This is the last time I ever give a spoiler warning. Spoilers in the second last paragraph.
My first though upon finishing was, “Damn it, we never found out who killed Asmodean.” That’s a problem. Actually, it’s two problems. It’s a problem for the book because, well, who cares? And it’s a problem for me because we did actually, it was in the notes at the end of the previous book.
It’s still a problem for the book despite me forgetting an offhand remark in the trivia notes of Towers of Midnight because it speaks to the audience and thus speaks to the genre. Because it is scenery. Background detail. Who killed Asmodean? Somebody, sure, but the answer is trivia, its something you can know or not know, and neither alters the plot, nor does it go to what Jordan might have been trying to speak about? Does it really go to how the book affected you, what it made you feel and think about, which is really what art is about? Does “What is Maichin Shin” matter at all? No, it does not. If it did, it wouldn’t require pages and pages of fan speculation built over over some twenty years. Seriously, check that shit out. How does one engage with and critically evaluate a book when all the focus is on the scenery.
Lost had the same problem. Immediately after it finished there were cries of outrage over all the reveals it didn’t have. Like, what did the numbers mean? What was the Hurley Bird? This and that. Who cares? They were all MacGuffins at best; hooks to hang a plot or character on. They are texture for a story. They offer you nothing. You can’t really develop them, they are a binary thing; before, you wonder what the answer is, after you know the answer. They don’t grow, they merely act as a tent pole for something else to grow, be it plot or the characters. All long running series, be it TV or novels, will do this. The creative minds behind it create story, in creating story they create background, and naturally their audience become curious.
When the audience is one prone to attention surplus, to focusing on minutia and attempting to draw it out like a fractal, the economy of these hooks can grow beyond the control of the creators. A audience like nerds. Nerds will seek out all the things the creators seeded into their work. Nerds will find things the creators didn’t seed and turn them into entries in the mythology, like The Tampa Job from Lost. Nerds will learn these things, share them, revel in the sharing and revel in the secret knowledge. Nerds will build social structures around these things. So far so good, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s all a part of creating an immersive background to your story, and no creator should be so egomaniacal as to dictate how their audience reacts and reflects upon their work. As should be obvious from the very first sentence, I also geek out on some of the MacGuffins. I also, however, try to engage with the work as a piece of art.
Now obviously art is many things. To be more accurate, art is somewhere just above 7 billion different things. For me, art is about what does the work make me feel, what reaction does it set off in me. How is it changing me? Because anything that causes an emotion is changing me, however slightly. I am not talking here about “oh I love this book” or hate this book. I am talking about the reactions I have to the content of what I am reading. If I might give an example, while a lot of people were disappointed with Dan Simmons’s Endymion novels, I hold for them a level of respect because the ending affected me. In a small way I feel the ending of that book made me a better person, a better human. The Wheel of Time series, particularly the earlier books, have given me insight into the risks of dismissing and ignoring differences of perceptions of reality that are natural to people of different cultures, creeds, or even genders. Sometimes it did this by driving me nuts with frustration at how stupid these people could be. Sometimes it did it with the Perrin-Faile love story - still my favourite of the category - and Perrin’s journey. And if a work isn’t trying to engage me in that way, what is the point? If all a work is is shuttling me between set pieces, if all it is is kneeling before the Rule of Cool, why should anyone invest time on it?
Robert Jordan allowed himself to get a little lost in the story. By the seventh book, A Crown of Swords, he had most of the pieces on the board, and he’d established what Rand’s arc would be. The arcs for Nynaeve, Egwene, Mat, and Perrin were also in place, and I’m prepared to argue if you like that those five are the lead and supporting players, everyone else is chorus. Everything was all ready to proceed to conflict, resolution, and growth. But then…nothing. We just sat there, at the crest of the arc for book after book. Nothing happened in the midst of story happening, to the absurd levels of Elayne having a pages long bath. I wonder what happened. Did he lose his nerve? Did he just not know how to prosecute it? Was the lure of “one more book” just too much? Hubris? Whatever it was, Sanderson was both the best and worst choice for replacing him. The best because he’s the probably the best of the epic fantasy authors currently operating and he clearly knows how to finish something.. The worst, because he has yet to show any ability to convey his ideas because he’s too impressed with himself and his world building. And he writes for The Scene, those set pieces of action. The cool moments. Jordan knew to use them as climax. Sanderson uses them as beats. Egwene fighting off the Seanchan in The Gathering Storm would have been the climax of a Jordan book, if he’d even written it. In Sanderson’s hands, it’s a loud, pointless clatter that overwhelms the real climax of the book, Egwene exposing the Black Ajah and putting the Tower back together. There had to be other ways of getting rid of Elaida, even something as obvious as having the Black Ajah killing her as they are exposed.
And so, to the point. A Memory of Light misses the point. Almost nothing that happens outside of The Pit of Doom is worth the words spilled. It is all filler to allow Sanderson to pay a visit to familiar names. The only point of the battles is to finalise Mat’s character arc, and it was over worked. Perrin’s character arc was already complete - not well though, and not the right arc - so all he did was run around doing things that were empty because of their meaninglessness. Egwene was probably already complete as well with the healing of the White Tower. So much of Tarmon Gaidon outside of the Pit of Doom was just visiting bit characters and giving Perrin and Egwene something to do that they became cumbersome and smothered Mat. And ultimately none of it mattered: Lan kills Demandred and effectively wins the conventional battle, not Mat. Mat doesn’t even get to be Hornsounder anymore, that gets given to Olver, with no foreshadowing that I picked up on. From a plot point of view, none of it mattered anyway, the only thing that mattered was Rand and The Dark One. It’s a little bit like Return of the Jedi, the Battle of Endor didn’t really matter, and in as much as it did, it was bit players who won it, Chewie and Lando1, Lan and Olver.
Sanderson ended up getting lost in the woods of Jordan’s world building. On the other hand, Sanderson is a crowd pleaser, he knows how to give fan service. Unlike Lindelof and Cuse, Ronald Moore, and Stephen King he’s finished a long running, sprawling genre piece with an ending I think will go over pretty well. For all the flaws it holds for me, I have to give Sanderson props for achieving an ending that is suitably epic. But the flaws are there, too much time wasted on fan service to the disservice of the characters and the books.
- If Lucas and Sanderson were trying to provide a counterpoint to the Great Men theory of history, they did it in the face of everything that preceded their final chapter. ↩