Suddenly, I’ve remembered what one of the best-ever things about blogs is. When you finish reading an installment in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, you can post all of your hyper-emotional thoughts about it in semi-privacy and still invite people who care about The Wheel of Time to discuss with you if they feel like it. Since this is the LAST installment EVER in The Wheel of Time, it could be said that the entire history of blogging has basically been leading up to this one moment. (Cough.)
Obviously, please don’t read this post if:
1) You haven’t read A Memory of Light, because it’s full of spoilers
2) You don’t know what The Wheel of Time is, because it will be really boring to you
Thanks in advance to everyone who does read, especially if you want to react to any/all points in the comments. I’m DYING to talk about this (of course).
Reactions to the Plot of A Memory of Light
I was prepared to be extremely disappointed by this book–both based on my feelings about The Gathering Storm and The Towers of Midnight, and just because it’s extremely disappointing to have something you have loved for twenty years come to a definitive end. Surprisingly I was not as disappointed as I had prepared myself to be. I still desperately wish Jordan could have been the one to finish the series, but I’ll get to that more below. Just reacting here to the plot points:
The multi-pronged Last Battle (the one fought by armies and channelers) that ran concurrent to the Dragon Reborn’s personal struggle with the Dark One was, I think, effective. I hadn’t been sure what to picture before–the Dark One, an anthropomorphic entity, clawing his way out of the mountain at Shayol Ghul and leading troops into battle? This was definitely a success of the plot, I think.
I was also impressed with Perrin’s role in this book. Perrin has, generally, in all books except The Shadow Rising, been a bit of a lump (in my humble opinion). I really wasn’t sure how being a wolfbrother was going to play out relevantly in the Last Battle in anything except the cheesiest of ways. However, his character paid off. I found his quest through the World of Dreams, the finding/replacing of the dreamspike, protecting Rand’s physical self, etc all genuinely heroic. He did, at the end, find his place. You go, Perrin. I honestly didn’t think you had it in ya, but you came through in the end.
[Side note: I think it's interesting how close Perrin's popping in and out of the real world and Tel'aran'rhiod seems to mimic the Forsakens' using the True Power to Travel. A connection to why going bodily into the World of Dreams is, as the Wise Ones say, evil? I guess we'll never know.]
I’m definitely a little irritated by which characters died–every secondary character, ever, but none of the primary characters except, of course, the woman who lost her man. (What was the point in Egwene’s living through the Last Battle when Gawyn was dead, anyway? Etc.) A gross fantasy trope, to kill people off in romantic pairs–and of course one reinforced by the plot (bonding! it’s not all good, apparently!). It’s classic Jordan not to kill off anyone “important,” of course, but it’s still a little annoying.
Also, Bela?! You killed off Bela?! Honestly. Cheap, cheap, cheap, no less cheap than when Rowling killed of Hedwig, although perhaps more poorly executed.
All that said, I’m glad Rand didn’t die. I even liked the closing sequence. I’m not sure I completely subscribed to Rand’s voice in it, which makes me think that despite everything Sanderson et al have said, Jordan did not, in fact, write the ending before he died. This Rand felt too blithe and cavalier, not at all like the extremely serious and tortured young man we’ve known all this time. That said, the last passage definitely made me cry a lot (and I was on a train, too. Very embarrassing).
Another mini hat-tip to Sanderson for his portrayal of the Forsaken in this particular book (mini because I still feel he raced through this, but what he did give us was useful). One of the things that has always troubled me about the premise of this series is the fact that the “bad guys” don’t have any motivations that I could see or understand. “Power” doesn’t seem to be enough of a motivation to want to live in the world of the Dark One’s touch, based on what we’ve seen of it (no food, everything stinking, innocent items becoming randomly dangerous, etc). I think Sanderson actually did a good job of fleshing out some of these motivations–Demandred’s conviction, for example, that if the Dark One wins and he is made king of humanity, he’ll be able to remake the world according to his own vision. Suddenly I understand how a demented ideologue might make that choice. (I won’t try to compare Demandred to Hitler here because it’s not worth wasting the words to develop the connection, but I will toss off this one lazy sentence.) Lanfear’s weird sociopathy from previous books (e.g. Fires of Heaven) was muted and her machinations felt real again. Moghedien’s simple desire to wait until everyone else was dead so she could step up was good, as was Moridin/Elan’s finally-revealed abject depression and misery. I also thought it was a satisfying choice that Moridin face off against Rand in the corporeal manifestation of the Last Battle–it worked on a couple levels, both in terms of Moridin’s character’s commitment to the “Great Lord” finally being borne out/rewarded, and in terms of what he represented as the real intentions of the forces of the Shadow (ultimately, the true devotees are deeply unhappy and alone; what else could possibly turn them away from the world of life?).
