A Memory of Light is the 14th and final volume of the Hugo Award-nominated novel, The Wheel of Time. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Begun in 1990, The Wheel of Time includes 11,000+ pages, 4.4 million words, two authors, seven #1 New York Times best-sellers and a bajillion copies sold. It is a very big thing.
Which leads back to A Memory of Light (2013) - the 1,000 page conclusion to the fantasy series that is now synonymous with the word 'epic'.
The universe - the Pattern - is unravelling as the Dark One comes dangerously close to breaking free. The forces of both light and darkness, good and evil, are rallied to the final battle. Will the darkness be contained? Or will the light be extinguished for all time?
A Memory of Light is, in a sense, the story of two battles. In one, Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn battles Shai'tan, the Dark One. In the other, everyone else battles the complete hordes of evil. Although the two battles mirror and influence one another, ultimately - and as the reader is frequently reminded - success or failure comes down to Rand.
The arc of the book can also be divided in half. In the first half, Rand, who is prophesied to die in the final battle, is on a farewell tour. He passes out goods and advice, hugs and tears, to all his friends and followers. This includes 'the Dragon's Peace' - a sort of fantastical League of Nations that will resolve the issues between the perpetually warring lands. In parallel, Everyone Else gears up and heads off to war. Because of strategy or something, this divides neatly into are four simultaneous battles as the nameless hordes of chaos come surging through in all directions.
The second half is much more straightforward. Rand heads to Mount Doom for his ultimate smackdown with Shai'tan. Their climactic battle is largely expressed in a series of evocative tweets, with the two of them shouting at one another with caps lock on. Meanwhile, Everyone Else heads to the Fields of Merrilor, where the forces of good (who have been getting their asses kicked) consolidate as one tasty mouthful of bait. The forces of evil follow. Hijinks ensue.
I don't mean to treat either of the second act battles lightly, as, even limited to half of the book, they add up to 500 pages of unfiltered, climactic combat. In The Wheel of Time, everything is over-sized. A bit like Texas.
Spoilers follow. If you've been reading this series for 24 years and don't want to know how it ends, I suggest going away now. Sorry.
This wheel's on fire
I should probably mention up front that reading this book without any of the predecessors is a very weird thing to do. In fairness, I'm not completely innocent to the series. In the mid-90s, in high school, while working at a bookshop, I read the first four or five volumes. I remember being... ok... with them. But then I realised that I'd read them in the wrong order and hadn't even noticed. That's not a great sign. People chase Rand. Rand feels weird about his powers. A woman falls in love with Rand. Fighty-fight with the latest Forsaken of the Month. Repeat.
Given this was 20 years ago and that's all I remember, I either went into A Memory of Light knowing 'nothing' or worse - knowing just enough to prejudge it. Take your pick.
Either way... it is genuinely surprising how much I liked this book. A Memory of Light has serious problems, and I'll get to them, but what struck me is that - for the equivalent of walking on the last five minutes of a film - as an experience... it worked. By the end, I cared. And that's a pretty impressive piece of writing voodoo.
My surprise is similarly reinforced by the fact that nothing about this book was unexpected. I could probably have recited the events of this book without ever reading it. Who lives, who dies, who fights the big bad, who doesn't, how it turns out, etc. etc. is almost paint-by-numbers predictable. I don't think the Wheel of Time got to where it is by subverting expectations, and the final volume would've been an odd place to start. I'll get back to this point, too.
But, again, this means that everything rational was stacked up against me liking this book. I knew nothing about it - yet everything about it - and neither in a good way. But I still wound up liking the characters, cheering the battles; even a bit verklempt at the deaths and pleasantly bemused at the denouement. That's my very big thumbs up.
