One of the problems with reviewing books like Towers of Midnight is that as you’re taking your notes and then as you’re writing the review itself, you know that really, none of it matters. Because let’s face it, nobody’s reading a review of the thirteenth book in a series — the penultimate one no less — to see if they should read the book. So we’ll dispense with the recommending part of the review and just give some spoiler-free impressions of this almost-the-end book by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson.
I’ll begin by confessing that over the years I’ve become somewhat ambivalent toward the The Wheel of Time, feeling that while some of the books (especially early ones) were absolutely fantastic, the series overall has had wide variations in quality of characterization and plotting, generally becoming pretty bloated.
Towers of Midnight does a mostly good job of taking care of the plot aspect. I’m starting to think, based first on The Gathering Storm and now on Towers of Midnight, that Brandon Sanderson was an inspired choice to finish the series following Robert Jordan’s death. The reason for that is one of Sanderson’s strengths, perhaps even the major one, is his ease and speed of pace. As mentioned, I think Jordan’s series bogged down with plotting somewhere after the first 4-5 books and we started to get a lot of repetitive or superfluous scenes. That holds true somewhat here as well, one assumes because Sanderson is still working off of Jordan’s outlines, but I give credit to both authors for the improvement on this front. Jordan seems to have streamlined the general plotting as we head toward the conclusion, while Sanderson has streamlined the prose and transitions so we speed through all that plot more quickly than before. What we’re left with is an event-filled book that moves far faster (in most spots) than its 800+ pages would portend. I maintain my belief, though, that the series didn’t justify 14 books, and I’m not fully convinced it needed three to wrap it up. (Two would have done the job, I think.)
Sanderson showed this same facility with quick-moving plot in The Gathering Storm, but I said in my review of that book that while we moved quickly through individual scenes, by the end it didn’t feel like we’d moved forward much in the overarching story. That’s not the case here, however. The Last Battle is near and the characters need to be put in their places. And so we finally get characters accepting and/or entering fully into their roles and moving determinedly through events because of that acceptance. Rand, for instance, is no longer hardening himself at a glacial pace; instead he has found his center and is decisively moving forward. Egwene has mostly consolidated the White Tower, Elayne the same for Andor and they too are sharp and decisive. Mat (who feels much better handled in this book, less overtly and clumsily humorous and thus even more funny) is making his move to find Moiraine. The exception to this is Perrin, who has gone far too long declaring he isn’t a leader and does so here as well, though once he finally makes his decision (in one of the better scenes of the book) he too is strongly resolute. Personally, this final acceptance of their role comes a bit late for me, especially as many of the character arcs are relatively predictable in terms of the big picture: Perrin and Mat both pretty much do what one would expect and end where one would expect, though there may be some small-detail surprises.
Meanwhile, beyond moving characters into place for the Last Battle, we get other plot strands — some large, some small — resolved from earlier books and a small number of new ones added. These are handled solidly, if at times a bit perfunctorily. There aren’t a lot of emotionally-stirring reading moments, though there are a few. Interestingly enough, I’d say that the strongest of these don’t even involve the major characters.
The writing itself is solid. I wouldn’t really call Sanderson a wordsmith in terms of imagery or startling use of language, but he creates a scene concisely and does a nice job with dialogue. Finally, he has thankfully pretty much scrubbed the book of those annoying character/descriptor tics (I think there was only one “folded her hands under her breasts” in the entire novel).
Like The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight is a very quick, effortless read, no small achievement for a nearly-900-page book (though it probably would have been better at 700-750). Unlike the prior book though, Towers of Midnight really moves the big story forward and by the end there’s a sense of bated breath as events and characters start to narrow to a point. Those who have stayed fans throughout will, I think, find that Sanderson is doing a credible and respectable job bringing it home. Those who, like myself, have become somewhat ambivalent lately and are reading more to finish and “just find out how it ends” will be happy for how smoothly and speedily Sanderson gets us closer to that point.