Douglas Cohen (douglascohen) wrote,
Douglas Cohen

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  ...

First, let me say in all fairness that were a number of things I liked.  Demandred having taken over Shara, and coming back to the Last Battle as the Bao Wyld, a man who has fulfilled prophecies of his own on the other side of the continent  ...the revelations about the Aiel in the red veils being Aiel men able to channel who were sent into the Blight to fight the Shadow ...Callandor being able to channel the True Power ...the humor ...a bunch of the battle scenes, in particular the multiple challengers to Demandred ...the M'Hael being raised to one of the Chosen ...Egwene's final sacrifice ...all of that was great.

BUT ...

When I closed the book I found myself dissatisfied.  And to be quite honest, it didn't take long for me to pinpoint my biggest problem, and this more than anything accounts for my disappointment with the final book.  It all comes back to the way Robert Jordan handles death with his character.  I remember all the way back in the beginning of the series when Thom Merrlin confronted the Myrdraal, allowing Rand, Matt, and Perrin to escape, I was so upset (in a good way), because I wanted Thom Merrilin to live.  Then, when he showed back up on the scene later in the series, and I was so relived to learn that he wasn't dead.  Little did I understand at the time that Robert Jordan would display a frustrating refusal to kill any heroes of note.  While I never root for the heroes to die, in my mind it often comes with the territory in epic fantasy.  It's hard to have a battle where the fate of the world is at stake and make it believable that none of the heroes die.  Impossible?  No.  Certainly difficult, and I think in the case of Wheel of Time--with so many plot lines, characters, and expectations built up for so many years, it was absolutely essential to kill a number of important characters.  Mind you, I'm of the opinion that pivotal characters should be dying all along--like in George R. R. Martin's series--as opposed to saving them all for the last book, as in AMOL.  I find that far more realistic when you're battling for the very existence of the world, and the other approach takes out so much tension from the story.  When anyone can die at any moment, I find myself far more invested in the story, especially in epic fantasy, when so much is at stake.  

In Robert Jordan's case, I came to understand around book eight or so that all of the good guys were going to last until AMOL.  All right, fine--all the eggs in one basket.  Not the way I would've played it, but it does mean that a lot of heroes can be killed in the final book ...a book called the Last Battle.  If it was truly the Last Battle, I expected a lot of characters to die, on both sides.

And they did.  And I was still disappointed.  And again, it comes back to the way Robert Jordan handles death.  While most of my problems have to do with the deaths of the heroes, I did have a problem with the villains that can't be overlooked.  Let's touch on that first:

I was actually fine with the deaths of most of the villains.  However, Padan Fain is a huge exception.  This was one death that I found hugely anti-climactic.  He comes on the scene for all of two minutes and then Matt kills him.  I don't have a problem with the reason Matt is able to kill him--that makes sense.  My problem here was the execution on a story level.  Was this really the same villain putting stakes through the eyeless face of a Myrdraal early in the series, the same character that almost killed Rand with the dagger from Shadar Logoth in A Crown of Swords, when he reopened Rand's old wound in his side?  Unfortunately, it was.  The problem is that he was built up far too much as a villain to be cast aside as almost an afterthought toward the end of the final book.  It created too much of an expectation, but it was clear Robert Jordan didn't mean for him to factor into the Last Battle in any significant way.  Given this, I see little reason why Padan Fain needed to be around for as long as he was.  It would have been far more effective if Rand had killed him in A Crown of Swords fter Fain stabs him.  It's clear that he was only there at the end because Jordan wanted Rand to need both Matt & Perrin at the end, Perrin to take care of Slayer and Matt to take care of Fain.  But Slayer was around the entire book.  Fain?  Not so much.  It lacked resonance.  Besides, Matt saved Rand in a different way--he managed to get Olver to Shayol Ghul so that he could blow the Horn of Valere.  Rand was clearly too spent to save them, and everyone else was on the verge of being overwhelmed.  So Matt bringing Olver there more than serves the purpose of Rand's friends both having his back at the critical moment.  Fain was just unnecessary.  Since Fain was absent throughout the book, I clung to the theory that he would be the one who kills Rand.  Rand bests the Dark One, and when he emerges from the Pit of Doom, Padan Fain--the one everyone forgot about--shows up to deliver the death blow to Rand.  That kind of makes sense since Fain had previously been played up as a wild card, an evil force no longer bound to the Dark One.  This would also explain/justify him being played up big-time early in the series, than being de-emphasized for little apparent reason, and being invisible through almost the entire book before dying a rather meaningless death.  Maybe it would have worked better if Perrin killed him, since it's revealed that Fain killed Perrin's family, but no.  We didn't even get this.      

