As someone who has been reading The Wheel of Time saga right from the very beginning – that’s almost two dozen years of my life – writing a review of the final book was always going to be a bittersweet experience. Sad, inevitably, because, like it or not, the wheel has finally turned full circle and this really is the end; happy, hopefully, because the series could (and should) go out on a high note. Once I finished reading A Memory of Light I did indeed feel a conflicting range of emotions – but not the ones I was expecting! Yes, there was sadness, yes, there was joy, but there was also irritation, frustration, resentment and more than a little confusion. I purposely avoided Amazon and every other site that might have featured a review of the book until I finished it, for fear of spoilers and other people’s views colouring my own experience of AMOL. Once I did look at the reviews of the finale of the WOT I have to say my confusion only grew. Take the US Amazon page for example – at the time of writing it featured around 400 five-star ratings and 300 one-star ratings! I’ll go into more detail concerning the reasons for this massive diversity of reviews but, suffice to say, I found that I had very little in common with the opinions of those at either end of the spectrum. Instead, I found myself nodding as I read many of the two, three and four-star reviews. If that’s the sort of rating that those of you reading this post gave AMOL then you might agree with a lot of the things that I’m about to say – equally you might find yourself violently disagreeing! Either way, this is my own like-it-or-leave-it, bias-free, non-commercial take on the final volume of the series which, more than any other (sorry George R R Martin fans!), has dominated the fantasy bookshelves for the past two decades.
SPOILERS – BEWARE!
First, let me say a word about the aforementioned Amazon reviews of the book. This is a slight generalization but, for the most part, I found that a lot of the five-star reviews seemed to be praising either the series as a whole, or Brandon Sanderson’s (admittedly laudable) work in tying together the loose threads left by Robert Jordan after his death into a coherent narrative. The one-star reviews, meanwhile, were almost entirely made up of people protesting about the publisher’s decision to delay until spring the release of the e-book version of the novel. Neither of these seem to me to be a particularly valid way to rate AMOL. True, I myself would probably give the WOT series as a whole a better rating than the final book on its own and true, I’m as annoyed as anyone by the commercially motivated decision not to release the print and e-book simultaneously. However, it’s also my view that if you’re going to review a piece of work you should concentrate on the novel in front of you, ignoring what has gone before it as well as any other extraneous issues – so that’s what I’m going to do. I always try to be as positive as I can so I’ll start by looking at what I liked about AMOL.
I definitely liked the first third of the book much more than the final two thirds because, at that early stage, it really seemed to be shaping up to be a humdinger of a finale, as well as delivering on all the promise of the volumes that had gone before. The prologue expertly mixed frenetic action scenes involving relatively minor characters with more slow-moving developments in the meta-plot. Having some characters fight for their lives while others talked and considered weighty matters provided a pleasing contrast. When the major players started to take centre stage we were then treated to some nice character moments – the whole sequence involving the argument between Rand and Egwene at the Field of Merrilor, followed up by the reappearance of Moiraine and ending with the relief of Lan on the Malkier battlefront particularly stands out. The battle scenes, at least early on, were breathtaking – a real sign of Brandon Sanderson playing to his strengths, as well as finally delivering on all of the decades of buildup to the Last Battle. While we’ve seen some terrific action scenes before in the WOT, there is definitely an added edge to the ones in AMOL, given that we know that this is the last book, where no one is guaranteed to survive. After a few pleasingly brutal flourishes that might have impressed even George R R Martin, you are genuinely concerned every single time one of your favourite characters enters the fray – which is, I suppose, exactly how it should be when it comes to a book which is essentially about war. Oh yes, and if you’re a fan of Mat, this is definitely his book. He gets virtually all the best lines as well as stealing almost every scene that he’s in, in much the same way that Tyrion Lannister does in A Song of Ice and Fire.
So far so good, but even the positives that I’ve outlined above carry some hints about the weaknesses of AMOL. Let’s go back to the prologue, where the minor character Talmanes really gets to shine for the first time in the entire series. He fights heroically (killing no less than two Myrddraal on his own!) but then does virtually nothing in the rest of the novel. Had he been killed off at the end of the prologue that would have made more sense and been more fitting. Unfortunately, this is by no means an isolated example. Take Moiraine: yes, her comeback is memorable but after that first scene with Rand, what does she really add to the story? She’s a virtual passenger at Shayol Ghul. Thom Merrilin is one of my favourite characters in the WOT but, given his negligible impact on AMOL I really don’t know why he was included in this book at all. Another of my favourite characters, Padan Fain, makes such an insultingly brief appearance at the end of AMOL that I wonder why he was kept alive beyond The Shadow Rising – I mean, what did he meaningfully contribute to the series after that book? Slayer, meanwhile, was also kept long past his sell-by date. Whilst his Wolf Dream battles with Perrin were undoubtedly one of the highlights of Towers of Midnight, here they just feel like a tired re-tread and the conclusion of their personal feud feels hugely anti-climactic. Proof, if any were needed, that when it comes to the WOT, more is very often less.
Apart from Fain and Slayer, the other villains in AMOL were equally disappointing. Demandred, supposedly one of the greatest tacticians who ever lived, couldn’t work out that Rand – the Dragon Reborn, fated to battle the Dark One and all that – is in Shayol Ghul, erm, fighting the Dark One!?! As far as Moridin/Ishamael is concerned, it turns out that he wasn’t really bothered about serving the Dark One and destroying the Dragon after all, he just wanted to cash in his chips – a very dubious motivation, which wasn’t sign-posted at all in the previous thirteen books. As for Moghedien being caught and collared by the Seanchan, hang on – wasn’t that exactly what happened to Elaida in an earlier volume!?! The Dark One himself should have been much more scary and memorable, not just a disembodied voice philosophising endlessly with Rand in a cave. In fact one of the best potential villains was Tuon, a thoroughly unlikable character whose ‘romance’ with Mat is totally unbelievable. Not exploiting her full potential for villainy by getting her to betray her fragile allegiance to the side of Light was, I feel, a missed opportunity.
