Monday, February 11, 2013

The Wheel of Time Stops Turning - A Memory of Light

(Here there be spoilers. Eventually. Scroll ahead to the cover pic for the actual review.)

When I read Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, I had no idea it would be the beginning of a more than 22-year literary journey.

I was in high school and looking for something new to read, so I dropped into Albany Books, the neighbourhood bookstore in Tsawwassen, where I fed my SF addiction in those days. That was back before Chapters (never mind Amazon) rampaged across the country and stamped-out most of the smaller competition, the days when independent stores had well-stocked science fiction and fantasy shelves, the days before media tie-ins began to take up all the room (with the exception of the Robotech novels), when Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke were still alive and spinning good yarns. I don't know how much SF the owner read, but she had a good eye for ordering intelligent and entertaining stock, and I never had trouble finding something good at her place. On this particular day, I'd only been browsing for a minute or two, when she asked if I was interested in trying something new that she'd just got in. She'd never been one to make recommendations before, so I figured I'd see what she had up her sleeve.

It was The Eye of the World.

The teaser on the back was enough to get me. Add the fact that, for a softcover, it was pretty hefty, and this read boded well. After all, at a time when most SF books were 250-450 pages, a fat 782-pager (800 if you count the glossary) seemed to indicate that the story had to be pretty good if the publishers were going to let the author get away with that kind of substantial investment in paper. The cover art was cool too, and, as a bonus, the store owner was giving away promotional bookmarks - as you can see in the photo above, I've still got mine.

When I got home, cracked it open, and started to read the opener about a madman who realizes he's just murdered his family and friends, and then proceeds to tap into some serious magic to not only kill himself and level his castle, but drag a volcano up from the bowels of the world - a story which then cuts to a farmboy who's most likely about to fall into something big (because that's how these stories go), I was hooked. After all, what wasn't to like? A grand adventure, interesting characters, deep-level world-building (down to the intricacies of the clothing fashions), a well-thought-out magic system, monsters, a challenge to defeat evil that is nearly overwhelming but leaves a hope that it's not completely impossible (thanks to the repetitive nature of history driven by the wheel of time), and, unlike many male authors, Jordon seemed to be able to write believable, three-dimensional female characters. Mostly. For the first couple of books, it seemed like he was only able to create two or three different types of women, but at least they were whole individuals, and, over time, he was able to diversify. For my female friends who were SF fans, this was a big deal. As a guy, it wasn't quite as important for me, but it certainly made the characters and story more interesting.

Since then, it's been a long, exciting, and sometimes tiresome quest, following Rand, Perrin, Mat and the others on their adventures, tackling each new gigantic book, and wondering when the whole thing would finally end. Along the way, some of the personal stories about the series have been as memorable for me as the books themselves:

I remember when I moved to Winnipeg, during university, when I was part of a group of friends devouring the Wheel of Time series, I knew a young married couple who could not share. There was no doubt they loved each other, and they certainly shared everything else in their lives, but not the WOT books. They couldn't buy just one book for their household, because neither was willing to let the other go first and wait for him or her to finish. Each had to have their own copy so they could start reading immediately. This continued even when they moved overseas for a couple of years - friends in the group had to mail two copies (and hardcovers, mind you) to them as soon as the newest book in the series came out.

Then there was the winter of 2000, when Winter's Heart and George RR Martin's A Storm of Swords came out at pretty much the same time. I was working as a reporter/anchor at a small radio station on northern Vancouver Island at the time, and as any of you who have worked in the news business know, you don't make a lot of money doing that kind of gig - just enough to pay your rent, fill the gas tank, and eat Kraft Dinner. My then-girlfriend-now-wife and I had driven down to Nanaimo for a little shopping, and before heading home, we went into Chapters so I could grab another book. The first thing I saw, perched high atop the SF shelves, were Jordan and Martin's newest brick-sized tomes, each demanding in excess of $30. Not fair! So, I did what any fanboy would do. I bucked-up, bought both hardcovers, and fought like hell to use the company van at work for the next few weeks so I wouldn't have to fill my own car's gas tank. Which one did I read first when we got home to Courtenay? Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire installment, of course. Save the indignation, WOT fanboys. Jordan was good. Very good. But Martin is genius. And that's a debate for another time.

