One of the problems with writing any story with multiple POVs – especially one as long-running and complex as the Wheel of Time – is that you find yourself with a lot of spare characters lying around. More characters, in fact, than you actually need. What started out as a nice, simple coming-of-age Hero’s Journey-type narrative of a farm boy turned world’s only hope, is suddenly a massive 14-book mega-series with a cast of 1,000′s and a plot line so densely woven there are whole encyclopedias devoted to untangling it all.
Now the final book is here – the end of the line – and by necessity something has to be done with all of those extra characters. It’s the Last Battle, after all, the author only has 1,000 pages to play with and there’s a lot of narrative ground to cover in that time. So what do you do?
A bloodbath, that’s what: a plot consisting of 90% warfare in which bit-part characters from previous novels are name-dropped and then killed off with such frequency that you feel kind of bad for having forgotten all about them.
In a way, I can’t help but feel sorry for Brandon Sanderson for taking on a job of this sheer magnitude. Right from the beginning, it was obvious that no matter how well he did in writing these books (and I have to say, he did a bloody good job for the most part), he was all but guaranteed to annoy someone out there for killing off character X or for not spending enough time looking at character Y. It’s a poisoned chalice. Do well and people will praise Robert Jordan for creating such an amazing series. Do badly and people will blame you.
Sanderson has already talked pretty extensively about how difficult the writing process for this book was for him over on his blog, so I’ll just cover the highlights here. In short, when Robert Jordan died, he left a bunch of notes for the final book in his Wheel of Time series for another author to come along and finish. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much actual writing included in these notes. Jordan had written most of the book’s prologue, along with some of the climactic final fight and a few other scenes in between but precious little else. He had made notes about where each character was going to be by the end of the final book but absolutely no concept of how to get them there. The rest was up to Sanderson.
All of this meant that Sanderson was forced to come up with his own ideas of how to get a certain character from point A to B in time for the final showdown. That’s a tall order for any writer and the fact that Sanderson didn’t make a complete mess of it altogether is testament to his skills as a writer.
Structurally, the book is sound:
Act One and we’re on the Field of Merrilor, with the forces of light gathering before the Final Battle. Tensions are high, alliances uneasy, and all sides are forced to make some difficult decisions.
Act Two and we’re off to war to fight on four separate battle fronts, each led by a different general. Each of the four battles is different in nature, varying from guerrilla-style forest fighting, to defensive forays and all-out pitched battles, so you don’t ever feel bored while reading them. This was actually my favourite part of the novel (surprising considering the middle part of a novel is usually where things start to sag), a fact that was mostly due to the excellently done sub-plot with the army’s generals, who are all suddenly starting to act very suspiciously.
Act Three and the various war fronts collapse into one, final, united stand against the darkness. At the same time, Rand battles the Dark One in a brilliantly written sequence that stands out as one of the series’ high points. I won’t spoil you with the details of it now, but I genuinely still find myself thinking about it even now, weeks after finishing the book. That’s the hallmark of good writing if ever I saw it.
Finally, the novel ends on a high, with each of the main heroes having done themselves proud. Not all of them have made it through the fighting unscathed, of course, but at least they’ve all made a good account of themselves. You’re left with a warm glow as you close the final cover nodding to yourself that everything turned out exactly the way it should have in the end. The plot lines were all resolved satisfactorily and your favourite characters all did amazing…
At least, that’s the plan anyway. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t quite so satisfying and to find out why, I need to go back to what I said earlier about Sanderson not having enough time to give every character the proper closure they need.
You see, it’s like with comic books. Let’s imagine that you’re an up-and-coming comic book writer and that you’ve decided in your latest issue you’re going to kill off a minor character. No big deal, right? I mean, we’re talking about some sort of multi-hero epic here, like the Avengers or the Justice League of America. Most people barely even remember that this guy even exists so you’re on safe ground.
You go away and you think up this really great way of killing off the character that will work brilliantly for the comic as a whole. It’s going to be built up over the course of several issues. It’ll be thematically poignant and bitter-sweet, and the character’s final scene will one of those Blaze of Glory-type moments in which he blows up a building with himself inside it taking out like 50 bad guys in the process. You know, the sort of ending that makes comic book readers suddenly sit up straight and start asking themselves, “Hey, this guy’s awesome! Why have I never noticed him before?”
To your delight, the comic is a success and the fans are very pleased with your work. So, a few weeks later, you decide to pull the same trick again. The only problem now, of course, is that you can’t just do exactly the same thing again, right, or else you’ll be accused of retreading old ground. You need to do something bigger than before. Better! So this time, you write it so that the character blows up an entire city block and that he takes out like 5,000 bad guys in the process. And OK, so maybe killing off the character in this way doesn’t make so much narrative sense as with the first guy but who cares? He dies a hero!