Then we come to the ‘heroes’ who died: Egwene, Suian, Gareth Bryne, Gawyn, Davram Bashere and Rhuarc. All of these deaths in AMOL have one thing in common – they were so clumsily handled that I felt absolutely nothing (other than a mild sense of irritation at the ineptitude of the writer). I really did come to this book ready to weep like a baby, especially following all of Sanderson’s tweets and hints that this is exactly what might happen to readers, but in the event I was barely moved. In particular, the fate of Rand himself felt like a massive let-down. Throughout the WOT, you feel that the series is leading up to his eventual death. Whilst his survival at the end of AMOL is not a problem in and of itself, his entire role in the book is very questionable. After the ‘last debate’ scene, he virtually disappears from the action and instead has a jolly-old philosophical discussion with the Dark One for six hundred pages while his allies are fighting and dying around him. At the end of the book not only does Rand survive, he has the god-like ability to light his pipe with a thought and is pondering which one of the three women who are after him he will end up with! Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I’ve always been uncomfortable with this particular love quadrangle and, even leaving this aside, there seems to be very little that is heroic about Rand’s actions in AMOL. To me, Rand’s survival is also one of several fairly heavy hints that AMOL is by no means an end to the WOT saga.
A lot of people have commented on the lack of resolution to the finale of the WOT. Once the Last Battle is over, AMOL ends rather abruptly. On one level, this might simply be viewed as Sanderson wanting to get things over and done with, presumably tired after having spent the majority of the last five years finishing off the work of another author while having a number of his own projects underway (The Stormlight Archive for example). However, a careful reading reveals that AMOL does a lot to set up the world of the WOT post-Tarmon Gai’don. After the defeat of the Shadow, having taken relatively minor losses, the Seanchan are perfectly placed to conquer – if, that is, they choose to ignore that pesky Dragon’s peace that they signed up to (not a huge barrier, one might think). How will the Aiel adapt to their role as upholders of the Dragon’s peace and, perhaps more pertinently, how will the other nations react to them doing so? Will the Borderlands unite under one banner – that of Lan and Malkier – following their horrendous losses during the Last Battle? Will the White and Black Towers be reconciled? Will the Two Rivers secede from Andor? Despite the deaths I mentioned above, most of the main players are still alive, mostly quite young, and occupy central roles in the world – Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, Lan, Thom, Moiraine, Loial, Elayne, Aviendha, Min, Galad etc. Significantly, there is no Harry Potter-style ‘twenty years later’ chapter, showing things neatly wrapped up for all of the remaining characters. To me, all of this points pretty heavily to the fact that the publishers are far from done with milking this particular cash-cow and that further WOT-universe novels are planned. Needless to say, I for one won’t be buying!
So what went wrong? Inevitably – and this is no one’s fault – the death of James Rigney/Robert Jordan hangs heavily over this last book (even more so than it did over The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight). To me, this very much feels like Sanderson’s conclusion to the WOT saga rather than Jordan’s. It has not been lost on most people that many of the best scenes/sub-plots in AMOL involve minor characters like Talmanes and, especially, the Asha’man Androl, all of whom were either introduced or given important roles for the first time by Sanderson rather than Jordan. The last two thirds of the book are basically non-stop fighting – another signature of Sanderson’s style. Whilst he is very good at action scenes, the trouble with Sanderson in this respect is that he doesn’t seem to know that you can have too much of a good thing. I personally felt physically (rather than emotionally) drained after reading AMOL because of the relentless battle scenes – at times I felt like I’d been pounded by the One Power myself! Not only did the endless fighting just get boring after a while, it seemed to leave no room for smaller, character-driven scenes. A lot of the deeper themes in the series which Jordan originally introduced – what power does to people, the inevitability of fate, past lives, the dual nature of life and the cosmos – were totally lost in AMOL. Also, annoyingly, Sanderson seemed to either ignore or pay lip service to the many omens, prophecies, visions and viewings peppered throughout the preceding thirteen books. The resolution of these mysteries was one of the things that I was most looking forward to in AMOL but I still am none the wiser about, for example, who exactly ‘The Broken Wolf’ referred to in the Dark prophecy at the end of TOM was. Again, it may be that matters like this will be addressed in the inevitable WOT spin-off series but this seems lazy to say the least.
I’m aware that much of what I’ve said above is quite negative but, like a lot of people, I came to AMOL with expectations that were (perhaps unfairly) sky-high. My investment of time in the WOT over the years has been so great that (to paraphrase Tolkien) Jordan/Sanderson had incurred some pretty substantial narrative debts that I was really expecting to be paid off – with interest! I also came to AMOL with the experience of having read a number of truly great conclusions to some of my other favourite fantasy sagas – The Return of the King, The Deathly Hallows, To Green Angel Tower, Fool’s Fate etc – and was expecting nothing less from the WOT. In the end, although I was in many ways disappointed with what I got, it’s worth saying that I did still feel a definite sense of loss – as if I knew that there was an old friend whom I was never going to see again, at least not in the same way (gulp). Hang on, I think those tears may come after all…