Along the way, The Wheel of Time books began to drag. Jordan seemed to be losing his steam - he seemed to be dwelling on too many details and spinning too many new plot threads to keep the beast moving at the pace he should have. I began to wonder if the series would ever end, and if it was even possible - or advisable - for him to take it all the way to the Last Battle. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jordan could have made a reasonable, solid, and satisfying ending if he'd cut things off with the cleansing of the male half of the power at the end of Winter's Heart. That was the single greatest obstacle, and the single greatest achievement in the entire series; second only to Rand's final showdown with the Shadow in A Memory of Light. In fact, I'm even tempted to argue that cleansing the Power was a greater achievement, because with the Wheel being what it is, you pretty much know the outcome of any "last" battle between the forces of good and evil - good will triumph, if perhaps not entirely; cleansing the Power, though, that isn't guaranteed. Not at all. Anyway, it would have been entirely fair to end the series saying now that saidin has been cleansed, Rand et all had some stability in their lives, leaving us secure in the knowledge that they'd use this opportunity to build towards confronting the darkness. It would have made a good ending. Really.

But Jordan kept trundling forward. For a while anyway. Until the sad news of his death. Luckily, he'd known it was coming and planned accordingly for the care of his series. For fans, it wasn't a question of whether The Wheel of Time would be completed - Brandon Sanderson had been brought in to do it, so it would get done. It was a question of whether Sanderson, though accomplished in his own right, could carry Jordan's legacy well. Luckily, for all concerned, he did. In typical Jordan fashion, Sanderson has taken three massive books to get to the point, but he's done a good job with those stories. In fact, at the risk of incurring the wrath of purists, I'll go as far as to say that Sanderson has done a better job with the last three books than Jordan had been doing for a while before his demise. Sanderson has been able to reinvigorate the characters without making them different from the people we've come to know, and he's cracked the whip behind the plot's ass to get it moving at a decent pace again. The end was coming, but it looked like it was going to be the end we'd all been waiting for.

Which brings us to A Memory of Light.

The one good thing I'll say about being off work due to an absolutely brutal case of the flu for two weeks in mid January is that after snagging AMOL while buying more medicine, I was able to devote several days to doing nothing more than plowing through, cover to cover (amidst all the sneezing and coughing and suffering and attendant goo). And it was worth it.

The novel opens with a chapter-long montage: men discarding old allegiances, one of Mat's lieutenants in a desperate fight amidst the fall of Caemlyn, the life of a drudge in the shadow of Shayul Ghul, the Aiel Wise Ones pondering the possible extinction of their people, and so on. From there, a fairly significant portion of the book is devoted to Rand gathering all of his pieces for the final match against the forces of evil. Armies are moved north (even the Ogier come out to fight), the leaders of every nation west of the Aiel Waste (including the Sea Folk, Seanchan, and even the Aiel themselves) sign a pre-emptive post-war peace treaty, the good Asha'man overthrow those who have been corrupted by evil in the Black Tower, Perrin learns some new tricks to use in the dreamtime, and Rand and Egwene finally come to an agreement about the seals on the Dark One's prison. Then, despite the bloodbath that's already been washing across the continent on a tide of Trollocs and Myrddraal, the Last Battle (the actual chapter, The Last Battle, running nearly 200 pages) really begins - across the fields of the north, at the foot of Shayol Ghul, in the dreamtime, and in the minds of Rand and the Dark One themselves.

In general, Brandon Sanderson has given us the spectacular ending to The Wheel of Time that, as a fan, I was hoping for: a gigantic, no-holds-barred, all-in portrayal of the Last Battle, the main characters giving their finest performances, and good triumphs over evil. As though we didn't see that coming.

Like the rest of the series, AMOL takes its time building to its protracted climax. Even though just about everyone has come to the party with (at least deep down) the realization of what has to be done, there's still all kinds of last-minute dickering over details. There are extended moments of reflection. There are a myriad of armed skirmishes and pitched battles on the side before the main event. And Rand has to take the opportunity - about 20 or 30 times - to remind himself, and anyone who'll listen, that he's going to die. Then we're finally ready for the big show. But once it gets there, the book doesn't disappoint. Mostly.

I enjoyed the fact that Rand was finally able to forge an alliance of all parties, and get a commitment to his plan to defeat the Shadow - something that the previous book, Towers of Midnight, for all of its personal triumph in finally giving Rand peace of mind, had very much left in doubt. Getting this support allowed Rand to succeed in a way that Lews Therin couldn't in ages past, proving that while the Wheel turns and ages repeat themselves, there is the possibility for change and improvement - the Pattern can be altered somewhat here and there. As a reader, what made Rand's success in bringing everyone on-side most satisfying was that it wasn't just a simple chorus of "you betcha, boss!" from a bunch of diverse leaders suddenly turned into toadies. Rather, the alliance is built on compromise, and Rand doesn't get things done exactly the way he'd envisioned - he doesn't go into this fight with all the answers, or even the best ones.