I was also pleased with the eventual manifestation of the Dark One himself (itself). I am glad that evil was named necessary and there wasn’t (as I feared there might be) some kind of hyper-Christian sacrifice to slay death and bring perfect beauty and goodness to the world. Phew.
Smaller plot notes: I’m glad Shara, which has long been dangled mysteriously at the outer edges of the plot, was at least brought in, even if Jordan’s plot didn’t give Sanderson the room to explain or develop them.
We still never found out who killed effin’ Asmodean. Just saying.
[Side note: am I misremembering, or were the words "Tarmon Gai'don" never used in this book? Weird, right?]
On the Execution of A Memory of Light
During the 190-page chapter entitled “The Last Battle,” the book finally started to come together for me and to be interesting to read, but up until that point I found it very difficult to get through. I am not a Sanderson fan, so this next portion is going to be a detailed critique of where he fell short for me. I’m not going to claim Jordan was a perfect writer, or that his books were perfect books; I also acknowledge that a number of readers prefer Sanderson’s style, and they are certainly entitled to their preference. I’m just going to try to frame my thoughts on why I am not in that camp, and why for me the three Sanderson installments don’t work. If there are Sanderson fans among readers of this post, I would love to hear your take on these points–if they affected your reading at all, or if they didn’t, and what I’m missing that you responded to positively. I know there are two discrete schools of thought on whether Sanderson was the correct choice to finish the series (or, maybe more accurately, whether he has done a good job).
Giving Sanderson credit for the positive things he brought to the table (namely, in my mind, pacing and forward movement), his work on these last three books has been unsuccessful for me.
Sanderson on his writing
In 2009, when The Gathering Storm came out, I saw Sanderson do an event with Harriet McDougal and Maria Livingston Simons at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. Sanderson told the crowd that he had made a decision to write the book his own way, in his own voice and with his own interpretation of characters, and not try to adjust his style to Jordan’s. Because, he explained, first of all he was his own writer with his own style, and second, because Jordan had done it so well that no one could hope to be him, so there was no point in trying and failing (paraphrase mine; it’s been 3.5 years so I may not be remembering exactly, although I was struck by what he said).
At the time, the protestations that no one else could do it as well as Jordan struck me as unnecessary false modesty and pandering to Jordan’s rabid fans (not least because Sanderson seems pretty pleased with his own established style). Now, in retrospect, I wonder if Sanderson was maybe being honest about simply not being able to do it. (I just don’t know many writers who go into a book with that kind of attitude–why would you agree to publish a book you didn’t think you could write well enough?) This statement, of course, came after Sanderson had been working on the book/series for a year and a half, and perhaps there had already been conversations with editors and/or friends about possible reactions of fans to the product he’d come up with. Who knows. But anyway, what he said was true–he was not able to recreate Jordan’s style, or (for me, at least) produce more than a thin sketch of Jordan’s realized world.
Can what Sanderson said be true? Would NO author have been able to make me happy? It’s possible, but with the volumes of fan fiction written in Wheel of Time-y voices, I just have a hard time believing it. In which case, was Sanderson really the right choice–was a writer who wasn’t even going to try a better choice than one who might have tried and failed?
The opportunity cost hurts–the fact that these books have now been written, and therefore can never be written again. Coming out of the series, am I happier having read the resolution as rendered by this sadly pale voice? Or would it have been better if I hadn’t read them, and just left my engagement with the series unfinished? It’s hard to say. I’m feeling emotional (um, as per usual) about this so it’s probably not a rational answer, but right now I’m 50/50.
This bridges to my next topic, which is the fact that Sanderson’s character interpretations don’t match up to Jordan’s, thereby making for a bizarrely alienating reading experience. (For me.) This is the most jarring and disappointing piece of the puzzle for me–they are, to my reading, simply not the people I know so well from the first eleven books.
Sanderson’s greatest successes are when he narrates very thinly and the character merely engages in action–in those cases, I can flesh out details about them on my own, and create my own pictures and moods. Not ideal, but serviceable for moving action forward.
The worst thing he has done, though, is spend time detailing characters’ thought processes and conversations in ways that are *so wrong* (to me, at least) for the characters Jordan created. These faux pas drive the reader out of the narrative and to a place of incredulousness where the fantasy plot becomes ridiculous.
In A Memory of Light, Lan was especially far off from the Lan I’ve always known–I found myself trying to disengage when I read his sections and just look for plot points. Tough, since he was one of the series’ most interesting characters.