There are theories that Matt's luck was tied to the dagger that Fain wielded.  Since Fain dagger is destroyed when Matt kills him, that would explain why Jordan kept Fain alive as long as he did.  But I never really bought into that idea.  I feel like his luck came from being ta'veren.  I feel like Artur Hawkwing calling him "Gambler" pretty much confirms this in my mind.  Fain's death was pretty ineffective, and the real reason was too many threads were attached to him with little final direction or payoff.

Now let's look at the heroes.  He killed quite a number of them ...or did he?  Well, the answer to that is yes and no.  And it's also the way he goes about killing his heroes.  When I first finished the book, I had mixed feelings about it.  I mentioned the awesomeness above, but I needed to sort through my problems, especially with those last hundred pages.  But it turned out I didn't.  Within an hour I had pinpointed exactly what my glaring problem was with this book, and thus how he ended the series.

Every hero he killed was a safe kill.  There was very little risk involved.  Now if you're a fan of the series and the last book, I can almost hear the objections.  He killed Gawyn!  He killed Siuane and Gareth Bryne!  He killed Davram Bashere!  He killed Rhuarc!  He killed freaking Egwene!

All true.  But I'd like to look at those kills in a little more detail.  And before I do that, let me talk about the second to last night I spent reading AMOL.  I started with that chapter called the Last Battle.  You know the one--it went for two hundred pages, with pretty much nonstop action with the fate of the world balanced on a pin.  I read that in one night, read one brief chapter after that, leaving me with 100 pages to read the next day.  I went to sleep that night thinking Galad had died, thinking Lan had died.  Perrin's life hang by a thread, and because of some of the prophecies from previous books, it seemed like there was a chance he could die as well.  Along with the deaths of Egwene and the others, I found this to pretty epic.  Lan's death in particular was very effective.  I went to sleep--or should I say I TRIED to sleep, because what I read was so freaking amazing--having gotten the sort of payoff that I'd been waiting on for twenty years.

And then I read those last 100 pages and learned that Lan's death was a sham.  Just another character that almost died, but thank goodness they managed to save him in time.  Same deal with Galad for that matter, but Lan's faked death left me feeling particularly annoyed.  I loved Lan.  He was a great character.  I was led to believe that he died.  That emotional reaction to twenty years of dedication to that character was summoned from me.  And it was all a sham.  But the truth is that Lan should have died.  The only reason he didn't die was because Robert Jordan wanted him to live to give his readers a safe and happy ending.  What's more, he relied on the same basic idea as the climactic battle between Rand and Ishamael in book two.  In that book, Rand accepted the death stroke in order to deliver one.  Turns out Rand lived from that wound, but fine, that wound played a big role in the series.  But in this battle, it's the same idea: Lan is willing to die on the sword of a Forsaken in order to kill him in return.  Same basic tactic.  Sure, I was willing to accept it.  After all, Lan was Rand's teacher.  He knows all the tricks.  But more importantly, by making Lan die, the battle was differentiated from the original one in a significant way.

Only Lan didn't die. He was saved.  He was saved for the same reason that Galad was saved.  In a sense, it's for the same reason that Siuane and Gareth died, and for the same reason Davram and his wife died.  In fact, it's the same reason that Aviendha lived through her battle with Graendal, and the same reason that Rand lives in the end after we're led to believe that he's dead.