This even extends to the climax of the Last Battle itself, where Rand realizes that his plan to utterly destroy the Shadow (rather than re-imprison him) can't work. More importantly, that it shouldn't work - that a world without evil would be as imperfect and unpalatable as a world under a victorious Shadow. Through his extended faceoff of imaginations, Rand has to learn that the best solution is not to seize total victory, but to settle for re-imprisoning the Dark One. And yet here we see the possibility of changing the Pattern just a little, but just enough, when Rand imagines a bigger and better way of sealing the prison than Lews Therin ever did using just saidin. Instead, he embraces all aspects of magic (and symbolically, all of the world - good and evil) by reforging the seals in a new way through the use of saidin and saidar - and the Dark One's own "true power". His plan changes, getting him a better result, and the fact that Rand realizes he has to make the change shows that he's continuing to grow as a person.

If I have a problem with Rand's showdown with the Shadow, it's that it probably went on a little too long. The Dark One tries to break Rand's very essence apart - the first time that's explained, it's probably good enough. No need to keep repeating it. They also repeatedly thrust and parry with imaginations of what could be, but the scenarios seem to drag a bit. Remember, there's not much action taking place here, it's an imagination-off, not a sword fight - it's really just two guys staring at each other, thinking hard. "Did you see the way he thought at that guy?! That was awesome!" So, it's a lot harder to keep momentum going. While I did enjoy this end of the battle, I think Sanderson could have written it a lot tighter.

Getting back to Rand's pre-emptive post-war peace treaty though, I have to say I just loved the solution to the question of the Aiel. I don't know if Sanderson is a Babylon 5 fan, but using the warriors of the Waste as peackeepers to keep the nations from fighting one-another (rather than employing them as anyone's personal, conquering army, like Frank Herbert did with the Fremen in Dune) was a lot like Sheridan's idea to use the Rangers as a police force to keep the members of the Interstellar Alliance peaceable.

Elsewhere on the field of battle, I enjoyed how Sanderson brought back old friends that the series has ignored for a while. How long has it been since we last heard from Loial the Ogier? Bringing him back for a more substantial role than just a cameo, and having his non-human kin join the fight, was a smart way to reinforce how this was a battle for the future of the entire world, not just a threat to the human way of life. It was also nice to see Juilin Sandar the thief-taker again, if only for a minute.

And speaking of people returning, let's not forget the comeback by Artur Hawkwing and his army of dead heroes when the Horn is sounded. One of the scenes that really made me smile in the book was when Mat asks Hawkwing to go and have a word with his wife Tuon (or Fortuona as she's now known), empress of the Seanchan. We have no idea what exactly Mat asks Hawkwing to say to Tuon, who's the hero's many-times removed successor, but given Mat's feelings about the Seanchan superiority complex and the strange and brutal culture they've evolved, you can just imagine. It's equally funny to think about how Tuon would greet Mat after receiving a talking-to from her ancestor, and learning that it was Mat who sent him. It's a sign of Sanderson's confidence and ability that he can give readers just enough to intrigue us, but then leave the questions of what exactly would happen unanswered, without disappointing.

Another testament to Sanderson's skill is a scene about midway through the book, before the Last Battle begins, where Rand and Mat engage in a bit of banter in Tuon's palace garden. One thing I've noticed over the years reading this series is that while Jordan was capable of writing some good dialogue for a variety of types of scenes, there wasn't any banter - no quick, informal, careless, humorous ribbing between two friends. Jordan had his characters confide in one-another, discuss things, complain, threaten, and even fight, but it's taken Sanderson to bring in the good-natured verbal horseplay of banter that has to happen once in a while between two characters for their friendship to be real and believable.

There's also a moment near the end of the Last Battle that shows just how smart this series can be, and how much thought has been put into not only what this world is like, but where it's going. It's what I like to think of as the peek-a-boo cannon scene. While the "dragons" have been effective in plastering the Trollocs on the open field during the fighting, one of the biggest problems faced by Rand's artillery (aside from running out of gunpowder and ammunition) is that they're sitting ducks for attacks by Dreadlords and Forsaken. The badguys ultimately figure out that they need only wait for the cannons to reveal themselves, and then raze them with fire, lightning and balefire. So it's then impressive when the gunners change their tactics and combine their science with magic - using the power to travel to a hidden cave where they won't be detected, then opening gateways into enemy formations and command posts just long enough to blast them before closing the gateways to protect themselves. Combine this with the use of the steamwagons for transporting supplies through the Power-generated gateways at the beginning of the battle, and you can see what direction this civilization is going to take in the years after the victory over the Shadow - places where the products of science and the powers of magic are used together in all manner of ways that will completely change life from what these people have previously known.

