Review of A MEMORY OF LIGHT by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I’ve mentioned this before in my WHEEL OF TIME reviews, but I started reading this series more than 15 years ago. I read the first nine books in the series, saw the plot meander more than I would have liked and struggled to remember all the plot and character details from one publication date to the next. I decided I’d wait until the series was complete, then go back and read from beginning to end. With A MEMORY OF LIGHT set to publish in November, I started my re-read in July. More than nine months later, I’m finally finished — and I’m glad I went back to the series to see how it all ended.

There’s a reason people just don’t write stories with this many cultures, this many characters and this many plotlines. It’s tremendously challenging to write a story this epic. Characters have to be short-shrifted, some plotlines don’t get resolved and questions don’t get answered. In the middle books of the series, we saw Robert Jordan struggle with the numerous plot lines, and they resulted in some pretty dull books.

But in A MEMORY OF LIGHT, we saw most of the plot lines come to satisfying conclusions. Some were heart-breaking, others inspirational. The pace was good, and the Last Battle was exciting and terrifying and chaotic. I think I enjoyed A MEMORY OF LIGHT more than any other book in the series, even more than the early books that got me hooked on the series in the first place.

When we entered this world in EYE OF THE WORLD, we weren’t terribly invested in these characters, but by the time we’ve gotten to the end, they seem very real. We’ve seen them all at their best and their worst. There have been books in which I’ve enjoyed a character and their arc, and other books in which I’ve actively disliked the same character — much like real life. Spend enough time around someone, and you’ll both love and hate them at times. I feel much the same way about many of the main characters in WHEEL OF TIME, and somehow that makes them feel even more real to me. I like Perrin, but I hated when he moped. I like Mat, but he was obnoxious when the dagger tainted him in the early books. Egwene was tough as nails in her return to Tar Valon, but also seemed quick to shove aside her loyalties to old friends in her dedication to the White Tower.

All the major characters had strengths and flaws.

I noted early in reading the books that Jordan did a good job of establishing interesting secondary characters, and I think that paid off more than ever before in A MEMORY OF LIGHT. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of deaths in the Last Battle, and Jordan’s ability to create interesting secondary characters means we can share the losses the characters feel without totally wiping out the primary cast. We have this huge battle taking place on multiple fronts, and rather than seeing it through the eyes of just four or five, we get a sense of how large and chaotic it is because Sanderson can leap around from 20 points of view, and even better, those points of view come from characters we’re already invested in.

Now that I’ve read all the way to the end — almost four million words — I’m glad to say it was worth the journey. The middle books are slow, but I think it may be easier for other readers to get through them knowing that the final four or five books of the series pick up and lead to a terrific conclusion. As I read through the middle third, I was wondering if the series would ever get back on track. I’m glad to have seen that it did and that THE WHEEL OF TIME has earned its place in the fantasy pantheon.

I can’t think of any series that compare — it’s a far longer story than LORD OF THE RINGS, and includes far more complicated plot threads; SWORD OF TRUTH is only slightly shorter, but doesn’t have the same epic feel because it focuses on only a handful of characters (plus Terry Goodkind seems like kind of an asshole); probably the only real comparison in terms of size and scope is the MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN series by Steven Erikson. Both are complex storytelling, but Jordan’s story seems far easier to enter and understand — I’ve read most of the Malazan books and still can’t really tell you what the hell it’s about.

At the end of the day, THE WHEEL OF TIME belongs on its own shelf on the fantasy pantheon — both literally and figuratively.

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Review of TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

There was a point in this series when you couldn’t have convinced me that the conclusion THE WHEEL OF TIME would live up to all its potential. Robert Jordan seemed to be drowning in the sheer quantity of characters and plots he’d created, and as he meandered his way through the middle books of the series, it seemed as though the juggling act had overwhelmed him. There were simply too many characters, too many plots, and the story seemed to have lost its focus. The same scope that made WHEEL OF TIME stand out from the crowd had proven too much for the author to bear.

But having completed the penultimate tome in this landmark series, I’m pleased (and somewhat stunned) to realize that Jordan and Sanderson have brought the story entirely back on track — to the point that it may be better ever, including the opening books that drew me into the story in the first place.

I realize most will be quick to hand Sanderson the bulk of the credit, and he certainly deserves it — he’s brought a much-needed focus to the storytelling that has elevated these final books. But KNIFE OF DREAMS, Jordan’s final completed book, showed signs of righting the ship, and I’d hate to fail to credit from the man for creating the framework of such an epic tale.