In short, he refused to explore the grief of lovers dying, of husbands and wives grieving for one another.  IMO, this is systemic, and has plagued the very fabric of this series.  It's the reason Thom Merrilin was allowed to live, the reason Moiraine wasn't killed when she fell through the mirror with Lanfear.  He knew they would be together in the end.  Even when it seemed like Moiraine was gone, Thom still had that note that gave him hope she was alive.  That's not realistic in war.  There is nothing wrong with good triumphing over evil, but in a battle of this cost, with this many relationships going on, more should be lost.  Grief for lost loved ones needs to be explored.  It is the price of victory, and victory should be bittersweet in all its facets.  But Robert Jordan played it safe, and that's way this ending falls flat for me.    

That's the short of it.  But if I'm really going to get this off my chest, I need to expand on this subject a little more, beyond "the short of it."  Thom/Moiraine is pretty self-explanatory, but let's look at the others:

Lan/Nynaeve: I detailed my issues with Lan's death.  It was a cheat.  But him not dying also hurt Nynaeve's storyline.  She was one of the most prominent characters throughout the series, and she essentially background noise in the final climactic battle, doing nothing more than tending Alanna with some herbs to keep alive.  Important?  Sure, but pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.  But what if Lan had died?  Suddenly Nynaeve would have to maintain her focus while struggling through the sudden pain of what is probably the most devastating experience of her life.  She would know Lan was gone through the link.  But if she gives in to her grief it means failing Rand, which means all is lost.  That's just a tad more effective than "Here, I have some herbs for you and that's all I'm going to do for hundreds of pages."  Now when I said that Robert Jordan chose to keep Lan alive, the reason is implication.  With the greenery blooming in the Blight once more and the Dark One defeated, it means the nation of Malkier can return.  Lan is the last king.  He can return  to his throne.  No Lan, no throne, right?  Wrong.  All you had to do was drop the bombshell that Nynaeve was pregnant.  It would have been far more effective than learning that Tuon was pregnant.  Yes, she claimed it was foretold she would have a baby with Mat, but that doesn't need to be confirmed on the page.  That can be left to the imagination, in much the same way Mat's whole relationship with Tuon would.  I suppose you can argue that Tuon's pregnancy also symbolizes Mat becoming a man and leaving childish things behind.  But Mat grew up plenty by leading the battle against the Dark One's armies against his better judgement and then hurrying to Shayol Ghul afterward (and again, Padan Fain wasn't necessary to him hurrying to Shayol Ghul to help Rand).  Nor do we need the baby to somehow symbolize that Mat's days of chasing women are over--that's been abundantly to clear every last reader from the moment he met Tuon. So really, if you were going to drop a bomshell pregnancy on us in the last few pages, Nynaeve's would have been far more effective.  But none of this happened, and we're left with no grieving over one of the most important relationships in the series.

Siuane/Gareth Bryne: Here is a case where both lovers died.  But none of it was dramatized.  Min realizes that Siuane are Gareth are going to die because they've been separated.  Siuane stays with Min anyway for the greater good, even though it means her death, and possibly Gareth's as well.  It's a very noble sacrifice.  And we don't even see her die.  She's been killed the next time a character looks over.  The reader never even saw it happen.  Nor do we see Gareth Bryne's grief.  We're simply told that her death sent him into a rage that got him killed by the enemy.  Very believable, sure.  But we never see his grief.  It's never dramatized, not even through the eyes of a direct observer.  Both of them are just supporting characters, but they're important supporting characters, and they're treated like second class citizens in the Last freaking Battle.  And all the grief has been neatly sidestepped on any meaningful level.

Davrame Bashere/Deira t'Bashere: Of course, Siuane & Gareth are pretty much treated like royalty compared to the deaths of Davram and his wife, which pretty much amounted to "Hey, by the way, these two died also.  Moving on ..."  Again, no grief of either character seeing his/her spouse die.

Rhuarc: We got some quick grief over from Aviendha over killing him, but I don't recall any meaningful reaction from his wives.

