this year. I finished the final book, A Memory of Light a few weeks ago.

I've told the story of my stormy affair with The Wheel of Time before, in my entry about author Robert Jordan's tragic death. It's a bit weird to think that I've been reading it my entire adult life.

If you're planning to read A Memory of Light still, or want to read the series, don't read on if you want to avoid spoilers. Oh, and this is a long review. It's a long series. I've been reading it since 1991. And it's my blog, dammit (well, partly).

A Memory of Light
After turning over the last page, my first reaction was ... disappointment. Not that it is a bad book. In fact there are some excellent moments. But after investing lord knows how many hours of your life into a series, you want the ending to be awesome, not just pretty good.

A Memory of Light's main problem is there's too much action and not enough space for the characters to breathe. Yes, it's the epic climax of the apocalyptic battle between good and evil, all of reality in the balance,  it needs to top all the cataclysmic battles we have already seen in the series, etc, etc. But A Memory of Light also needed to provide satisfying ends to a multitude of plots and do justice to the horde of characters the readers have spent so many years following.

So it's very frustrating that so much was rushed or dealt with cursorily. There's no reunion between all the surviving Emond's Field people, especially Mat, Perrin and Rand. The much anticipated arrival of the Ogier, which should have been cool in a "Rohan had come at last" kind of way, is very underwhelming. Lan's reaction to Moiraine's return from the dead is dealt with in one line. I can't remember Siuan, her best friend, reacting at all. And there was an entire book pretty much devoted to those relationships!

What's especially disappointing is the lack of reaction to the deaths of some important characters. Nothing from Elayne and Morgase on Gawyn dying. Nothing from Moiraine on Siuan, or Faile on her parents. There was more grief for Egwene, but not as much as she deserved. The Wheel of Time is notorious for not killing even minor heroes, so when the death count finally did become a bit realistic for a war against Ultimate Evil, those deaths should have been felt, dammit!

Yes, the book is huge as it is so lots of stuff could not make it in. But here's the thing. There is so much action. Battle after fight after combat. Take out fifty pages of Trollocs being slaughtered, replace them with stuff that actually has emotional resonance and you would have a much better book.

Not that there aren't some touching scenes, like Rand sparring with his dad, or Slayer remembering his childhood. And the Last Battle itself is very well done. It's actually a masterpiece of plotting, intricate but understandable, little details combined with spectacular action. After so long skulking in the background Demandred turned out to be a good villain, suitably badass and with enough humanity to make him a slightly tragic figure. His death at Lan's hands was a cracking scene. Though I do have a quibble with some of the earlier duels. I can maybe believe that Galad's a better swordsman than his brother - though he's done nothing like beat two Warders at once, let alone three of the best warriors in Seanchan wearing rings that give them super speed and cloak them in shadows. But he's a better warrior than Gawyn wearing all three superpower rings? Nope.

The other thing that disappointed me was the lack of resolution of some big things - most annoyingly, the Seanchan issue. I loathe the Seanchan, while admiring Jordan for creating such an interesting culture. I was really hoping they got smashed up in the Last Battle, or the damane would be freed, or something would happen to fatally weaken their whole evil system. But no, they barely got scratched. Tuon showed no clear signs of turning into a decent person and reforming her rotten empire. There's nothing to suggest that the future Seanchan conquest of the Westlands that Aviendha saw in the pillars of Rhuidean won't happen.

That's another thing that sucks about Robert Jordan dying. He had a couple of 'outrigger' novels planned, which apparently would have focused on Mat and Tuon. So presumably that was why the whole Seanchan issue, along with Mat and Tuon's relationship, was left unresolved. But those novels are never going to be written - Brandon Sanderson has categorically stated that it's Jordan's widow's wish they don't. So the end of A Memory of Light is all the ending we're going to get. Gaaah!

And that also means poor Tam, Perrin, Mat, etc. don't get to find out that Rand's walking around alive and well inside his archenemy's body. Now, I like the idea of him getting to wander off and live a life free of the burdens of messiahship - but not saying a quite goodbye to your best mates? To your dad? Not cool.

Another thing that made me grumpy were some of the twists. Brandon Sanderson/Robert Jordan seemed to have gone out of their way to avoid some things most readers would expect. Tuon doesn't free the damane, Taim isn't killed by Logain, Fain doesn't confront the Dark One and/or Rang, it's Cadsuane and not Egwene who survives to rebuild the White Tower and hopefully forge a Wise Ones-Sea Folk-Aes Sedai-Black Tower alliance.

It's the latter that gets my goat, because I can't stand Cadsuane. She's a bully, and I despise bullies. It's why Nynaeve makes me grate my teeth. Where's Egwene became one of my favourite characters in the later books.

And then there's Fain. Fain. Boy, was he a disappointment. All the ominous buildup, the growing powers, the sinister madness - and he gets stabbed in the chest by Mat. Who makes a quip. But at least Fain's a consistent disappointment. Every book he appears in, he's set up like he's going to do something really important - and he just fades away. Rereading The Great Hunt I realised he's actually the book's main villain - but doesn't even appear in the climax, or the epilogue. In The Shadow Rising he's absent from the culmination of the excellent Two Rivers storyline, just showing up to be pissed off and sinister at the end. It's much the same in the other books. All sizzle and no sausage, an irrelevance. Which is all rather pointless on the authors' part.