But there were a couple of plot points, aside from the afore-mentioned slow pace of Rand's duel with the Shadow, that didn't sit well with me.

One was the length of time that it took for the Seanchan to get into the fight. Sure, part of the delay was a deliberate attempt to make the badguys think Hawkwing's heirs were jamming out, making it all the more effective when they did finally join the fray; and yeah, part of it was cultural in nature: Tuon and the rest obsessing over their omens; and some of it was Tuon playing the court to keep herself on top; and, ultimately, all of this was a writing device to create tension for the reader; but, really, Sanderson dragged his heels a bit too long in deciding when to break out the Seanchan. Tapping them a little bit earlier would have been just as effective for creating the level of tension he was trying to achieve, while at the same time making their role in the battle more believable. Waiting as long as they did, allowing the rest of the armies to sustain such catastrophic losses, especially with the arrival of the Sharans on the side of evil, just wasn't believable. You can argue that Tuon might have done this deliberately, calculating that letting her allies take this kind of horrific loss would allow for the Seanchan to have an easier time breaking the peace treaty post-victory and rolling over hopelessly weakened nations in a bid to take over the world. Or you might say that she had to hold off that long to make her surprise attack truly effective. But that doesn't quite wash, because she'd also have to know that if she waited too long to join the fight, the enemy might gain too much momentum for her to overcome, and too many key assets could have been destroyed, and that having some allies with numbers and strength left to help her would be better than having allies that are nearly crippled, or wiped-out entirely. And as far as how effective the timing of the Seanchan surprise attack was, they only needed to wait for the Sharans to come in. Once that happened, the Seanchan could have effectively pounced on the Sharans from behind, throwing the new enemies into chaos. Waiting as long as the Seanchan did was not a means of enhancing their attack, it was a blunder that should have cost them the war. This seems to be a pattern across the entire series, under both Jordan and Sanderson, of pacing things out so carefully and deliberately, and slowly, that some plot points are ultimately too slow to be entirely satisfying or believable.

Then there's the issue of Egwene's death. How is it, with all the terrible forces poured into the crucible of two battlefields, with all of the showdowns between powerful characters, with all of the badguys outnumbering the goodguys and possessing superior strength, that Egwene was the only primary character to die? And don't give me any crap about Rhuarc or Elayne's brothers buying the farm. They were secondary characters, and on a stage like this, that's what secondary characters do: they die by the score to ratchet up the tension, to cause emotional pain to the primary characters, and to give the primary characters extra opportunities and emotional ammunition/inspiration to win. But killing-off primary characters, that shows how high the stakes really are. That shows that victory comes with a price. And considering how many primary characters we've got at this point, and how completely the odds are stacked against them in battles that leave hundreds of thousands dead, it's utterly shocking that, with the exception of Egewene, they all make it out. Let's run the numbers: Rand faces-off against the Shadow itself, and lives; Perrin battles Slayer in and out of the dreamtime and wins; Mat hacks his way through armies, then knifes Fain in the middle of his death cloud, and lives; Nynaeve's hunkered down at the edge of the Shadow himself, and she walks outta there; Moiraine pulls a Gandalf and comes back, also plays Occupy Shadow Street with Nynaeve, and walks outta there; Lan takes an abdominal wound fighting one of the Foresaken and somehow seems to survive out of sheer coolness; Elayne, massively pregnant, exhausted and drawing dangerously from the power, goes charging around the battlefield where any number of things should have killed her, and nearly gets carved open like a Christmas turkey, but manages to survive - and not suffer a miscarriage; Loial is axe-deep in Trollocs and Fades and who knows what else on the the front-lines of the battle, and survives - with a song on his lips and an obsession with recording things for posterity, no less; Aviendha fights all kinds of nastiness - including one of the Foresaken - with weapons and magic in front of Shayol Ghul, and, though she'll be on crutches for the rest of her life, she survives to look forward to sweatlodge stich-and-bitch sessions with the other Aiel Wise Ones, and dalliances with a Moridin-faced Rand; Faile fights through all kinds of foes, and gets buried under them, but somehow manages to survive; Min goes through the battle without getting killed; and Tuon escapes with nothing more than a stern talking-to from the ghost of her long dead ancestor Artur Paendrag Hawkwing (unless we consider the possibilities that arise from Jordon's penchant for spanking as a frequent punishment in the series). And we're supposed to believe that only Egwene dies? Really? And yet, miraculously, this seems to be the case. The decision to kill her off, instead of someone else, or several someones, seems pretty arbitrary. Arbitrary enough that, I hate to say it, I have to wonder if Sanderson just put a bunch of names in a hat and randomly drew one out as a means of deciding who would be the sacrificial lamb amongst the primary characters. Maybe I've become too cynical over the years, maybe I've become more inclined to the darker, more realistic rendering of battle and struggle and adventure that Martin gives in his Song of Ice and Fire series, but it just seems to me that you can't have this many characters face these kinds of odds, ta'veren or not, without the cast paying a higher, bloodier price. At least we can say that if Egwene is to be the sole sacrificial lamb, she died well. She died kicking ass and in a blaze of glory.