Then, a few weeks later, you decide to do it again… Do you see where I’m going with this? Each death, rather than being the satisfying event it should be, becomes a kind of one-upmanship over the one that came, until you swiftly find yourself moving out of the realm of the fantastic and into the absurd. The next thing you know, the characters are blowing up whole planets in their final dying moments, sacrificing themselves for fate of the entire universe. Any narrative point is lost in the mix, as is any sense of serious character progression. It all becomes about the spectacle.
Now, I mention all of this for a reason. If I could go back in time and give one piece of advice to Branden Sanderson while writing A Memory of Light, it would be this:
Not everyone can die a hero.
As I’ve already said, a lot of people die in this book. That’s just fine with me — it’s the last Battle, after all, and I’d be disappointed if it didn’t do what it says on the tin — but it’s the way that Sanderson decided to kill of his characters that I found myself taking issue.
I lost count of the number of times in this novel various characters were faced with a near impossible situation, only to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. There they would be, exhausted, beaten and faced with horrors that most men would have fled from long ago, but somehow they stubbornly soldier on. And in that final moment, pushed past the point of breaking… they somehow find the last bit of energy they need to succeed.
We see this in the prologue when Telmanes manages to kill not one but two Fades, despite being almost paralysed with poison at the time. We see it during the final battle when Egwene suddenly discovers the opposite to balefire at the exact moment that balefire is used against her. We see it in the battle for the Black Tower when Androl is able to open a gateway (even though he shouldn’t be able to at the time) at the exact moment that balefire is used against him. We see it when Lan *spoilers* kills one of the Goddamned Forsaken and somehow survives, despite being in the middle of enemy territory at the time…
Sanderson, I’m sorry but it just gets boring after a while. I know you were working to a mandate here and I know you did a good job with most of it but seriously! Enough is enough!
Here’s the thing — most people are not heroes. The sad truth is that most people, when faced with moments of genuine pressure like those listed above, simply fall to pieces. Mob mentality takes over. We break from the front line. We mutiny, go AWOL, bury our heads in the sand and wait for it all to finish. In short, we act like human beings and pretending otherwise just cheapens the moments of heroism on display, since it gives the impression that such feats are practically mundane for this world.
One of the reasons why I like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire so much is because of its realistic approach to such matters. Everyone talks about how Martin gleefully kills off his characters and it’s true that he’s brave to do that, but I would argue that it’s in the moments of subtle realism that his work truly shines. Moments like when Sandor Clegane flees the battle of the Blackwater because he’s terrified of fire. Moments like when Sansa lies about what she saw Joffrey doing to the butcher’s boy because she’s afraid of ruining her betrothal. Moments like when Sam freaks out at the Battle on the Fist of the First Men and accidentally lets all the ravens fly free without any messages.
Moments like these are genuine and they strike a chord deep inside us. What’s more, moments like these make the true moments of genuine heroism — Jaime saving Brianne from the bear pit springs to mind — all the more great in comparison. Those moments are earned; they are dramatic, they makes sense thematically and this is what makes them satisfying.
Unfortunately, Sanderson is too busy knocking off plot points from his huge ‘to do’ list to bother much with this sort of story telling. He has a lot of characters to get through, after all, and many of them are fan favourites. He can either ignore them completely and get stick from the fans, or dedicate the proper period of time needed and have the series be two books longer. Nah, best just make them all appear to be bad asses and then quickly shuffle them out of the mix: that’s the easiest way to do it, right Brandon?
And boy does the guy plough through that ‘to do’ list! From page one, Sanderson attacks this novel with a kind of relentless ferocity that’s almost frightening to see. There’s a kind of dizzying intensity to the prose that constantly threatens to spiral into chaos. Plot treads are picked up and ticked off with a breathless speed that leaves no time for second guessing. Elayne gets captured in one chapter and then spontaneously released in the next. Matt sets up a meeting between Artur Hawkwing and Tuon, only for it to happen off-screen. Faile’s father died, she’s made steward of the Two Rivers alongside her husband and we’re never shown her or Perrin’s reaction to either fact. No time! Don’t stop! Question it when you’re done!
It’s kind of exhausting to be honest, and now that I’m done with reading the book, I have to admit I’m glad that it’s over. The highlights of this book are easy to point out: the final battle between the Dark One and Rand, the stuff in the black tower at the beginning and the part with the generals being corrupted.
These moments stand out from the constant background noise of fighting and drudgery that makes up the rest of the plot. Together, they just about tip the balance in favour of this being a good book. Not a great book, exactly (Sanderson’s best effort remains The Gathering Storm, which was amazing) but a good one nonetheless. Satisfying.
I think, all things considered, we can chalk that one up as a success.