A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
At long, long last.
I have been reading this series since it started back in 1990, and have followed it closely in the twenty-three years that followed. I haunted bookstores, waiting for new releases and pestered the employees for information they just didn’t have. I joined WoT message boards back on the old Prodigy system, and even subscribed to a Wheel of Time newsletter back in the day when said newsletters were printed on paper and sent through the mail. (kids, ask your parents) I give you that context so you know where I was, mentally and emotionally, when I started this book. As much as I love this series, I was equally happy to see it finally end.
And oh, what an ending.
We’ve known ever since day one that this series couldn’t end with anything less than the greatest battle the world had ever seen. Tarmon Gai’don – the Last Battle – was due, and simply by definition it would have to be bigger and more terrible than anything that had come before. It would envelop the world, and its ending would shape the future – or end it entirely.
As we begin the book, the first wave of this battle has begun. The great city of Caemlyn is under siege by the forces of the Shadow, and the lands along the northern borders of the world are marching to war. The Seanchan are still itching for a fight, and the Aes Sedai are finally beginning to re-assert their power and their unity. Under all of this, however, the Shadow is lurking, waiting, planning and plotting.
There is no calm before this storm. All that can be done is to prepare.
Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, is the one who will fight the Dark One itself and truly win or lose the world. There is an earthly situation to take care of, though, and he has a plan for it. By fighting a four-fronted battle, he hopes to keep the forces of the Shadow busy while he strikes at their heart in Shayol Ghul. Thousands will die, but they will give him the time he needs to penetrate the heart of the Dark One’s power.
If he is very, very lucky, he will not only defeat the Dark One, but also leave a legacy behind that will ensure some measure of peace and stability. Assuming the world doesn’t end entirely before he can win.
Really, I’ve probably spoiled enough already, and it’s hard not to go into a lot of detail when you talk about this book. There’s just so much stuffed into it – twists and turns, deaths and defeats, victories and sacrifices – that to start listing them creates the need to list them all.
Ultimately, the best that can be said for this book is that it was the right ending for the series. A lot of that can be attributed to the skill that Brandon Sanderson brings to the table, and his ability to not only keep Robert Jordan’s world alive, but to make it somewhat leaner, more modern in its execution. Sanderson is excellent at writing action, which pays off in many, many, many scenes in the nearly 200 page chapter titled simply, “The Last Battle.” Jordan may have laid the groundwork for it, but it was Sanderson who made sure its finished form made sense and had the emotional punch necessary for the end of such a series.
And boy, were there emotional punches. Punches galore. From the repeated attempts to destroy the horror that Demandred has become to Elayne’s stand against the armies of the shadow to Rand’s own terrible battle with the embodiment of all that is evil and wrong in the universe, the fights that go on in the Last Battle are not just physical. They are a struggle against not only physical oblivion but also spiritual destruction.
Battling the Dark One is a battle against despair and hopelessness, as Rand discovers during his own battle – a duel of realities in which he and the Dark One propose their ideal worlds to each other. Unfortunately, Rand discovers that his own vision of a world without evil is just as horrifying as a world without goodness would be. It isn’t a supernatural source that defines who human beings are, but rather their struggles against the challenges of the world that do so. Without evil, humans could not be what they are. Rand comes to understand this, and with that understanding comes the realization that good is not what opposes that Dark One. You’re not going to beat him by being nice or putting on a white cloak and smiting shifty travelers.
You defeat the Dark One by simply never giving up. It’s a maltheistic universe – when the most powerful supernatural force known is one that wants you to lay down in despair, simply the act of getting up in the morning is an act of defiance. Taking up arms against an army of monsters, an army that will almost certainly destroy you, is the greatest example of this hope that confounds the Dark One so much. For even if Rand’s forces die, they will not have been defeated.
Of course, given what we know of fiction, if you predict that the Forces of Goodness win, well, that’s a pretty safe bet. But how they win and what they sacrifice to win are the reason we read. There are deaths that we saw coming a mile away, and others that are surprising and saddening. There are twists in strategy that don’t seem to make a lot of sense until much later, and wonderful moments where you just want to put the book down and applaud. And, as it’s the metric of any good adventure story, there are “Oh shit” moments a-plenty.
The book is not without its flaws, certainly, and every reader will find something that didn’t meet their very, very high expectations. But you know what? That’s just too damn bad. That’s the way the series ends, and perhaps after some time and some distance, some of the choices that Jordan and Sanderson made will be a little more palatable to us.
The unanswered questions that the book leaves us with, however, may not. From the identity of the mysterious Nakomi to the fate of Elayne’s twins to exactly how Rand lit his pipe at the very end – these things may never be explained. And that, too, is something we’ll just have to live with.
The way I see it, this book was best ending we could have hoped for. There were so many ways that it could have gone wrong, that it could have been so terribly disappointing – to say nothing of simply not existing at all – that to have the book be as good as it is is something we should all appreciate. If we nitpick, if we call attention to some points that didn’t make us perfectly happy, well, that should be done knowing that we still have an excellent final volume. One that many of us have waited a long, long time for.
There are no endings to the Wheel of Time, really. But this is an ending. And it’s a good one.
“You’re welcome in my house when this is over. We’ll open a cask of Master al’Vere’s best brandy. We’ll remember those who fell, and we’ll tell our children how we stood when the clouds turned black and the world started to die. We’ll tell them we stood shoulder to shoulder, and there was just no space for the Shadow to squeeze through.” – Perrin Aybara, A Memory of Light