This book – the final volume in The Wheel of Time – came out in January this year. It took me a few months to get round to ordering it; and then it took me a couple of months to get round to reading it. I was dreading it, to a degree, as the previous book had not been that great – in fact, everything after Lord of Chaos (book six) has been something of a disappointment (but LoC is my favourite in the series). In fact, let me give you a rundown of what I can remember from the other books in the series (some of which might be incorrect, given the nature of memory).
And, by the way, this has turned out to be an epic review, not just of AMoL, but of the entire WoT.
This book, published well into the 2000s, was one of three planned prequel novels – and the only one that will ever be written now. It describes how Moiraine and Lan met and is amazingly only about 300 pages long.
The Eye of the World
The first book in the series. Having also just re-read The Fellowship of the Ring I was reminded of the many similarities between the two stories – or at least their beginnings. Like The Lord of the Rings the main characters from The Wheel of Time come from a modest, idyllic, largely unregarded village. They are persuaded to leave their rural lives behind and follow a magic user on a journey that involves the fate of the world. The main character is destined to be the world’s saviour. Standard fantasy fare, really, but Jordan introduces far more complexity – a world full of nations, factions, magic-users, magical objects and moral ambiguity. And women. Take Moiraine – the Gandalf analogue – like Gandalf, she doesn’t always explain herself, but it’s not always clear that she has Rand’s best interests at heart; indeed, her intentions to control Rand are quite misguided. By the end of the book, it’s clear to the reader that Rand is a messianic figure and is fated to go mad (because that’s what happens to male magic-users).
The Great Hunt
The adventure continues apace in the the second volume. Indeed, various important elements of the story are introduced, that – way back when I was reading the books for the first time – seemed strangely like latecomers to the story: Faile and the Seanchan invasion of the west of Randland (not a term that’s used in the books). The book concludes with the calling of a small army of historical heroes from beyond the grave to assist in fighting off the Seanchan. From a strictly logical point of view, this is quite a troubling phenomenon. Jordan put a lot of detail into how magic works – it’s never called magic, but channelling; certain sensitive people are able to manipulates threads of the five elements of the One Power – Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit – into spells called weaves. The Horn of Valere, which summons the heroes, is a man-made object, but the effect is definitely far beyond what humans have ever been capable of. In the first three books, there are plenty of things like this – good old-fashioned fantasy ideas that just have to be accepted as part of the world; later everything was meticulously worked out as effects of One Power or of the tapestry of reality.
The Dragon Reborn
In this book, Rand goes on the run from his destiny and the Aiel invade Tear. In the book’s climax, Rand fights someone he believes to be Shai’tan, the Dark One, the world’s evil god, in the Heart of the Stone – but who just turns out to be one of the Forsaken. Well, not just one of them, but Ishamael – their leader. Luckily, Rand fails to kill him with balefire, which would have removed him from reality, but merely kills him with a magical sword, allowing the Dark One to resurrect him in a new body – Ishamael thus becoming Moridin. By the end of the book, Rand accepts that he is the reincarnation of Lews Therin Telamon, the previous Dragon (curiously, except as images and this title, dragons don’t exist in the world of The Wheel of Time).
The Shadow Rising
The fourth volume sees a marked change in style for the series. Previously, the story was quite sharply focused on Rand, Mat and Perrin and some of the other major characters, and progressed at an entertaining pace – the characters, with the help of the Ways, were able to visit virtually all four corners of Randland. In the fourth book, the longest book in the series, the action slows down, becomes more focused on the intricacies of channelling, on intrigue, on history, on secondary characters, on styles of dresses, Tairen swearing, and mannerisms. Rand travels to the Aiel Waste, which, despite being a desert, sustains a huge population of Fremen-like desert warriors, and becomes their Chief of Chiefs.
The Fires of Heaven
In this book, several important characters get killed. But then Rand kills their killer with balefire – his thread having thus been removed from the tapestry, the other characters’ deaths un-happen. I don’t remember much else about this book.
