Every now and then, I find myself writing a review that I know just really doesn’t matter. Usually, you like to think of your reviews as acting as a guide to potential readers as to whether or not they should give any particular book a shot. Somebody out there somewhere saw this book and is wondering, “Hmm, I’m not so sure about this one, should I try it?” or somebody out there never heard of this book and is thinking, “hmm, that sounds intriguing; off to my local independently owned small bookshop right around the corner!” (leave me my dream). But let’s face it, when you’re reviewing, as I am with A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan via Brandon Sanderson, the fourteenth and final book of a series (in this case, THE WHEEL OF TIME), there is no reader out there metaphorically tossing its hefty weight from hand to hand thinking, “Should I or shouldn’t I, should I or shouldn’t I?”
No, if you’ve read books 1-13, you ain’t stopping now based on some review. And if you haven’t read books 1-13, you ain’t reading this review. Which means basically I could write the equivalent of Charlie Brown’s teacher-speak here — “Wahwah woh wah wha wahwah” — and it wouldn’t matter one jot. Sigh. But, as they say, “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” so here we go…
First, if you like fights and battles, hoo boy will you like A Memory of Light. Because this 900-page book is basically one big, ongoing, relentless fight scene. And that’s a word — relentless — I’d use if forced to choose just one in describing it. The first 300 pages are somewhat setup as players on both sides arrange themselves in preparation for the final battle. But “setup” is relative in this book. We’re not six pages in before we’re tossed into the middle of a fierce city defense against rampaging Trollocs, a fight that we go back and forth between amongst other, less frantic plotlines. That battle ends around 75 pages later, and we get a little breather in perhaps the least action-based section of the novel (though still time for a rescue attempt and a magical fight), which lasts for about 100 pages before we’re thrown into another full-scale battle. From that point on, the next 700 or so pages are a series of geographically separated battles where our main characters are in separate groups, and then those battles eventually merge into one almost incomprehensibly huge battle where all are characters are in the same rough place: at the mouth of Shayol Ghul.
The separate battles are broken up by several long chase scenes/fights involving Perrin and Slayer and by Mat’s storyline whereby he becomes Tuon’s husband in more than simply title (as in she begins to place her trust in him) and then becomes the general of her army. The single epic battle — the “Last Battle” — takes up almost half the book. It is only broken up, and this only slightly, by Rand’s separate battle with the Dark One, a less physical, more metaphorical fight that takes place outside the actual fighting (indeed, outside the Pattern itself). I suppose one could also argue that the frantic, epic battle writ large is also broken up by a series of one-on-one sword duels that take place and by some small scenes here and there between individuals. But really, it pretty much is a non-stop, relentless, sweep-you-along-or-be-crushed fight scene.
How you will react to this is a matter of taste. To be honest, I would have preferred less fighting, as it began to feel a bit repetitive, especially the earlier battles and Perrin’s chase scenes. Once the Last Battle began, though, it was nigh impossible not to get swept along in its breakneck pace and epic scale, though again, there were a few segments I thought were a bit too repetitive and some individual scenes varied in their emotional impact or sense of tension. The same is true for the death scenes, of which there are many. And I mean many. Several pack a wallop, some hit you at least a little, and others were a bit perfunctory.
Surprisingly, and somewhat disappointingly, the storyline dealing with Rand and the Dark One in Shayol Ghul felt mostly anticlimactic and not all that original. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, but while I do think we needed some variety of tone and pace (it couldn’t all be hacking and being hacked), these segments didn’t quite fill the bill for me. They felt a bit out of place, or if not out of place, not as seamlessly integrated as they needed to be. The same goes for a big chunk of Perrin’s storyline, which I felt suffered from being redundant and a bit monotone (save for one excellent and powerful scene at the very end). Mat’s section also had its recurring moments and themes, but overall I thought it was the most interesting long-term arc in the book, the one with the most plot variety and the most character growth. Lots of other characters get some great moments, some get more than one or two, a few are a bit robbed of their moment to shine, and a few get theirs a little cheaply (one, for instance, was tainted by a heaping spoonful of Deus Ex Machina).
All of which makes this a very fitting ending to this long-running series, one that I admit started to disappoint after the first four books or so. It’s hard to over-emphasize how much is packed into this one book; even at 900 pages it feels overstuffed. And I do think Sanderson has done an excellent job of streamlining (hard as that is to believe) and of improving pacing; he deserves a lot of credit for taking up a pretty thankless job: replacing a beloved author to close out a beloved series. But more isn’t always more. I enjoyed A Memory of Light, and as I said, was often swept up in it. Individually, each fight scene, each duel, each skirmish or battle or stands well on its own. But I would have probably skipped the four early battles, a duel here and there, and cut out a few hundred pages.
Just as I would have cut out a good number of books from the series as a whole. I absolutely loved the start of this series. And Jordan kept me going for a while, even after some of his tics grew tiresome or as the plot was less able to cover up some weakness of style or character. But by the middle of the series I began to feel like I was plodding forward relatively joylessly. And I hate to say it, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone to start the series, since there is so much time to invest in it and I think the balance tips too far to the wrong side of readerly enjoyment. There is, I absolutely believe, an utterly great 5-6 book series buried in this 14-book narrative and I’d love to see almost an anti-Director’s Cut (a former-fan’s cut maybe) of that version. Or an HBO version (a la A Game of Thrones) that runs five seasons rather than fourteen. But while I wouldn’t tell someone to start the series, I have to say that A Memory of Light does a mostly good and certainly an appropriate job of ending it for those of us who have been there from the beginning.
So to sum up, Wahwah woh wah wha wahwah.
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow. Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.