Few authors are ambitious enough to attempt the kind of long form story telling that Jordan started. In fact nobody before Jordan had ever done so successfully — for definitions of the word that mean getting published by a major distributor and becoming extremely popular. To be fair, however, Jordan didn’t start out that ambitious either. He intended to be writing a trilogy in the by-then-familiar format of nearly every fantasy story told since Tolkien’s publisher arbitrarily established that as the golden number when they split his book into three parts. Tolkien famously says that the tale grew in the telling and I think it’s safe to say that Jordan could agree in spirit. What started out as a trilogy quickly became six books with no end in sight.
The story that started out as a general nod to the Tolkien beginning formula that all fantasy had followed up to that point quickly diverged and became, even in the first book, something special and unique. Jordan showed us a cast of characters that we could love and follow and dropped them into a world that felt real and was filled with good, bad, frustrating, and truly pleasant people. Then he wove into his narrative little hints that this world was perhaps our distant future as well as subtle and not-so-subtle references to legends and mythologies from across the globe, hinting that perhaps this world was our distant past. Perhaps both things are true.
Jordan’s story progressed and grew and the third book ended where the first one was intended to. With book four the world seemed to expand and suddenly it became apparent that this series wasn’t going to wrap up any time soon, it was still just beginning.
Fast forward twenty years and ten more books. The Wheel of Time has ended.
I’m going to go ahead and deliver the ultimate blasphemy for both fans and detractors of this series by saying that this last book was not long enough. In fact I think the three books that Sanderson finished for Jordan after his passing maybe should have been four or five books. I know that seems counterintuitive. I know that there was enough of an uprising about splitting up the material into three books. I know that would have meant that we would have to wait even longer for the final volume. That said, some of the developments in this book came out of nowhere and some of the hinted and prophesied events either didn’t happen or were skimmed over with barely a mention.
That said. I’m glad it’s over.
Sanderson is a good match for Jordan’s prose style in many ways. He is endlessly capable of giving us characters that are memorable and likable and he even introduced a pair of characters in the penultimate volume then develops them here with such deftness that they quickly became favorites of many people. He’s also wordy. Sanderson likes long and complicated stories.
The differences lie in other areas. Sanderson’s prose style and voice is different from Jordan’s. It’s more whimsical and almost excitable. Sanderson’s prose sounds excited when the action scenes start — the authors emotions seem to bleed out from the text. Jordan, was methodical. He would slow down a battle scene to describe the embroidery of the soldiers uniforms. Jordan also had a way of describing sword fights using the names of the sword forms while never actually telling us what those names represented. Somehow the battles came alive anyway with phrases so evocative that they presented images without ever describing them (if only Jordan had practiced this skill in other parts of his writing these books may have been half as long and be a truly great prose classic — and impossible for anybody to finish). Sanderson uses many of the same names of sword forms but the fights lack the grace and beauty that Jordan’s battles had. I don’t know what it is but something is missing. When Jordan says Bull Rushing Down the Mountain, I see movement and grace and skill all honed into a single moment of forceful destruction. When Sanderson writes the same phrase I see a name of a sword move that I don’t have a description for and I struggle to imagine the moves. Somehow the magic is missing.
Sanderson is not the battle tactician that Jordan was, and it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t as comfortable with the movement of large armies. Jordan seemed to excel when he could pull the curtain back and show us thousands of people clashing together, the fog of war virulent upon the battle field, the heat and stench and blood of battle becoming real under his careful words. Perhaps this is a difference of their life experiences, Jordan was a Vietnam veteran and he had seen war and he knew what it was. Sanderson, like myself, has never been any closer to a war than he could get through CNN.
In the previous two volumes I found that, other than a few phrases here and there, I could not tell which parts were written by Jordan and which by Sanderson. I thought this was a good thing because it meant I didn’t have to think about it. I could just read the story. A Memory of Light has Sanderson’s fingerprints all over it. So much that it feels more like a Sanderson book than a Wheel of Time book. I’m still undecided about if that’s a bad thing.
