The OF Blog: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, A Memory of Light

Friday, January 11, 2013

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, A Memory of Light

After nearly 23 years and countless millions of words vomited out upon thousands of pages, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series finally concludes with its 14th volume, A Memory of Light.  It has been a memorable series for those who've read, it albeit for some such as myself, it has become more an exercise in patience and restraint, waiting to see if the payoff justifies to any extent the laborious parsing of repetitive descriptions, redundant sentences, clothing and furniture porn, hackneyed villain motivations, etc.  My own opinion of the series has fluctuated between a diversion during my last semester of grad school in the Fall of 1997 (it was a change of pace from reading Hitler's memoirs and speeches for my grad seminar/research) toward it being a repetitive, poorly structured (and written) clunker of a novel/series.  Three years ago, I wrote a series of posts on re-reading the Jordan-penned books, most of them for the first time since the release of the ninth book back in November 2000, and the re-reads did little to improve my deepening dislike for the series.  Yet the first semi-posthumous release, co-written by Brandon Sanderson, I thought at first was a marked improvement.  That was before I began to understand while reading the second co-written volume, Towers of Midnight, that the planned three-volume conclusion to the WoT series was terribly flawed in terms of narrative structure, characterization development, and prose.  Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I ordered A Memory of Light and read it over the past three days.  Unfortunately, it is one of the worst-written books in a series renowned for its mediocre, bloated prose.

In reviewing A Memory of Light, many references will be made to the series as a whole and to specific plot/prose points, as the WoT series is designed as much to be a single "novel" (one that consists of over 3 million words) as anything else, as there is not as many episodic "closing points" vis-à-vis other massive epic fantasy novels of recent years.  As a conclusion to WoT, A Memory of Light at first glance would seem to meet fan/reader expectations:  there is a lot of action and movement, plus several characters have their arcs come to a close.  Those who enjoy hundreds of pages of "battle scenes," with good and evil characters pitted at each other in a series of personal and group duels, doubtless will be thrilled to know that there's a single chapter of nearly 200 pages that covers much of the fighting.  Those who wrote "theories" about possible plot foreshadowings almost certainly will be excited at which of their predictive guesses came true and which ones had surprising conclusions.  In other words, those who read the series in order to place themselves as a sort of textual sleuth will find much more to like from this book than those who read books in order to enjoy the writing and the development of narrative, scene, and characters.

If The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight suffered because of an unwieldy narrative that saw massive time jumps (including scenes in consecutive chapters that were separated by nearly a month's worth of narrative time; some characters would have done something in one scene while in the next they would have no knowledge of it, since that was in their "future"), A Memory of Light suffers from an odd compression/expansion of character action and dialogue that makes it difficult at times to focus on what is transpiring.  For example, the first 250 pages or so of this massive 909 page novel are devoted to pre-planning for the prophesied "Last Battle," with prior ally fault lines discussed in detail yet once again, only for there to be sudden mini-conclusions that make the events feel extraneous.  There is a nasty habit throughout the series for the author(s) to re-explain what had already been covered previously.  Scenes such as the one below, when the main leader, Rand al'Thor confronts in a dream his ancient foe (and apparently suddenly his old friend; this development is one of many that is not satisfactorily explained), have their narrative power weakened considerably with reiterations of previously-discussed things:

Moridin, like many of the Forsaken, had usually entered Tel'aran'rhiod in the flesh, which was dangerous.  Some said that entering in the flesh was an evil thing, that it lost you a part of your humanity.  It also made you more powerful. (pp. 135-136)

Jordan/Sanderson (from what I can tell, the majority of the first 2/3 of the novel is Sanderson's writing) devotes too much time to reiterating past statements.  If WoT is to be viewed, as Jordan apparently wished, as a multi-volume novel, then its overuse of description weakens the effect of scenes considerably.  Instead of having this antagonist represent his threat through simple action, the author(s) instead have decided that it is best to have the PoV character think yet once again about the situation.  While some might believe that this reinforces certain narrative events/character traits, what happens in most cases is that the character is stripped of his/her ability to convey a true sense of urgency because s/he has now slipped into a mini-soliloquy that detracts from the scene itself.  If this were even only an occasional matter, it would not be too great of a hindrance, but it happens so frequently that it greatly wounds the narrative flow, reducing the internal action of the first half of the novel to a herky-jerky, sputtering mess.