Lord of Chaos
The one where Rand gets captured by Aes Sedai (rhymes with Jedi), is shielded from the True Source (which is subtly different from the One Power and very different from the True Power (which in WoT discussion is abbreviated as TP – which I’ve subsequently learnt is an American expression for toilet paper)) and he’s kept in a box for a large chunk of the story. The book’s climax is the brutal Battle of Dumai’s Well, where Rand is, unprecedentedly, able to break his shield, stilling (ie, removing the ability to channel from) at least one Aes Sedai in the process, and escape. The history of the world changes when Mazrim Taim, another male channeller and erstwhile False Dragon, says to the Aes Sedai at the battle’s conclusion, ‘Kneel. Kneel before the Lord Dragon, or you will be knelt.’ Over fifty viewpoint characters and many people’s favourite book in the series – I think I would number myself among them.
A Crown of Swords
Something to do with Moridin, Shadar Logoth and Illian (the ruler of which nation (or is it Ebou Dar?) wears a crown of swords).
The Path of Daggers
Something to do with the Seanchan and the Black Tower. Elayne and Aviendha use the Bowl of the Winds to fix the unnaturally long summer that the Dark One has inflicted upon the world.
A key book in the series, culminating as it does with an epic fight between various good and bad guys at Shadar Logoth and with Rand and Nynaeve using the world’s hugest pair of sa’angreal to filter saidin through the non-Shai’tan-style evil of Shadar Logoth, destroying the dead city and cleansing the Dark One’s taint from the male half of the One Power. Also, the long summer has been replaced with a harsh winter. Also also, the artwork, by the widely – and mostly justifiedly – disliked Darrel K Sweet, took a turn for the worse: in the original cover picture, the characters are ugly to the point of being malformed, and, even though they’re clearly on the march, they appear static and posed – as with many of Sweet’s covers.
Crossroads of Twilight
The book in which nothing happens. Perrin chases after the Shaido Aiel who have captured his wife and some other characters – but doesn’t get round to rescuing them. Half of this volume takes place before the end of the previous book. Egwene, having been made the Amyrlin by the nice half of the split White Tower, gets captured by the nasty half for no particular reason. In the UK, Sweet’s cover artwork was abandoned in favour of a stylish, plain-ish wheel-and-serpent design.
Knife of Dreams
Better than Crossroads of Twilight. The good guys capture Moghedien (or is it Semirhage?), but she escapes. Rand has his hand blown off, joining a long and noble list of one- or half-handed heroes: Thomas Covenant, Luke Skywalker, Ash (from Evil Dead 2, Jaime Lannister, Tyr, even Frodo gets his finger bitten off by Gollum.
Robert Jordan (one of various pen names of James Oliver Rigney, Jr) died in 2007 of amyloidosis. Harriet McDougal, Jordan’s wife and editor, later hired young fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to complete The Wheel of Time based on the drafts and notes Jordan left behind (which included the story’s final scenes).
The Gathering Storm
After an understandably long hiatus, the story continued in this first posthumous book. Jordan’s original plan was for the twelfth book to be the last in the series (well, I remember reading that the real original plan was for The Wheel of Time to be a trilogy; that then became six books, which became twelve), but the planned volume, A Memory of Light would have been gigantic. Sanderson and McDougal decided to make it a three-volume book, but then just went for three separate books. I enjoyed TGS, mostly – it was better than the previous couple of books, inasmuch as lots of stuff actually happened. Although it had been a while since I’d read any of the preceding books, it seemed like the characters had suddenly adopted many more neologisms and Americanisms in their speech. Plot-wise, the Seanchan attacked the White Tower, allowing Egwene to kick arse and paving the way for the Tower’s reunification under her rule. Rand’s series-long angst came to a head with some weird soul-searching event on top of Dragonmount. Confusingly, many of the characters’ timelines were out of joint, leading me to think for a while that Tam al’Thor must have been a Darkfriend.
Towers of Midnight
Not as good as The Gathering Storm. The main event is the rescue of Moiraine from Aelfinn or Eelfinn by Mat, Thom and Noal, an event which I – and many other WoT readers – had expected for so long that it was actually something of an anti-climax when it happened.