For a 1,200-page book, TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT moves quickly, something the middle books in this series struggled to accomplish. All the major characters get their time in the spotlight, and each of them see their plots move forward toward Tarmon Gai’don. Mat is a slightly different character, but I still like him — and he’s a character I didn’t like in the early books. I still love reading Perrin’s chapters — and he seems better than ever in this book –and Rand’s chapters have gotten significantly stronger.

Almost all the characters have set aside their fears and the whining that was getting in the way of the storytelling, and it’s amazing how big a difference that makes, not only in allowing the plot to move forward, but also in allowing us to actually enjoy these characters’ company. There’s even a bit of humor in these books, moments where I  laughed at the dialogue and interplay between characters. Since this didn’t happen often in the first 11 books of the series, I have to assume that’s Sanderson’s touch shining through.

Really, my only criticism of this book lies with Egwene, who was such a strength in THE GATHERING STORM. Her relationship with Gawyn turns into something of a power struggle, and she determines that she won’t let him close until he proves his subservience. It’s off-putting, especially considering that Gawyn was a likeable character before he started mooning over Egwene.

This was a series that had a lot of promise early on, then seemed to wander off the path. It was impossible to see how the pieces would fit together, but the last two books have really brought the characters and their plotlines into order, and if you aren’t looking forward to the final book at this point, then I really can’t understand how you could have gotten through the first 13 books.

Review of THE GATHERING STORM, by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

For the past few books of THE WHEEL OF TIME, I’ve had this thought itching the back of my mind, a nagging feeling that Robert Jordan’s editors had let him down. It felt as though while the sales figures continued to climb and the story reached its middle chapters, the editors got lazy.

This plotline went nowhere? Oh well, the guy’s a best-seller.

This scene was unnecessary? Oh well, the guy’s a best-seller.

This character isn’t as likeable as the author imagines? Oh well, he’s a best-seller.

And then Brandon Sanderson came along, picked up Robert Jordan’s notes, and suddenly there was a fresh set of eyes looking at things. Jordan had already started giving the story momentum again in KNIFE OF DREAMS, but THE GATHERING STORM is the most streamlined and consistently exciting plot since this epic story was in its infancy.

I’ve read other comments that Mat has changed, and he is slightly different, but to me the largest difference was the streamlined plot. It was like someone had finally gotten Jordan the editor he’d been needing for the last six books. Characters and plots had definitive arcs, and Egwene and Rand each benefitted from the handling of their storylines.

Egwene, who had been dull in some of the previous books in which she and the rebels did nothing but sit in their camp and complain about their headaches, provided the book with its (and possibly the series’) most gripping action sequence. Rand finally hit rock bottom, and Sanderson showed a side of Rand we hadn’t seen before – and allowed us to see just how tortured he really is.

Mat and Perrin disappeared for most of this book, but I was OK with it. Rand and Egwene’s plots carried the book because they made real advancements and they were exciting. I wanted to find out what happened next to both characters, so I didn’t miss Mat and Perrin as I have in the past.

With THE GATHERING STORM, Sanderson has done an outstanding job in an unenviable situation. Plopped into the middle of a huge epic with a monstrous cast of characters and plotlines, Sanderson maintained Jordan’s strengths, while shoring up Jordan’s weaknesses in building streamlined plot arcs – much like an editor should have been doing all along.

Review of THE PATH OF DAGGERS by Robert Jordan (re-read)

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve made a mistake in deciding that I wanted to complete THE WHEEL OF TIME by reading all the books in the series consecutively. With THE PATH OF DAGGERS now under my belt, I’m eight books into the 14-book saga, and I can’t honestly say that I feel any closer to the conclusion than I was three or four books ago.

When I began reading THE WHEEL OF TIME, I was a senior in high school, so I was able to read the first seven or eight books consecutively without having to wait for the next installment. But once I caught up to Jordan, I had to wait a couple years between books, and in that time other characters and other plots filled my mind, shoving Jordan’s characters into the background. By the time the next book had been published, I found it impossible to distinguish the lesser characters or keep the infinite subplots tidy in my mind.

After THE CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, I decided that once the series ended – if it ended – I would go back and read the whole thing from start to finish. With A MEMORY OF LIGHT set for a January release, I started with EYE OF THE WORLD this fall and remembered why this series has established itself as one of the most famous and successful fantasy series in history. By this point – after reading nothing but WHEEL OF TIME for months – I also remember why I needed to put the series down and why Jordan’s detractors are just as vocal as his fans.