A few other things worth mentioning:
Logain was awesome. I touched on the 'false Messiah' aspect of the Chosen One myth in a previous review, for The Daylight War. A Memory of Light also dances around on the same turf. Rand al'Thor is the Dragon Reborn, the now-acknowledged true messiah of this land. But he's not the first (or only) claimant to the title. Other men - Asha'man - have evidenced similar powers in the past, and have also believed themselves to be the Dragon. My favourite character in the book, Logain, is one of that lot. He knows that he's not the Dragon, but his attitude is still very much of a Chosen One - he's determined to do something that changes the tide of history. Rand - either through arrogance or idiocy - abandons the Asha'man to their fate (he basically sends them a postcard: 'Whatever -- Your Lord and Saviour xoxo'.). This drives Logain is even more. He's loyal, but he also still possesses the mentality of someone who was utterly convinced they were the raison d'etre of all creation. Ultimately, Logain's conflict is whether to be a Dragon (even a false one) or a human. Although his personal final 'battle' is perhaps the least epic, it is one of the most fulfilling.
I (largely) enjoyed Mat. I suspect he's best in small doses, as I was pretty exasperated by his fantasy-hipster attitude by the end of each of his chapters. But his plot arc was fun. Mat's the party rogue, and his role in the great scheme of things is to cozy up to his not-quite-ex-wife ("abandoned" seems to be a more truthful approximation) and then, eventually, lead the combined forces of good. A Memory of Light sets up the premise that Mat is a gambler, not a general. (This is also a nice work of of plot-engineering, as it focuses all the Big Battle down to a single 'roll of the dice'. More about individual heroism, less about tactics. Terrible, terrible strategy, but very much in the high fantasy tradition of personality-over-brains and luck-over-hard-work.) Despite his bravado, Mat's in over his head - he secretly loves his not-ex-wife, but doesn't know how to handle it and he thinks of himself, resentfully, as the sidekick, not the hero. His relationships are also refreshingly normal (well, given the context). He has friendly bantz with Rand, awkward flirtz with Tuon. Given the frowny-faced starkness of everyone else in the book, Mat's practiced casualness helps lighten the load.
Rand's battle with Shai'tan. A lot of it is incredibly silly. As noted above, it really does come down to the two of them shouting at one another in all caps: "SURRENDER", "I DEFY YOU", repeat x 200 pages. But in the earlier phases, before it goes lolcat, the Chosen One and Big Bad compete with a series of duelling realities. They each take turn imagining possible futures and then poking holes in them. The Dark One comes up with ravaged, post-apocalyptic future, Rand counters with homespun happiness. The Dark One envisions a sneaky future where everyone seems fine, but there's no longer any belief in good. Then Rand counters with the reverse... only to find it isn't quite as pleasant as he thought it would be. It is pretty hokey, but, like everything else, it works. More importantly, it helps build to Rand's final decision (to trap, not destroy the evil), and it helps establish the stakes of the final battle. This mechanic also provides a sort of fan-service: it dangles a handful of canon-non-canon denouements/alternate universes before resolving to the one true path.
There's more as well: Lan's a badass, the army of trollocs was sufficiently monstrous (boiling cauldrons of human!), Faile's subquest was tense - getting dumped in the Blight and how they got out of it again, Androl and Pevera were a nice combination, and I appreciated how they were more cunning than powerful... with 1,000 pages to draw on, there are plenty of positives to draw upon.
I'm going to follow the same structure as - a big thing, a few things in detail, then a shopping list.
Just as I had the one big thumbs up, there's also one big thumbs down: there is absolutely no reason that this book should've been this long. A Memory of Light was a slog. The first half was boring because nothing happened (and, in fairness, because everyone was 'new' to me): the narrative meandered around battles that were ultimately deemed meaningless, and there was so much 'gathering of forces' chat that I wondered if anything of consequence had happened in the first 13 books. The second half was all action, but oddly repetitive: a gentle sprinkling of dramatic moments on a blanket of charge-spam. No fixed battles. Just charging. Back and forth. Back and forth. Over and over. Charge charge charge. Merrily down the stream.