A Memory of Light
In many respects, the final volume in the series is one of the best. It is fast-paced, exciting, often brutal and occasionally heart-breaking, and it ties up pretty much all of the loose threads of the story. It is also, of course, not perfect.
Having been inching towards this point for two years in story time – over twenty years in the real world – Tarmon Gai’Don – the Last Battle – finally begins in earnest. The book is the story of this war on its various battle fronts. It starts of with a big meeting of almost all of Randland’s leaders (the exception being the Seanchan), where they choose their generals and overall commander – conventiently, this time period boasts five Great Captains – one of whom is dead – so the powers that be decide on four battlefronts – and the forces of Shadow seem happy with that. Everything goes pretty well for the first half or so of the book, making you think that it’s too easy, but then complications set in.
Almost all of the battle scenes are very well done – they’re tense and exciting and plenty of minor characters get mown down. There are a lot of them, though, so they get a bit repetitive. In a book that is all about an epic conflict between good and evil, there is something quite satisfying about all the fighting, though. Especially when it comes to a late chapter entitled ‘The Last Battle’. A Memory of Light is 900 pages long and contains 49 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue; ‘The Last Battle’ is 200 pages long.
This chapter – which isn’t technically about the final battle in the war; the conflict at Shayol Ghul continues until almost the very end of the book – is perhaps the crowning achievement of this volume and of Sanderson’s involvement with the series. Not only does it contain the deaths of some important secondary characters, but one main character also dies. It wasn’t one of my favourites, but I still found it very moving. In hindsight, I think more characters could have bitten the dust in this chapter; two appear to die, but then you learn that they survived their injuries and were mysteriously not slaughtered while helpless by their enemies. Actually, all of those who did die were couples; I suppose Sanderson didn’t want anyone mourning the loss of a spouse after the end of the book.
The quid pro quo of all that fighting is that there is not much time for other stuff. Mat and Tuon’s relationship is given a fair amount of page time, as is Perrin’s ongoing struggle with Slayer, and the intrigue at the Black Tower is finally resolved. However, we don’t get a lot of time inside the heads of the bad guys – it would have been nice to have seen a bit more of Graendal up to her old tricks. Now that Moiraine is back, she seemed underused, and Padan Fain and Mashadar make a return but are dealt with in an eyeblink. Some of the more notable tertiary characters get a single viewpoint section – if they’re lucky.
The confrontation between Rand and the Dark One was a bit of a weird experience, consisting of back and forth visions of what might be. Because of time dilation effects, while Rand spends an hour or two fighting Shai’tan, days – even weeks – past in the south; this allows Sanderson to eke out this showdown throughout the latter part of the book. Which makes sense – it would have been weird for Rand to just disappear for a huge section of the story. Ultimately, this confrontation was a little disappointing; I feel that more could have been risked and lost by Rand as he did psychic battle with an evil god. The conclusion of the struggle made a lot of sense, though, and was satisfyingly clever.
The writing is pretty good. The jarring neologisms are still there, but there are not too many. Most of all, it’s very active – what with all the battling – with not much time for introspection. Viewpoint sections are pretty short, however, so you only generally spend four or five pages with one character before Sanderson whisks you away to another protagonist on another front. This generally works well, but there could have been a bit more variation. And there could have been a lot more detail. And more danger from excessive channelling – the cracks caused by balefire use were disappointingly little more than cosmetic. But then we’d have ended up with fifteen books … not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.
And so one of modern fantasy’s major series ends – and ends well (certainly a hell of a lot better than The Malazan Book of the Fallen from a couple of years ago; I’m hoping for good things from the final Thomas Covenant book later this year). It’s had its ups and downs, but I feel happy that I’ve stuck with it all these years – and a little bit embarrassed that it took me so long to get around to reading this final instalment.