Jordan’s world building is strong and the narrative scope of the book is unparalleled by anyone but Tolkien and Steven Erikson, but he has two flaws that have really drawn the ire of Jordan’s critics. The first is his wordiness, the way he uses a full page to describe something when a sentence will do. Sometimes it makes for beautiful prose, but most of the time it just seems like verbal diarrhea. I work as a communications specialist at a college, a job that requires me to speak to college professors and administrators regularly, and while most everyone is quite pleasant, there are some people I dread speaking to, especially when I’m on a deadline, because they’ll speak with me for an hour while providing just a few minutes of real, useful information. Jordan reminds me of these people. He cranks out these 700-page paperbacks, but for the last few books it feels like I’ve only gotten 300 pages of the book I want to read and 400 pages of padding.

Jordan’s second flaw only compounds the first issue. Jordan has created a deep and detailed world and he literally provides us with dozens of POV characters. Early in the series, this was a strength, but as Jordan has added more characters, plots and subplots, it has become too much for him – and possibly any author – to manage. Characters take center stage in one book, then disappear for the next two. Once you decide you like a character’s plotline, they’re gone for the next 1,500 pages.

Or a character does nothing for a book or two, finally lulling you into complete and utter apathy, and then they take center stage. Early in the series I didn’t like Egwene, but her plotline with the Aiel and the Wise Ones made her one of the more likeable characters in the series to me. But once she became the Amyrlin Seat, she spent the next two books doing nothing. By the time THE PATH OF DAGGERS began, I no longer cared that much about Egwene. She’d been inactive for far too long. Then she began taking action in this book, moving the plot forward and changing the landscape of the story. She was one of the best parts of this book, but even as I think on how much better she was in this book, I can’t help but remember that she’s been a non-entity for the two books beforehand.

When A CROWN OF SWORDS ended, I was looking forward to A PATH OF DAGGERS in some part because of the way Mat Cauthon’s storyline ended, with him trapped in Ebou Dar as the Seanchan take over the city. We’d already been told that Mat was destined to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons, who is apparently Seanchan, so I was looking forward to getting more insight into Seanchan society and seeing how Mat would interact with the Seanchan’s warrior society. So, of course, I was disappointed when Mat made exactly zero appearances in this book.

There are plenty of instances of this – characters picked up and then dropped, plotlines seemingly forgotten – and it’s all a product of Jordan trying to tell too many stories. The sheer scope of the series is admirable, but at this point, I can’t help but think that I’d rather read a book with just a handful of plotlines that the author can really dig into.

Reread of LORD OF CHAOS by Robert Jordan

By this point in the series, I feel like Robert Jordan’s strengths and weaknesses have been pretty firmly established. He’s a strong world- and character-builder, which helps to carry the story when he gets too verbose or his plotlines meander.

In this book, Jordan did a better job of writing Rand, who for me has either been a non-entity or has actually hurt the book ever since the first tome, THE EYE OF THE WORLD. I thought some of the strongest parts of the book came at the end, when you could feel Rand’s rage and frustration practically leaping off the page.

As in previous books, LORD OF CHAOS was at its best when Perrin was brought back into the picture. For me, he is by far the most likeable character in the series, and at times the only one I truly root for. Unfortunately, he doesn’t show up for the first 800+ pages, and so we spent the bulk of those early pages watching the Aes Sedai plot amongst themselves. Early in the series, I’d been impressed with Jordan’s use of Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve — while the three ta’veren were content to react to the world around them, the women were the ones actually moving the plot forward. For a series that was clearly so inspired by Tolkien, it was a strong way to differentiate itself. But for the last few books, I’ve begun to wonder if Jordan’s writing of women is as positive as it originally seemed to me.

As the series has gone on, Jordan’s characterization of the women seems to to have become largely negative in my eyes. Nynaeve has become a bitch who rages whenever she doesn’t get her way — often, it seems that even her friends don’t truly enjoy being in her company. While Elayne and Egwene are better drawn as strong women, they’re often working at odds with Rand and are far too easily insulted by the male characters’ temerity in having opinions. I can imagine how much readers would hate a male character who snidely dismissed the opinions of every woman he met and felt justified in using magic to abuse the opposite sex. I’m not a particular fan of Mat Cauthon’s, but I actually grew angry realizing that Nynaeve and Elayne had every intention of trying to steal his foxhead medallion and leave him vulnerable to Aes Sedai magic. The plot of this book especially seems designed to show just how dangerous the Aes Sedai are, and I think even Elayne, Egwene and Nynaeve are dangerous to the male heroes in their own way.

Jordan’s ability to finish a book strong is in full force here, as the ending is terrific. And again, Jordan’s proclivity for verbosity is equally in full force. Even the embarrassingly terrible cover art is again present, this time with a weird monster (a dragon, perhaps?) flying through the sky even though there are no dragons or flying monsters anywhere in the book. It’s pretty much the perfect example of bad cover art — poorly crafted while displaying monsters that aren’t in the book.

