January 25th, 2013

A Memory of Light: Why I Was Disappointed (SPOILERS ABOUND!!!)

Last night I finished A Memory of Light (AMOL going forward)--the fourteenth and final volume in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  I started reading this series when I was--fittingly enough--fourteen.  It had a huge impact, turning me from a casual fantasy fan into a full-fledged fantasy nut.  I might not be where I am today if I hadn't read The Eye of the World--the first volume in the series--on a recommendation.  I definitely started reading these books at the perfect age--that's not to call the books juvenile.  The world-building and plotting are both extremely complex.  But when you're a teenager, these books sing to you.  You fall into the pages, between the words and into the world, until nothing exists but pure unadulterated story.  It's the kind of experience that we take for granted when we're younger and treasure when we're older, when we learn  much to our dismay that such levels of full-blown immersion are now few and far between.

Other than George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy books--which I came to several years later--no book has ever immersed me in its world as thoroughly as the early books in the Wheel of Time.  Note that I said the early ones.  By book six--Lord of Chaos--certain plot lines started to drag.  Still, there was so much overall awesomeness going on that I didn't complain.  Same deal with book seven, A Crown of Swords.  Things changed with book eight, The Path of Daggers.  Except for occasional spurts of brilliance, the magic was gone.  The prose was not as tight, the plot not as focused, the world-building not as detailed, the narrative drive not as all-consuming.  I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me.  This was a trend that continued with subsequent books, hitting its low point with book ten, Crossroads of Twilight, which to me felt like it amounted to at most 100 pages of worthwhile story in what is almost a 700 page book (in hardcover). 

But I endured.  When I was younger, I always felt the need to finish reading what I started.  But life is too short for bad books, so it's a habit I abandoned long ago.  With this in mind, I abandoned a number of fantasy series I read when I was younger.  But I always stayed with the Wheel of Time.  Part of this goes back to the special place it had in my heart--a place it still has--and part of it goes back to two words from that universe: Tarmon Gaidin.  Translation: the Last Battle.  The implication here is pretty much what it sounds like in an epic fantasy series: a final apocalyptic battle to end all battles.  Given the amount of plot threads and characters introduced in the first book--and given how these amounts increased exponentially over subsequent books--Tarmon Gaidin promised to be mind-blowing literary experience, the likes of which fantasy fans have never seen before.

This was why I kept reading, slogging through several books of shoddy stories, to get to this final book, A Memory of Light.  For me, it represented a memory of glorious storytelling from my formative years, the memory of looking forward to reading a promise that was beyond all imagination.  It represented a hope that the expectations of my teenage self might be fulfilled.  And of course, given these four paragraphs, perhaps most importantly, it represented closure, the knowledge that I would finally learn how it all ends after coming to this series twenty years ago.

When the book finally arrived on my doorstep, I was excited.  Now, having finished the book last night, I find myself disappointed.  But I also find that I keep thinking about the book.  Usually when I'm disappointed by a book I forget about it and move on.  But in this case, I find that I've thinking about AMOL all day.  I rarely take the time to share my thoughts with books these days--I think the last time I did so was following my reading of A Dance with Dragons.  But given how much the series means to me, I feel like I need to get some stuff off my chest so I can move on.

Before I get into specifics, I feel like the first thing I should make clear is that I really don't blame Brandon Sanderson one iota for my problems with this book.  As everyone and their mothers know by now, Robert Jordan died of a rare blood disease and it fell to Brandon to finish the series--including AMOL--after being handpicked by Robert Jordan's wife and editor.  Anyway, I don't think it's fair to judge an author's abilities when they're working in someone else's universe.  In Brandon's case, multiply that opinion by a thousand--he stepped in toward the end of the story, with a monster amount of plot lines to wrap up, and the weight of nearly twenty years of Wheel of Time fandom on his shoulders.  I also have every belief that he did his absolute best to be as true as possible to Robert Jordan's vision.  As I'm around his age and he probably started reading the books around the same time as I did, I suspect I have a fair understanding of exactly how those books impacted him.  So with that in mind, I'm also quite sure that he gave these books his all, putting his soul into them as much as he could for a story and universe that were not his.  

So honestly, no beef with Brandon's efforts.  In fact, I applaud him.  There were considerable parts of AMOL that left me absolutely riveted, and to be perfectly honest, it's the most interested I found myself in any of the books since A Crown of Swords, published all the way back in 1996, when I was just finishing high school.  At the very least, Brandon had as much of a hand in that as Robert Jordan, so I give him nothing but credit for those moments that recaptured the Wheel's old magic for me.

This said, when I closed the book, the negatives outweighed the positives for me, and the more I think about it the greater the disparity becomes.  The most predominant negatives were plot developments that clearly come back to Robert Jordan's preexisting notes, scenes, and outline, so if I have a problem with how the series played out, I'm afraid they can be laid at the feet of "the Creator" himself (WoT humor).  Read on for SPOILERS  ...

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