Moreover, there's an unnecessarily repetitive quality to each critical moment - making sure that no small island of significance is lost in the ocean of words. If something important does happen, we're told that it has happened, we're reminded that it was significant, we're told it has happened again, then we see the whole thing play out from a different perspective. Every single 'critical' moment is reviewed in triplicate, but a vast bureaucracy of characters I don't want to wander too far into guessing at intent, but it feels like A Memory of Light was determined to shine a spotlight on every one of the series' cast of thousands.1
The bloat and repetition takes place on the sentence level as well - phrases are repeated willy-nilly. Did you know that Fades have cloaks that don't move? I do, because I was told that a half-dozen times. Words are repeated as well, often in back to back sentences. A Memory of Light is plagued with clunky, clumsy writing, and, having read Sanderson's other work, it is almost surprisingly amateurish by comparison.
Perhaps most importantly, the length of A Memory of Light also undermines my central praise: that is, that the book stands alone and that I cared about the characters by the end. It is a thousand pages. Who cares what came before? If a book can't establish characters and tell a story within a thousand pages, it isn't doing its most basic, fundamental job of being a book.
And, again, a couple fiddly bits:
Certain aspects of the magic system bothered the hell out of me. First and foremost: the gates. There's a commonly-used magical talent that involves creating windows from one place to the next. There are restrictions (caster gets tired, there's at least one magic item that works like an umbrella), but certainly not enough to prevent this from being ridiculously powerful. Manoeuvring around a battlefield is now a non-starter: just keep teleporting your forces into the enemy flank. Why bother taking (or not taking) a hill? Just pop your troops on top of it on their way back from a relaxing vacation. Why fight a battle with fixed lines at all? And why are you not simply gating whole armies into the enemy headquarters? Or Mount Doom? If you're going to charge back and forth over and over again, might as well make it someplace meaningful.
The gates are explored and 'innovated with' as the book goes on: vertical gates used as windows onto the battlefield, gates to places like volcanoes and rivers are used as as weapons of mass destruction,2 and they characters even tinker with putting gates in front of cannons, so they can fire anywhere.3 It isn't only that the gateway trick is, as they say, 'OP', it is that folks are figuring it out now. They've had thousands of years of study, and someone just realised that flat windows look down?!
The gender politics are really dubious. I will give A Memory of Light credit for surprising me in one way: Rand, who has collected lovestruck young women like my grandpa did stamps, can't decide which of his three love interests is his true love. So he marries all three. Hilarity ensues, in what could be the set-up for the next great epic fantasy sitcom. (It isn't sexist though, because Rand makes wry comments about how he'll never get to be to the one to choose who he's sleeping with that night. /laugh track)
Again, this feels like an extension of the book's overall problem: a bloated embiggening that comes from the fear of disappointing the series' loyal readers. Rather than risk alienate 66.7% of the fans by staking a claim on one love interest, A Memory of Light picks them all. It is a shockingly bad move, yet, simultaneously, the safest one.
As for the role of women elsewhere in A Memory of Light: it is a mixed, but mostly negative, bag. Elayne is Queen of the World, which is a command position appointed by Rand and supplanted by Mat. Tuon is Empress of the Rest of the World, that is, she's in a command position appointed by Rand and supplanted by Mat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Given that the plot of the book is that Rand is the actual literal point of the universe, and everyone else exists only to fulfil his needs, this makes sense. But it doesn't make it any better: the primary characters are all men with conflicts, needs and resolutions of their own. The women... support them. And it is even worse with the villains.4
And everything else: The 'poetry' (page 209), the unintentional irony ("A great ballad needed to be unexpected" - page 949), the eye-scratching faux Ebonics 'colloquial' grammar of the Seanchan ("We do be seeking" - page 23), the relentless torrent of cliches (magic wolves, Wild Hunt, King Arthur, anything that's ever existed in high fantasy appears in this book), everything with Perrin, a combat system that's eerily similar to the way Patrick Rothfuss describes sex ("Parting the Silk"? "Folding the Fan"?!)5, the heavy-handed Christian allegories (see, the true messiah can't destroy the devil because we need him to remind us to choose God over evil), ad infinitum.