Rand/Min/Elayne/Aviendha: All right, so Min wasn't in much danger in this book.  That's fine.  Not every character needs to be in danger.  But let's look at the other three.  If we're going to be completely realistic about this, when Aviendha undoes this weave of the gateway at the end of the Last Battle while Graendal is trying to overcome her with Compulson, the ensuing explosion should have killed them both.  I thought the battle until that was very cool, especially Aviendha throwing that glowing spear of energy at Graendal--it was a climactic symbol of her finally reconciling her former life as a Maiden of the Spear with her current life as a Wise One.  Going from that into her forcing  a gateway to explode and take herself and one of the Forsaken out would have been an epic way to go out.  But what do we get instead?  "Oh no!  I've hurt my tootsies!"  So Rand is spared the need of having to grieve for her.

Then we have Elayne.  She almost has her babes ripped out of her womb come the end, but the Horn of Valere is blown and Birgitte comes back to life and saves her.  I'm actually willing to accept this.  It was a big question all along about whether or not she could common back as one of the heroes of the Horn after being ripped out of Tel'aran'rhiod, and I was more than willing to believe that she could indeed come back.  But once again we see Rand being spared the need of one of his wives dying, which would have been Elaye's ultimate fate had Birgitte not saved her.  While I can accept this particular escape, it does feed into this very troubling trend of "My characters will never have to grieve for their spouses."  And while I'm at it, I do have a gripe here that's almost the reverse of everything I've been talking about.  Gaidal Cain isn't dead to Birgitte, but he's lost to her for books and books.  There is the hope that maybe Birgitte will be reunited with him one day, but this is a type of mourning, I suppose.  She is mourning for what might be lost to her forever.  And when we learn it isn't?  We don't even get the joy of that reunion?  We don't even see Gaidal Cain?  Seriously?  I suspect Olver is Gaidal Cain reborn.  Birgitte says at the end she'll be reborn and be reunited with Cain, possibly be a few years younger than him, which means Cain is already a child in this world.  I suppose it makes sense then that Olver blows the Horn and that he's the one who will be getting rid of it.  But if the Horn summons heroes from Ages past, can bring Birgitte back to life, can bring the spirits of wolves back to fight (which was actually really cool), why can't it transform Olver into Gaidal freaking Cain for the Last Battle?  The Horn doesn't have the power to make Gaidal Cain reassert himself with the Last Battle on hand?  He's just going to miss this fight when all of creation is at stake?  That feels a bit thin.  You can argue that the Wheel of Time has no endings or beginnings as we're so often told, so what's the big deal if Gaidal Cain misses this particular Last Battle?  Well, this is the only Last Battle we're going to see.  It would have been nice to see this reunion.

This brings me to the third part of this mess, i.e. Rand.  Really?  The body switch so Rand can just go along his merry way?  It really doesn't make sense, except in the sense that Robert Jordan took the easy way out.  Elayne, Aviendha, and Min are the only ones who know (to be fair, Cadsuane suspects strongly), which is awfully convenient, as it spares them the need to grieve for their lost love.  Gee, what a surprise.

Perrin/Faile: Once Davram Bashere and his wife died, it was obvious that Faile was getting set up to be queen.  So of course she isn't going to die.  That line of succession was carefully orchestrated.  And that means Perrin can't die, because then Faile would have to grieve for him.  Who cares that he took a grievous wound or that there was prophecies among the Shadow suggested his death?  Faile is alive!  Let's have our happy ending!  Yay!

Galad/Berelaine: Galad should have died, plain and simple.  He didn't because then Berelaine would have to grieve his death.  Instead, she just has to deal with the fact that her pretty boy was made ugly.  Oh, poor thing.  Of course, we don't see that "grief" because it would be incredibly shallow.  Nor does the other reason to keep Galad alive--an encounter with Rand now that they know they're brothers (another cool revelation)--ever come to fruition.  My snark meter is about to break here.

Androl/Pevara: Gee, what a surprise they both pulled through.