Then there's Rand. Did anyone else feel cheated by Rand surviving his final battle with the Dark One, then doing a body swap and skipping off down the road in Moridin's skin? Again, I'll admit to getting a little bloodthirsty in my old age, and coming to believe that if a character's going to take on a messianic role, than he's probably got to actually sacrifice his life - his actual life, not merely the role he's playing in life - to bring about the real and lasting change to the world that he's trying to accomplish. But there also seems to be something fundamentally wrong about having the guy who's led people to a conflict where most of them (except for the primary characters - 'cause it's okay for little people to suffer and die, but not the powerful, the titled, the important people) get slaughtered, somehow emerging essentially unscathed himself and getting the opportunity to flounce down the road and build a life where he can do whatever he wants to, rather than having to bear the burden of helping to rebuild a world that he played a hand in overturning. Yeah. Great. Sure, I'll be the first to admit there's no fairness in life, but the unfairness of it in this story certainly leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. And don't tell me that Rand's already suffered enough and earned some respite, because hasn't everyone else? Precious few got a second chance in the Last Battle, and few will get it in the hard days of rebuilding to come. Aside from there being something unfair and irresponsible about Rand assuming a new face and quietly slipping away, there's also something deeply cruel about what he does. Think about what he's putting the people who care about him through - those who (unlike Elayne, Aviendha and Min) don't know about his little trick, and actually think he's dead. Perrin and Mat seem to be able to brush Rand's supposed death off fairly easily, but what about Tam and anyone else from the Two Rivers who liked the boy who grew up in their midst, who feel terrible about the loss their friend Tam has to endure? I've lived in small communities like that, and I'll tell you that whoever it is, when there's a death of someone, especially a young person, who's liked, and who's family is liked, the people in that community really hurt. Remember the funeral scene with Tam in tears? It was well-enough written that even though I knew what was going on (because just a few pages earlier, if you've ever seen E.T., you knew exactly what was afoot when the healers in the tent mentioned how Rand's condition was declining, but the stranger - Moridin - he'd been found with was improving at a corresponding rate), I felt really bad for Tam. And then I gave my head a shake and reminded myself that Rand had pulled the old switcheroo,  swapped his consciousness into Moridin's body, and that he wasn't really dead. And then I felt pissed off on Tam's behalf, because Tam doesn't know Rand is alive. As far as Tam knows, his boy, who he raised and loved, is dead. Tam's mourning and pain are, really, for nothing. What a good son. It's a cheap shot for Rand to be punking his loving father like that. Makes him less of a hero, and more of a self-centred dick. And if the writing of the funeral scene didn't sucker you into feeling bad for Tam like I did, then it's a testament to the mistake in writing that Sanderson made by including that trick - you should feel bad for Tam, and if you didn't, it's because the knowledge that Rand was really alive completely robbed the scene of its emotional impact, thus making it a waste of time. Although, when you're already running in excess of 800 pages, what's a few more pages that don't have any effect?

And yet, for all of that, I certainly didn't hate the end of AMOL. It wasn't enough to make me dislike the book or the series. On the whole, I really enjoyed this book - I wouldn't have devoured it as quickly as I did unless it was largely well-written and an entertaining tale. Someday, I can see myself rereading the entire Wheel of Time series again. This certainly wasn't the best end that A Memory of Light could have, but, as the series so often reiterates, in a world yoked to a repeating cycle of events, it was an end.

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