Overall, it’s pretty incredible how similar this book is to its predecessors. It shares the same strengths and the same weaknesses, so if you loved what came before, you’ll love this book. If you didn’t, it will continue to frustrate you.

It’s like a metaphor for the Wheel of Time itself …

Review of THE FIRES OF HEAVEN by Robert Jordan (re-read)

To this point, I’ve enjoyed my re-read of THE WHEEL OF TIME, but I struggled at times to wade through this one. The length — nearing 1,000 pages in the mass-market paperback edition — wasn’t so much the problem as the character Nynaeve.

To this point in the series I’ve been mostly positive about Jordan’s use of women. There’s no disguising the fact that WHEEL OF TIME is heavily inspired by LORD OF THE RINGS, and seeing Jordan correct one of Tolkien’s weaknesses — the role of women in his stories — seemed like a solid step. And while some of the male protagonists seemed passive, merely reacting to the world around them rather than making proactive choices, Nynaeve, Egwene and Elayne at times drove the plot, making decisions and bringing the fight to the bad guys.

But in this book, Jordan relies more heavily on Nynaeve’s point of view, and that sucks much of the fun from the story. To this point, Nynaeve has mostly been a side character. Surly and grouchy, almost always criticizing the other characters, she has always been portrayed as a good person who’s a bit overbearing and rough around the edges. But spending as much time inside Nynaeve’s head as we do in this book, I came away with almost the opposite impression. She hates almost all of her “friends.”

Elayne is a slut because of the clothes she wears, even though Nynaeve is often wearing something similar.

Anyone who disagrees with her is a fool.

All men are morons, except for Lan.

Thom is an old fool.

Juilin Sandar wears a silly conical hat (Nynaeve seems obsessed with this damn hat. In every Nynaeve POV chapter, the first thing she ever says about Juilin is that his hat is silly, yellow and conical. She is literally unable to mention Juilin’s name without commenting on how much she hates this hat).

It’s exhausting to be around someone this negative, and Nynaeve’s POV dominates this book, making her constant negativity impossible to ignore. In the end, it drains this book of much of its fun. Even some of the plot developments late in the book are overshadowed by Nynaeve’s personality, and that’s too bad because Jordan moves the story forward and takes it to some interesting places. I just wish Nynaeve didn’t have to be in any of those places.

Review of THE SHADOW RISING by Robert Jordan (a re-read)

This was the book in which Perrin became the star of the series for me.

In THE SHADOW RISING, Perrin gets the most compelling story of the three primary plots, returning to the Two Rivers to save his family and friends from Trollocs and Children of the Light. On the surface, it’s a plotline reminiscent of “Scouring of the Shire” at the end of RETURN OF THE KING, but with some key differences.

Whereas the “Scouring of the Shire” occurs at the very end of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, marking the end of the hobbits’ development, this plotline is but a step in Perrin’s growth as a character. Jordan does a good job of showing how much Perrin cares for the people of the Two Rivers, and those personal stakes make Perrin’s storyline the most gripping of the three. I’m not sure I’m thrilled with the way Perrin’s relationship with Faile develops — Jordan really relies on the reader believing there’s a thin line between love and hate — but her behavior late in the book makes her a good match for Perrin. It’s just jarring that her behavior at the beginning of the book makes her seem manipulative and obnoxious.

Rand’s storyline isn’t bad once it gets started, as we get an in-depth look at the Aiel culture within their own lands. There isn’t a tremendous amount of plot moving forward, but the Aiel culture is interesting, and Rand’s position as the man coming to claim leadership of their people without knowing anything of their culture presents a lot of opportunities for future storylines/complications for Rand.

Again, the women’s storyline is strong as Nynaeve and Elayne travel to Tanchico, a city in turmoil, in search of the Black Ajah. Whereas Rand’s storyline seems to move slowly, the women seem far more proactive, hunting their enemies and making things happen.

Of course, it would have been nice if Jordan had been willing to make things happen in the first 250 pages. So far, the great weakness in this series, for me at least, has been the slow starts to these books. THE SHADOW RISING marked probably the worst, as it was more than one-quarter complete before we saw each character’s arc truly take shape. Jordan wastes a lot of time reminding us where everyone ended the last book, and each character gets a chapter or two to express their dissatisfaction with their current situation. Even knowing it would get better once Jordan got warmed up, it was a struggle to get through. Fortunately, Jordan has a tendency to get stronger as the book goes along, and he did so again here — I was gripped throughout the final three-quarters of the book and am eager to re-read the next book in the series — THE FIRES OF HEAVEN.