Mat–who Sanderson said at the reading I attended was his favorite character and the one he related to the most–wasn’t as far off as he had been in The Gathering Storm (in which I found Sanderson’s interpretation of his character tear-inducingly disappointing). But still, Sanderson’s Mat is a dewey-eyed, goofy innocent who favors the cheesiest notes of Jordan’s character (blech, like the joking about half-hearted womanizing, about Olver, about Rand and Perrin being heroes) and abandons the tougher, more admirable elements.
[Side note about cheesiness: a prevalent problem throughout. Jordan had annoying cheesy tics himself, but Sanderson can't seem to control himself. Does anyone else feel that way?]
Back to disappointing characters. Nynaeve and Moiraine–what were they even for? Their role in the Last Battle was completely undeveloped. Oh well. I think Sanderson–perhaps wisely–shied away from trying to depict many of the once-key female characters. As I said above, perhaps better than mis-depicting them.
And of course, there’s Jesus-Rand–Rand for whom apple blossoms bloom and trees shoot up from the ground. Was all that Jordan’s intention, do you guys think? And is it just me or did the leap to Christ-figure–benign, all-knowing, lovingly wise and at peace–happen without any structural support? Anyway. Again, not as bad in this book as in the previous two, perhaps because the action moved so quickly that Sanderson didn’t tarry too long in his version of the character’s head. But still. I loved Rand so much, even at his worst, because of his character–his character was absent here, replaced by a Jesus-actor.
Besides the false notes in character development, there’s a thinness of narrative as Sanderson skates through/over plot sequences, mainly using dialogue and action to convey scenes and ideas. This can be construed as a success of pacing, but I personally loved Jordan’s close emotional depictions of his characters’ internal monologues and struggles. It’s what made the fantasy story seem relevant and relatable to my life. (You want a cheesy life example? This is so cheesy you’ll be embarrassed to even read it. In fact, maybe you should just skip ahead to the next paragraph. But in high school, when I was an intensely competitive student who honestly believed my fate in the world rested on my GPA, I would go back and re-read Nynaeve’s Accepted testing sequence and remind myself that any goal worthwhile requires intense struggle and power of will. I had the words “be steadfast” written at the top of my binder and every notebook I used, taped to the wall by my computer, over my bed. Yep.)
Anyway. Moving on to examples from A Memory of Light. Rand’s mental battle against the Dark One felt quite flat an uninvolved compared to analogous sequences by Jordan: say, Rand’s passage through the columns at Rhuidean, or the aforementioned Accepted testing.
Also, Egwene’s death–totally empty. One of the main characters of the entire series, and a damn cool one, sacrifices herself at the darkest point in the battle, and, whatever, I turned a page. The sequence, whether intentionally or not, was very similar to a sequence in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and so emotionally pale by comparison I actually thought maybe it was a trick that would be rectified by the text later (like Lan’s “death,” which, at least, I found more effective). It was only several pages later that I thought to myself, oh, guess Egwene is actually dead. Moving on.
So what? So Sanderson is not the most emotional of writers. What’s wrong with that? Lots of writers shun emotional detailing–in fact, Sanderson’s focus on dialogue and action adheres to a lot of conventional writing advice (plot-forward!). But… I still wish it had been Jordan writing the books, even though there probably would have been (conservatively) an extra 400,000 words to get through.
Again, I won’t claim Jordan was a perfect writer without annoying tics, but for me as a reader, at least, he was a perfect emotionalist. His deeply emotional treatment of each character’s perspective is the reason I was able to get so lost in Jordan’s books (despite their sometimes overwhelming flaws–why did I love Nynaeve so much even in, say, The Fires of Heaven, when she’s basically become a cardboard cutout spokesperson of sexism? Because I still believed in her, somehow–because that’s how thoroughly immersed in her narrative voice I was).
I know that not all readers want high levels of emotional interpretation in books they read; I’ve heard some people specifically say they prefer Sanderson to Jordan because his writing style doesn’t get bogged down in emotional interpretation. Those preferences are of course valid, but they aren’t mine.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about emotional writing–as an editor, this is an issue in styles of reading and writing I get to confront on almost a book-by-book basis. But regardless of your personal preference, I do believe that Jordan’s emotional quality of writing is one of the key reasons his fantasy series became so popular. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that other enormous commercial successes have been written in comparable hyper-emotional styles–I offer up the intuitive example of Harry Potter and the perhaps less intuitive but still very applicable example of Twilight. And to a lesser but still relevant degree, The Game of Thrones. All fantasy series rich in emotional interpretation–you (like I do) may have varied opinions about the respective merit of each of those series, but here is at least one way thing they have in common, if that helps us understand their far-reaching success.