Loial/Erith: Well, I'll be fair and say I've known for years that Loial would survive--he's the one chronicling the tale that we're reading.  But no surprise that Erith didn't die, because then the poor little Ogier would be sad that his wife died. :(

Eaginin/Bayle Domon: Yeah, these two.  I'm just being a jerk now to drive my point home.  

Gawyn/Egwene: This is the sneakiest one of all, the one that fans might point to argue against my objections.  That's why I saved this one for last.  Gawyn dies first, and he seems pretty sure that he knows he's going to die because of those rings.  But there is very little grief at what he's doing to Egwene--Gawyan is an immature and selfish child who wants to die fighting for glory as opposed to guarding Egwene.  He got exactly what he wanted--a glorious death, which proved more important to him than Egwene's love.  Him riding away as he did was also pretty unbelievable, but at least he still died.  As to Egwene, yes, there was some grief.  But that is quickly overshadowed by her anger.  This anger is necessary in order for hold onto saidar, so there is a logical reason for not to be grieving overly long ...but it also neatly spares her the necessity to grieve ...unless she survives the Last Battle, which is the big reason she's allowed to die.  Now don't get me wrong.  Her death was amazing.  It was one of the most powerful moments in the book, but her last thoughts aren't even of Gawyn.  She becomes pure magical light in a transcendent experience.  So even at the end, she is spared any final grief.

All nice and neat.  It's pretty much how all the deaths are handled, but death is messy.  War is ugly.  It's not the blood that matters to me in a battle, it's the deaths and the loss experienced by characters I care about.  And time again, Robert Jordan dodged letting this happen.  In fact, other than Egwene he dodged killing the characters that truly carried this story.  At the heart of this story is Rand.  If you're going to expand it further, it's Rand, Mat, and Perrin.  If you want to include the next circle, it's those who who set out from Emond's Field on the original mission, which would also include Egwene, Nynaeve, Moiraine, and Lan.  It's your Seven Samurai if you will.  Thom was more on the periphery, so I don't group with this core group.  If you want to push it to ten though, let's include Elayne, Min, and Aviendha, Rand's three lovers.  That seems fair since Rand is the heart of the story.  Then you get into the rest of the group as far as heroes go, folks like Thom, Cadsuane, Siune, Morgase, Galad, Gawyn, Tam, etc.  All important characters, but they're not the heart of the story.  The heart of the story revolves around ten people at most.  Of those ten people, only one died, and not even one of the core three.  Had Robert Jordan been willing to kill Lan, Aviendha, and Rand in the final book, I would have had a much different opinion about AMOL overall, as well as my final feeling about the overall series.  I could even forgive Perrin not dying if Jordan killed a few more of the other principles, because honestly, there was no reason those three should have died, except to spare their loved ones grief and leave the readers feeling like they all lived happily ever after as they rebuilt from the ashes.  But that's not fair.  Endings after battles such as these are supposed to be bittersweet at best.  But the Robert Jordan very neatly pulled the wool over our eyes, right until the end.  I'm disappointed.

If it sounds like I'm being hard on him, well, I am.  But it doesn't change the fact that the series will have a special place in my heart.  It always will.  I just wish Robert Jordan was willing to make the tough choices instead of sugar-coating it.  It would have been a much stronger story.  No doubt this essay of mine is riddled with typos and spelling errors.  That's fine, because I'm not going back to reread this and pretty it up.  It took me long enough to write the damn thing, but I needed to do it to get this off my chest.  Now I can move on.  I feel like I have my closure on the series, beyond reading the last page of AMOL.  Still, I'll always be grateful to Robert Jordan for creating this world and this story, but damn it, it could have been so much more powerful.    




Tags: a memory of light, reviews, wheel of time

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  • Retirement

    So I tried to post a comment here and the link icon wouldn't work. I will take this as a sign that it's time to retire this site. I've…

  • "Little Widow" is a World Fantasy Award Finalist

    So it's been some months since the last time I posted here. The last post mentioned mentioned how Christopher Golden had been nominated for a…

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