(Re)Visiting the Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light (analysis)

[This is part of a series analyzing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels. Previous installments can be found under the tag. Comments on old posts are welcome.]

I pretty much covered my reactions to this book with the two liveblog posts. So now it’s time to set aside the straight-up “Oh my god I can’t believe this series is finally done I’ve been waiting for this for more than half my life”> stream of consciousness, and talk about this in a more sensible fashion.

Let’s start with the character deaths.

On the one hand, they aren’t surprising at all. It’s the end of the series; this is traditionally the time when authors start killing people wholesale. On the other hand, Jordan has such a long-standing track record of not killing anybody signifcant — not even the bad guys, half the time — that it still comes as a shock.

Alanna’s death puts her entire plotline into perspective: she bonded Rand so that Jordan could avoid having to kill off one of Rand’s lovers. Part of me isn’t wild about that, but at least it means none of them get stuck on the sidelines during the Last Battle, so I guess that’s good? Rhuarc makes me sad less for his death, more for him getting mind-wiped by Graendal before he went, and then for Aviendha being the one to kill him. Davram Bashere and everybody below him on the Character Prominence Scale, eh, whatever.

Siuan and Gareth Bryne are interesting to me mostly because of how their deaths reflect on prophecy. Min’s viewing are mostly inevitable: she sees that somebody will die, and they die. On the few occasions when she has an if/then viewing, it’s easy for that to be a safety net for the characters, a way for them to avoid things going utterly wrong. So it was interesting for this one to fall through — for them to have warning and still to die.

Gawyn . . . gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. His death was as disappointing as the last couple months of his life. It really annoys me that, after being such a tool during the previous books, he dies so pointlessly — basically doing more damage to his own side (via the bond to Egwene) than to the bad guys. I could have forgiven it as a slightly annoying cliche had he taken out Demandred, but of course he didn’t. So he just ran around being secretive and failing to work with his own allies, and then he died, and what did it accompish?

It made Egwene go postal, is all. She at least got to go out like a bad-ass, nuking all the Sharan channelers and so on, but I do wish the whole “Flame of Tar Valon” thing had felt a bit less like it got pulled out of Jordan’s ear. (I presume that was Jordan’s idea; things like that are too major to be Sanderson’s invention.) It’s a perfectly fine idea; it just needs to have been foreshadowed more than it was.

And then there’s Rand’s “death.” I admit I’m still not entirely clear on how exactly he swapped with Moridin. I don’t mind the fact of it (though I do feel like Alivia’s role ended up being really disappointing); I think it’s kind of nice that Rand actually gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor, rather than going down in flames. I’d like the mechanism of it to have been clearer, though.

On the bad-guy side, Demandred ends up seeming like the biggest badass the Forsaken have ever seen, Graendal is diabolically evil, and Moghedien ends the way she began, as a coward. I almost feel sorry for Moridin, and that’s an interesting trick: rather than him being larger-than-life evil, he became painfully human, so despairing and depressed that he’d rather see reality come to an end entirely than face the prospect of continuing in this life or the next. And then there’s Lanfear — who is, for the first time in the series, actually impressive to me. The believability that she might do a face-turn as a way of escaping the Dark One (making her the flip side of Moridin’s situation), and then the last second heel-turn, or rather the last-second revelation of her true colors, that bring her closer to success than any other villain in this story. And, despite everything, I actually like Perrin killing her. There’s been so much angst in this series about it’s so much more horrible to kill a woman than a man (which is not a principle I agree with), that I find it a relief to see Perrin say, she’s a threat, she has to go.

Two other villains, however, fall kind of flat. First, although Luc/Isam/Slayer made a more substantial threat of himself this time around, he still feels pointless to me. Why did he have to be related to Rand and to Lan? There was no reason for that, no payoff for those connections. That’s something that got laid into the narrative back in The Shadow Rising — ten books ago! — and yet in the end, it could have just been Slayer, a perversion of the wolf dream, with no connection to any of the other characters. (In the end, really, that’s all he was.) Second, although I did like Mat’s immunity to Padan Fain/Ordeith/Mordeth/Shaisam, I had really been convinced he was going to pay more of a Gollum role in the end. I guess Jordan saw him as more of Mat’s antagonist (thanks to the connection via Shadar Logoth) than Perrin’s or Rand’s; it’s just a bit of a surprise to me.