I started reading the books in my late teens, borrowing the early books from Shopping City Library (I got into them during a phase of reading the biggest books on the shelf). In a few years, I started buying up the paperbacks, and, in 2000, splashed out on my first hardback in the series – Winter’s Heart. I started university in 2002, and thus still had enough free time to re-read the whole series when a new book came out (which I’m pretty sure I did for the immensely disappointing Crossroads of Twilight in 2003). I haven’t re-read any of the book since then; I will read the whole series again someday.
Besides the initial attraction of a chunky book with a nice cover, what is the attraction of The Wheel of Time? I think in some respects, it’s that it’s a perfect example of what (to a young man) fantasy should be: naïve young heroes leaving the safety of their modest village to explore the world – to be the conduits for the reader’s vicarious exploration of that world – and coming to terms with strange people and beings, ancient powers, legends, prophecies, rubbing shoulders with monarchs and magic-users, soldiers, criminals and antagonists great and small, visiting distant lands – even other planes of existence – and growing, learning, stumbling, but ultimately triumphing.
The level of detail that went into the world is one of the series’s great selling points. Each nation has its own history and customs and its people their own characteristics and, yes, styles of dress and idiosyncrasies of speech. The weaving of fragments of real-world legends into the fabric of the fantasy world lends the story authenticity because those fragments resonate with the readers imagination and they also reinforce the notion that the world of the books is both the future and the past of our own world (hence The Wheel of Time).
The magic system in the books was always one of my favourite aspects. Magic is partly a science and partly an art – and it takes years of careful training to perfect it. Misuse can be deadly. The idea of a magical education in a story has been rather devalued by the Harry Potter books, but the White Tower was incredibly well realised – part university, part all-women Vatican – full of oppressed novices, cutting edge but generally frowned-upon research and vicious inter- and intra-Ajah politics. And I always loved the Five Powers – how all magical effects could be achieved by the interweaving of various strands of Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Spirit.
In some ways, the meandering, intrigue-laden plot really added to the sense of a fully formed world surrounding the characters. Way back when, too, I was a fan of the WOTFAQ, a set of online documents detailing various theories about the mysteries of the storyline – the most famous of which was who killed Asmodean (and which Sanderson demystified in a bloody glossary entry in Towers of Midnight – although, to be fair, Jordan never regarded the mystery as a big deal, more something to annoy fans). Reading these enriched my understanding of what Jordan was crafting – but later, when many of the various prophecies came to be fulfilled, I also felt a certain deadening to the presumably intended surprise.
Another great thing about The Wheel of Time is the presentation – the typeface, the maps and especially the chapter icons. These stylised designs give the reader a clue as to the coming chapter’s content. Sometimes, there might be a Shadow-related icon for a chapter that doesn’t, on the face of it, contain an evil character – leading one to suspect a secret Darkfriend. I was a little disappointed at first with AMoL because there didn’t appear to be any new maps – and then one turned up later on (a map of the Field of Merrilor; there perhaps should have been one of Shayol Ghul, as well).
I’ve always maintained that Robert Jordan wasn’t too great a writer – especially given his loss of control of the plot towards the end of his life – but he really wasn’t that bad, either. As a writer from an older generation, I think his work has a lot more thought and gravitas than any of the younger generation of writers (such as the rather pedestrian and mistake-laden Joe Abercrombie, or the anachronistic expletive-laden Scott Lynch, or the just plain awful Patrick Rothfuss). His writing is not necessarily a thing of beauty, but he was a solid craftsmen (at least, up until CoT). Sanderson is also one of those younger, less able writers and I’m really in two minds as to whether I should read one of his own works.
I’ve read some of Brandon Sanderson’s comments on the future of the series and it apparently doesn’t have one. Jordan had been planning two more prequel novels and potentially sequel stories about the world after Tarmon Gai’Don. Sanderson won’t be writing any of these, he says – and that’s almost certainly a good thing. New Spring was pretty much surplus to requirements. However, there are some excised sections from AMoL about one of the Forsaken in a distant land that will be published in an anthology called Unfettered - I’d like to get hold of that. And then there’s a forthcoming encyclopedia of The Wheel of Time, so maybe we’re not quite done with the series yet.