Sanderson is known for his magic systems, with good reason. He’s phenomenal at designing magic that makes sense, has weaknesses and strengths and then, most importantly he comes up with surprising and creative ways to use the magic in his worlds. He applied that skill to the Wheel of Time in this book, not by inventing a new magic system but by using the One Power in creative ways that I’m convinced Jordan would never have thought of. That alone makes this book different than it ever would have been. Again, I’m not sure if that’s bad.
The prose is also obviously not Jordan. The descriptions of clothes are nearly completely absent, as well as mustaches, beards and hair styles. Nynaeve doesn’t tug her braid once — though that might be due to not having one anymore (this fact was mentioned several times in the text but in my mind she still had her braid, Nynaeve has had a braid for more than twenty years, I can’t picture her without it). This may be seen by most as a plus but also missing are the extended scenes between beloved characters. Some of the characters do not survive — this is the Last Battle after all — and some of them die as side notes or completely off screen. Jordan would never have done this, there would have been whole chapters from their point of view before they got snuffed away. Again, I don’t know if that’s bad.
Much of the story in this book is battles. I hear a lot of complaints about that. This book is basically 900 pages about The Last Battle. Proportionally, that means that roughly 1/14 of the series is the series climax — which is kind of light, if you think about it. The battles were continuously getting worse — usually when I didn’t think it could get any worse — and I found my stomach was constantly clenched in anxiety. On the other hand, the fates of some of the characters is immediately obvious if you are aware of Arthurian legend in any way. Look at the names Egwene al’Vere, Gawyn, Galad, Lan and Demandred and their similarities to Arthurian names and you will be able to describe at least one of the subplots in detail without reading the book. This is kind of cool when Jordan does it, who is a master of subtlety, when Sanderson does it it becomes glaringly obvious where it is going.
One of Jordan’s strengths was his ability to blind the reader with so much detail that he could sneak surprises in to the prose in much the same way a movie can scare a viewer with something pulled from the crowd. Maybe it’s my familiarity with the world but Sanderson’s prose is not nearly so well engineered to hide surprises. They instead became points of tension as I could see what was coming but the characters could not.
The ending is a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, it’s the ending after more than twenty years. On the other hand, after twenty years of this world there will be nothing new, ever again, I hope… maybe.
When I was a child I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and quickly followed it up by The Lord of the Rings. I did not read fast and it took me nearly the entire summer to finish the three books. I remember turning the last page of The Return of the King, when Sam is coming home after taking Frodo to the Gray Havens and I closed the book and set it on my chest without reading that last few paragraphs because I didn’t want it to end. I lay there for what seemed like a long time — it was probably about five minutes — thinking. “I will never see these characters again. I will never get to go back to Hobbiton, or Helm’s Deep. I want to know what else happens to Frodo and Sam.” That was when I realized that I could go back. I could read these books again. With that realization I picked it up and read the last paragraph and when I finished I was glad I did because Tolkien tied up the melancholy and loss that I felt at that moment with one simple phrase from Sam. ‘“Well, I’m back,” he said.’ Somehow that simple line carries so much weight and sorrow but also joy and hope that I couldn’t help but smile at the same time I felt desperate for the story to continue.
This ending is not that powerful. Jordan needs a lot more words to convey that kind of emotion than Tolkien did — but that’s okay, it’s okay to not be as good as Tolkien. The ending, as written by Jordan, is fantastic. It’s not perfect, but, for this series it’s more than I had hoped for.
Sanderson took that ending that Jordan wrote and filled in the gaps. He missed in a few places and this is definitely not the book that Jordan would have written — it never can be. That possibility died with him. But it is the book we got and it made me cry, it made me laugh (which is even less common than crying, if you can believe it) and it made me happy. This is the ending we got and I couldn’t have hoped for a better one.