Speaking of Shayol Ghul: credit where credit is due. The idea of time dilation around the Bore is an excellent one. Not only does it make sense on a sort of quasi-scientific level (the Bore sort of being like a black hole), but it allows Jordan to get the best of both worlds with the Last Battle. Rand’s fight with the Dark One shouldn’t go on for months; that would really undercut its impact. The army side of things, however, shouldn’t be knocked off in a few days flat — that would really undercut its impact. By creating that gradient, we get a truly apocalyptic war in the Borderlands and further south, a last-stand kind of battle in Thakan’dar, and a timeless moment of faceoff between Rand and the Dark One, plus the plot compications that come from characters jumping between the different fronts.

My personal feeling is that the war stretches on a little too long — or rather, that we get too much of it. I’m impressed by the scale of it, the very real sense that humanity is throwing every last resource it has into the fight, and is frequently teetering on the verge of catastrophe (or falling straight over it); that part is pretty cool. I just wish there had been a little more flexibility on that side, more room for the main characters to vary their actions. Once the war starts, virtually everybody other than Rand, Nynaeve, and Moiraine is busy fighting, with only small breathers like Min getting roped into being Tuon’s Truthspeaker. Individually, the elements of the war are cool. In the aggregate . . . after a whlie, I started going numb.

Which is one of the reasons I am so, so glad that Rand’s showdown with the Dark One isn’t a straightforward battle. The dueling Patterns thing is far more interesting. Getting rid of the Dark One doesn’t work: of course not, because people need free will, or else you’re just doing the Light-side equivalent of Turning them. A lot of readers, myself included, figured the prison needed to be not just patched but remade, so while the mechanism of it isn’t something I foresaw (using Callandor and Moridin and the True Power and so on), the outcome is. I did wonder, though, whether it would go further than that. Would it be possible to break out of the circular cosmology of the Wheel of Time? Could anything be truly changed, or would it all go back to the status quo? I doubted the series would end with a true disruption; it was more likely that we would go back to an intact prison. It would have been interesting, though, if the Dark One inside it had not been the one there before. We had Moridin; we had Slayer; we had Padan Fain. Varieties of evil, born out of different impulses in the world. What if you combined them somehow? Rand already played the role of the Creator in remaking the prison; what if someone else played the role of the Dark One in being imprisoned?

What we got was pretty satisfying. But that . . . done right, it might have been breathtaking.

And that’s sort of how I feel about the book as a whole. I don’t know if breathtaking was even possible at this point; there had been so many flaws along the way, so many places where things could have been set up better or taken care of earlier instead of dropped. There are flaws here, too, that can’t entirely be blamed on preceding weaknesses. Nynaeve’s use of herbs was appropriate, but I’m disappointed that she and Moiraine were basically just a pair of batteries in the end, and that Moiraine’s significance at Merrilor amounted to “she’s the only one Rand will listen to when she says he’s making a mistake.”

Still and all. For something as messy and sprawling and drawn-out as this series was, for a story delivered so piecemeal, with so many delays and unnecessary diversions and with another author subbed in for the conclusion . . . it could have been a flaming disaster. It could have been “well, at least that’s over with at last.” And for some people, maybe that’s what it was. But for me, it was satisfying. Flaws and all, I’m glad I read it, and not just for the simple closure.

There will, of course, be one more post. I set out to do this not just to document my trip down the nostalgia lane of my high school fandom, not just to get the ending of the story, but to learn something about writing a long epic fantasy series. This project has taught me a great deal on that front, and you’ll get the results soon.

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0 Responses to “(Re)Visiting the Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light (analysis)”

  1. Marie Brennan

    Which one of my anonymous commenters are you? 🙂

    Slayer could have been so interesting. The fact that the Luc and Isam aspects essentially got dropped is, for me, one of the great letdowns of the series. You could replace him with, I dunno, Moghedien or somebody in the final two books, and it would hardly be different.

    (Okay, that’s a lie. Moghedien has the wrong personality for that kind of confrontation, not to mention that it would create all kinds of weird-ass gender tension for Perrin to be hunting her, given the way the series is set up. But my point is, make it a different character skilled in Tel’aran’rhiod, and there’s little change; Slayer’s identity is irrelevant.)

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