Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: A Memory of Light (2013)

The Wheel of Time now has an ending. A Memory of Light, the final novel of the Wheel of Time, is a beautiful and satisfying close to the epic fantasy series that Robert Jordan wove for us for almost twenty years before his death. The book combines Jordan’s and new author Brandon Sanderson’s voices, as both writers tell of the threads that come together to create the tapestry of humanity’s Last Battle against the Shadow. I laughed, I cried, and I lived and fought right beside all of those characters. The writing, the pacing, the plot developments and resolutions – they’re everything I hoped for, and more. A Memory of Light, as former court-bard Thom Merrilin would say, is exquisite.

I started reading The Wheel of Time in the early nineties. My grandmother handed me a paperback copy of The Shadow Rising. It was a thick book, but I sped through it, absorbed in Nynaeve, Egwene, and Elayne’s hunt for the Black Ajah; Rand’s journey to the Waste; Perrin caught between Berelain and Faile; Moiraine becoming visibly frustrated; Mat getting into trouble; and every other delightful thing that Jordan conjured. His skill at world building drew me. Fandoms sprang up across the globe, and I lurked happily in internet forums as erudite bookworms discussed the physics of channeling, debated character motivations, and came up with loony theories.

Then Jordan passed away in 2007. Sanderson took up the project. After reading The Gathering Storm and The Towers of Midnight, I was sad because Sanderson could not be Jordan. He was a huge fan of the series, and he did tell everyone that he would write in his own style. But I felt the loss of Jordan’s gift. I went into the final book with a critical eye.

A Memory of Light blew me away. Its narrative structure evoked Jordan’s rhythm; the beginning of the book built up deliberately to its explosive main chapter, “The Last Battle.” The first portions of the book feature Jordan’s deep affection for minor characters – we spend nearly as much time with Pevara Sedai and Androl, a demoted Black Tower Dedicated, as we do with Rand and the others. A Memory of Light hits its stride once all preparations are complete. The Light’s armies divide their forces among the battlefronts. One of those fronts is in Thakan’dar, and its defenders’ goal is to prevent anyone from interfering once Rand and his chosen two enter Shayol Ghul – the Pit of Doom itself – to take the fight directly to the Dark One; or rather, to where the Dark One’s touch is strongest.

In The Wheel of Time, Shai’tan’s prison lies outside of Creation, and it is only able to touch the world because of the Bore, or the hole in its prison drilled by a team of channelers in a previous Age. Our heroes spend the entire series fighting the Dark One, whose true nature becomes a major theme in this book. Since this is the Last Battle, everyone puts everything they have into every battle, and Light-aligned characters spit out their questions to Dreadlords and Forsaken: why fight for a being that intends to enslave all? Why believe the Father of Lies?

Moridin, the strongest Forsaken, has his answer: the Dark One has promised him oblivion, a final reprieve from the endless turning of the Wheel. It was the very same thing that tempted Rand in The Gathering Storm when he was at his lowest point—he also desired an end to the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. No more having to fight, no more having anyone hate and fear him because of the destiny that came with his birth. But Rand got over that, and in A Memory of Light, he enters Shayol Ghul determined to win. His death foretold by prophecies, he walks into the darkness to bring Light.

Every fight here matters. Rand’s metaphysical struggle and Olver’s flight; Nynaeve’s surgery and Talmanes’ repairs; Perrin’s hunt and Annoura’s repentance; Mat’s gambling and Gawyn’s decision; Egwene’s leadership and Loial’s hacking – it all counts, and they need all of it because the Shadow’s surviving minions are the strongest and most cunning. Graendal and Moghedien, previously shamed, now do what they do best, to devastating effect. Readers finally see Demandred in action. And then there’s the Myrdraal leading millions of Trollocs, who don’t need food because they eat humans and their own dead, and they don’t need horses, because they’re half-animal. Huge losses are par for the course in humanity’s last stand.

The ultimate Crowning Moment of Awesome in this book belongs to a main character. When it happened, I put the book down and sobbed. I’m glad I avoided all spoilers; the impact of that scene would have been lessened if I’d had an inkling of it. And the brutal death of a minor character also made me pause for a moment, mind reeling. So many characters die in here that a list of survivors would be shorter than a list of the dead. On the upside, the descriptions of battle formations, tactics, and units are amazing.

But the Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, and most everyone gets a chance at rebirth. And with that chance comes hope, that this time we’ll do even better, because we choose to. Buffeted by the winds of fate as we are, the choice to do good will always lie with us, and so we take destiny into our own hands.

Thank you, Robert Jordan. Thank you, Harriet McDougal. Thank you, Brandon Sanderson. And thank you, Lola, for giving me this book when I was a child.

May the Light preserve you, and the Creator’s hand shelter you. 

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