Overall though, once I get over my disappointment at it not being great (I felt like this with Fires of Heaven, when the series began to decline), there's more to like in  A Memory of Light  than not. There is too much action but individually the battle scenes are very good. It's a page-turner, there's some plenty of cool moments and some good twists. I particularly liked the subversion of the Great Captains, Androl and Pevara in the Black Tower, Olver being the one to blow the Horn and Noal being one of the heroes summoned by it, and Perrin's ongoing duel with Slayer. Unlike in some of the other books Brandon Sanderson wrote, almost all the characters seem pretty true to what Jordan wrote. Rand, after coming across like some weirdly zen demigod in Towers of Midnight, feels like he should - a well-balanced version of himself. Mat's still too much of a buffoon, but he's not blackboard-scratchingly horrible to read like he was in The Gathering Storm. Though to be fair to Brandon Sanderson Mat must be difficult to write - comedy is hard even if the characters are yours, let alone when they're someone else's.

I also spotted less of the jarring anachronisms (Rand being described as "paranoid", Graendal thinking she'd been "played") that Sanderson sprinkled through his earlier two books.

For all the many faults, I have to thank Sanderson for stepping into a gigantic pair of shoes and making a good fist at what must have been a hugely difficult task. A Memory of Light is flawed, but it's much, much better than no conclusion to the series at all.


The Wheel of Time
So, what about the series as a whole? I reread all of  The Eye of the World and most of the following four books, plus the (great) ending of  Lord of Chaos, the scene where Rand cleanses the taint, a little of New Spring, and the two books preceding A Memory of Light.  Tellingly I didn't care to read anything else. I also read much of this excellent blog from a feminist who's a huge fan of the series but also critical.

It was interesting rereading the books, particularly the ones that I loved as a teenager. The early books are very good and sometimes superb epic fantasy, though I did pick up the flaws more this time. There's the occasional florid bit of writing, like Moiraine's telling of the Manetheren legend (which seemed cool before), or clunky piece of foreshadowing, like how Lan tells Rand the move used to defeat Ishamael in The Great Hunt.

Of course there's a lot to like about The Wheel of Time - there are good reasons why it's sold a zillion books and developed a huge and fanatical fan base. Jordan was a master of description, creating a vivid and immensely detailed world - one of the key attributes of epic fantasy. There are some wonderfully atmospheric scenes, like the journey through the Ways in The Eye of the World. His action scenes were seldom short of excellent - imaginative, spectacular, exciting. There are some very good characters, some very good storylines - like Rand's madness/growing callousness. And it's just logistically astonishing. How Jordan managed to keep track of it all is beyond me - and I think one of the lessons of the series is that if you have that many storylines and characters, unless you kill some the plotting will get out of control (I think George R.R. Martin learned this). That's what happened to Jordan, as the trudge through The Path of Daggers to Crossroads of Twilight showed. It's such a shame he didn't prune more, or not bother writing the rather superfluous novel-length version of A New Spring. The series would have been tighter and less repetitive - oh wow, Rand's defeated one of the Forsaken again - and most importantly, he might have finished it himself.

Though even if he had done that, and kept it shorter, The Wheel of Time would still have been very uneven series. Good characters, like Mat or Verin are mixed in with irritating ones like Elayne, or downright infuriating ones like Nynaeve. The villains are memorable and impressive - until you get to the point when you realise their fiendish plots almost always come to nothing. When the only significant hero they kill in twelve books turns out to not be dead at all, Team Shadow looks pretty incompetent. There are some decent bits of romance, but mostly the love stories are banal. Rand's whole in-love-with-three women things is silly, and his relationship with Elayne is a particularly implausible example of true love, given how little time they spend together.

Then of course there's the gender politics, which are immensely annoying. A strong argument can be made that Jordan was a feminist, creating a world where women hold the most power and consequently belittle men a lot. It's a neat reversal of reality. But boy, the theme is overplayed. When his women think and say that men are idiots, you dislike them. When his men think and say that women are beyond comprehension, you think they are idiots. It wouldn't be so bad if it happened rarely. But it happens all the time. And then there's also a almost complete lack of gay characters - a handful of token references in the later books aside. You can forgive the likes of Tolkien but in this day and age that's not good.

If you take each of the books individually, the excellence of the likes of The Shadow Rising  (the best of the series) is tainted by the mediocrity of the likes of Winter's Heart. The rot sets in with the meandering and sometimes silly Elayne-Nynaeve storyline in The Fires of Heaven and from then the number of scenes that are annoying or pointless rises until some major stories are finally tied up in Knife of Dreams. I'd advise anyone starting the series to skip books 7-10.

Two chapters in the generally very good The Great Hunt sum up the mixed bag that is The Wheel of Time. The first is the one where Rand, Mat,  Verin and the rest of their party go through a portal stone. Rand repeats his life over and over, seeing it in different ways, with every life ending with the words "I win again, Lews Therin". It's imaginative and brilliantly written. The next chapter sees Egwene meeting Elayne and Min, plus Gawyn and Galad, at the White Tower. Cue lots of giggling, very tepid sexual tension and a declaration a few minutes after meeting that the girls just know they'll be best friends. It's like a scene from Sweet Valley High.

For all its strengths, ultimately The Wheel of Time will be remembered more for its massive length and sales, and the death of its author partway through, rather than its quality. Which is a real shame, as it could have been a classic of epic fantasy.


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