Balance among plot elements
My feeling as I read was that Sanderson struggled with priority hierarchy. Some examples:
In the opening chapters, the Last Battle is starting; why is everyone so worried that Elayne goes to bed early because she’s pregnant? It’s mentioned by at least three different characters (Birgitte, Gawyn, Rand) and is an irrelevant plot point. Why waste so many pages on it?
Another small example from right at the beginning: why almost kill off Talmanes so many times and them have him survive in the first chapter? Cheap and ineffective emotional manipulation, replete with moments like when it’s clear the Fade is only going to bother to nick him on the face instead of killing him outright, since he’s already dying anyway–CRINGEWORTHY false narrative notes.
Why do newish characters Pevara and Androl get so much page time in this book? I ended up liking them, but how curious that they got the high percentage of narrative that they did. Maybe this wasn’t a mistake–I can see it as a tool for tying up loose ends–but then other once-key characters were backseated.
A much larger example: the front end of the book is caught up in the drama over whether or not to break the seals–nearly bringing the White Tower to war with the Dragon Reborn–it all feels ridiculous, and then the breaking of the seals ends up being almost meaningless at the end of the plot. Oops?
It’s an example, maybe, of where Jordan could have created a convincing interpretation of a possibly-imbalanced Rand whose idea to break the seals (and companion idea to kill the Dark One) might actually have been the ravings of an alienated, confused, power- and stress-blinded young man in the need of guidance–could have been compelling. The world could have felt like it hung in the balance. But Sanderson’s Jesus-Rand couldn’t pull that off. I mean, Sanderson didn’t even try. I chose to read my interpretation of what Jordan maybe intended into that conflict–but still, so many pages expended on the fake drama of seal-breaking and conflict with the White Tower. A waste.
Another smaller example: why spend so much time explaining the blood rings and then not have their nature kick in when Gawyn is using them? A waste.
Another: Nynaeve and her herbs for Alanna at Shayol Ghul–what was the point of that drama, when Alanna could simply have severed the bond the whole time? What were Nynaeve and Moiraine even for in this battle? A waste of two of the series’ best characters.
A general note–I will sloppily not include concrete examples here, sorry–but why do Sanderson’s characters discuss so many things in long passages of dialogue? Often they are things the reader already knows–aspects of how the power works, or how a battle is going to run, or conjectures (often suspiciously arrived at) about other characters’ motivations. At first, I was thinking, why are his characters explaining this to each other? And then I started to think, it’s because Sanderson is explaining how this world works to himself.
In my humble opinion, this is evidence that Sanderson is not a high-order thinker, that he struggled through the complex plotting and story interweaving and even some of the basic story concepts that Jordan established and developed. I think the mass of the content–an unwieldy mass, admittedly–was too much for him to deal with. That is part of the reason everything had to be so simplified.
Jordan’s lived experience
A few days ago, I was watching Conan the Barbarian with my boyfriend, and we got to talking about the early years of Robert Jordan. I started Googling his life story and learned a lot about him I hadn’t known before. First, the two tours in Vietnam–and his subsequent training at the Citadel. Perhaps he excelled at writing battle sequences because he actually knew what he was talking about. He had studied physics and history
Sanderson, meanwhile, went to college and studied English and Creative Writing and then became a teacher of Creative Writing. He spent two years in Korea as an LDS missionary–I wonder how that compares to two tours in Vietnam? (I’m not saying this glibly. But.)
I know this sentiment will be unpopular with the crowd who believe that being a writer is about making a writer’s life, and hard work at making a writer’s life, and that’s the extent of it, but–I believe the following: writing is hard work; I won’t take that away from any writer. But having something to say comes from a very different place than the ability to say it well.
Could it be possible that Sanderson simply wasn’t qualified to take this project onboard, based on his life experience?
On Tor’s disappointments with the production/publication
A side note about how this book was rushed through editorial too quickly: there is really sad word repetition within paragraphs and sentences, and which make Sanderson’s writing seem weaker than it should. As an editor, I know how often this happens to authors–you get an accurate word in your head, use it, and then don’t realize as you’ve moved on that you’ve used it a second time in quick succession. A good editor is attuned to this and excises them or points them out for the author to change. A Memory of Light was jam-packed with these word repetitions.
Also, shame on Tor for not releasing an ebook. I wonder if they realize they have cost themselves probably upward of $2 million dollars? (Just a guess, but.) If they think they have prevented piracy, they are nincompoops (a friend downloaded a free ebook version of the book just to show me she could). All they’ve done is anger thousands of fans who would have been willing to pay whatever they wanted to charge (uh, probably up to $25) for a digital file that would have cost them nothing to produce.
OK. That’s all I have to say at present. 4,000 words is probably more than enough on the subject for now, though. Thanks for persevering.