The wheel in the sky keeps on turning
Let's bust out the DGLA scorecard and see how this holds up:
'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:
- Secondary world: Yes.
- Traditional: Extremely.
- Heroic: Sweet Obvious-Jesus-Analogue, yes. There is absolute goodness and light and absolute darkness and evil. The former are honourable, noble and literal flowers grow in their footsteps and when they die it is in showers of crystal and a gentle rain falls upon the land. The latter are unthinking monsters that smell bad, eat their flesh and should be mown down like Satan's diseased testicles. You are one or the other. Quite possibly the reason I was drawn to characters like Logain and Mat is that they were the only ones that seemed to even miss the idea of subjectivity.
- Epic: HA. Um. Yes. Just a little.
- High fantasy: Magic everywhere. People in A Memory of Light eat, sleep and breathe magic. However, and I never thought I'd say this about a Brandon Sanderson book, but the magic system probably could've used a little more work.
- Entertaining: Mmpf. Ok, this is a weasel answer, but: "more than I expected, but less than it should be". To recap: on one hand, this was never intended to stand alone, but still does, which is impressive. On the other, this is a big marshy squishball of a book, and should've been pruned with an axe.
- Innovative: Double mmpf. I'm not giving points for polygamy, so, probably not, no. I realise that I gave The Daylight War innovation kudos for the multiple Messiah thing, but in The Daylight War that was the whole point of the book (well, that and sex school). Here, the most interesting character is a false Messiah, and he's in approximately four scenes.
- Reactionary: Yes. That said, putting it on the Great Curve of Fantasy Awful, it is on part with, say, Lord of the Rings. Sort of vacuously terrible rather than aggressively vile. However, it is also 60 years after Lord of the Rings, so... we probably should've learned something by now. One hopes.
This is a book that's been engineered to meet the specific needs of its readership - a readership that's now so sprawling as to be largely indistinguishable from the 'core' of epic fantasy. Everything that you could possibly anticipate happening at the end of a fantasy series happens.6 A Memory of Light happily plinks away, over and over again, on the emotional keys that the fantasy genre has embedded into our sub-cultural consciousness. It is the "Chopsticks" of literature: familiar, predictable, weirdly unending... yet also, oddly warming to hear.
Fundamentally, there's something untenable about the critical position that "well, I thought it was going to be a lot worse". Nor does A Memory of Light help its own cause by being, well, kind of badly written. But, even now, at the end of a 3,000 word largely negative review, I'm hesitant to blow the Horn of Shame and decry this book as bad. Ponderous: yes. Repetitive: yes. Traditional to the point of stagnant: definitely. But also... you know... kind of ok.
So there you go - my concluding thought from my review of the final volume of the greatest fantasy saga ever written: "shrug". And somehow, I feel that's only fitting.
1: Interestingly, this feels more like a necessity born out of television, not text. Tolkien - and other imitators thereof - didn't pay due diligence to every single character. And certainly Howard et. al. never would've bothered. Whereas now that we have a generation that's grown up with television series and their conclusions, there's clearly an embedded expectation that every character appear in the finale to have their storyline neatly resolved.
2: There's a whole bit strategic 'thing' where Mat sets up a dam to be broken at just the right time and place, so the river divides the opposing forces. Or... he could've just gated in a river.
3: Which is so painfully obvious that even I called it from the first chapters, in which we have both cannons and gates. No one has ever thought of putting them together?
4: There is a brilliant blog post called "A Misogyny of Light" by Chiusse that tracks the comparative fates of the Dark One's Forsaken. Essentially, all the male Forsaken meet quick ends on the battlefield, often in honourable and even noble ways. All the female Forsaken are tortured, disfigured and enslaved. Contrast, for example, Demandred, the Dark One's general who dies in one-on-one combat, to Moghedien, who lives out eternity enslaved. This article is sadly no longer online, but it has been collected within Speculative Fiction 2013.
6: Well, except democratically held elections. Or land reform. Or feminism.