Yet by roughly the halfway point, the narrative changes as the series of conflicts finally bubbles over.  The bloated expansion of character monologues within their interactions with others is reduced, yet a curious reversal takes place.  Due to the authors' development of dozens of subplots and characters, the narrative tries to focus on a whole slew of angles on four different battlefields stretching over a few weeks' time.  The problem with that is that a great many of these get quick, cursory resolutions (usually death or maiming) that do not justify the great amount of time spent on them throughout the series.  While it could be argued that these numerous subplots are necessary in order to underscore the main thrust of the Dark One/Dragon Reborn duel, that of the will to fight, the narrative would have benefited if it had been pared down to a handful or less other PoVs during the final 1/3 of the novel.  There is an attempt at pathos, yet it falls well short of its potential because despite all of the verbiage spewed throughout the series, so many of these characters lack any true sense of character.  Doubtless some will disagree and say that Characters X, Y, and Z moved them to laughter and/or tears, but can the same be said for the whole cast of hundreds?  It is understandable that the authors compress these character thoughts/actions into shorter (often a paragraph or two moments) segments during the battles themselves, yet the end result is this unevenness of characterization that weakens the intended effect when several of them die.

It certainly does not help that the prose is perfunctory at best.  Sanderson is not a gifted stylist, but having to work within the constraints of Jordan's clunky prose does him no favors here.  Too often, he tries to capture the essence of Jordan's prose by emulating his detailed descriptions, but scenes such as the death of Gawyn suffer because the attention to scene detail detracts from the emotional aspect:

Somehow Gawyn managed to push himself up to his knees.  His heart cried out; he needed to return to Egwene.  He began to crawl, blood mixing with the earth beneath him as it seeped from his wound.  Through eyes clouded with cold perspiration, he spotted several cavalry mounts twenty paces ahead, poking at blackened tufts of grass at their feet and tethered to a picket-line.  After minutes of struggle, an impossible interval of time that left him drained, he pulled himself up on to the back of the first horse he could reach and untether.  Gawyn hunched over, dazed, grasping its mane in one hand.  Summoning his remaining strength, he kicked his heel into the animal's rib cage. (p. 664)

To some, this might be acceptable, because it sets up the area around him and his struggle to live, but what happens in this scene and others is a reduction of the human struggle to a background element.  There is no exploration of his thoughts, no insight into his character, no sense of regret over the foolish actions that led to a foolhardy duel.  Instead, this paragraph is to serve as a commentary on Gawyn's after-fight state, as the scene immediately shifts to another part of the battle.  The chance of revealing more of his character through his futile fight to live is lost by the division of the main fight scenes into a lengthy, nearly 200 page chapter that does little besides emphasize the chaotic nature of fighting.

Many more examples could be cited here of the authors' questionable choice of using overly detailed scene descriptions to serve in place of real, actual character development.  However, there is the risk of losing sight of the novel's other structural issues, that of how A Memory of Light is developed as a singular novel.  As a last volume in a series, its true beginning lies within the previous 13 novels, yet its form is that of a stilted 250 pages of pre-battle scenes followed by quick action scene after quick action scene.  There are few good transitions; all are swallowed by the quickly-shifting PoV perspective moves, causing the narrative to lurch and stop-and-start its way forward, as certain strands are lost for 50 pages or more before resurfacing briefly.  There is no elegance to it, nothing that feels smooth.  Of course, some might argue that this is precisely the point when it comes to depicting a violent conflict, yet here in A Memory of Light, there is little actual movement beyond the fight.  It means so little, outside of the scenes involving the Dragon Reborn's duel.  Compared to the final Malazan Book of the Fallen novel, The Crippled God, the fighting scenes here are weaker because it has taken so long to get to the point of fighting that it is so abrupt of a transition to the deluge of deaths.  There is little of the Malazan book's emphasis on the whys of the fight (outside of saving the world from evil forces); it feels paint-by-numbers in its initial sketchiness and in the quality of the narrative and thematic "paint" used to fill in the spaces.

When I reviewed Towers of Midnight, I commented somewhere that the sum of that novel was lesser than its parts.  This certainly is also the case with A Memory of Light.  It is understandable that fans who have awaited a decade or more for the series to be complete to be content or satisfied with knowing what finally happens.  But novels aren't judged solely by plot information.  It is difficult to imagine re-reading this book for its prose or for its development of theme or characterization.  It is a bloated work in a series infamous for its "fatness."  The writing does not serve the authors' aims in developing the scenes and the dialogues largely feel stilted and devoid of any real depth of human emotion.  Even the long-awaited conclusion suffers from its abruptness intermingled with unexplained actions that are designed more to keep the hardcore fans "theorizing" about their import than to provide any semblance of a tale that concludes at a proper resting point.  WoT as a whole is a series that is not read for much beyond its ability to facilitate reader predictions and now that it is "complete," there is very little to recommend it to readers.  The writing is at best mediocre and often is very poor; the characterizations are tinny, leaving many readers with a bad taste in their mouths; the overarching themes regarding balance, the struggle of good and evil, and free will are presented in a hackneyed fashion that may only appeal to those who have not seen these issues treated by more talented and perceptive writers.  The only good reason that I could give for reading this book is for readers to find out what happened next.  It is not the sort that I would think would make for a rewarding re-reading experience, as there is virtually nothing to offer beyond readers trying to figure out the authors' narrative game.  But if you've read anything in this series, you already knew that, right?  Recommendation to burn after reading it, if you must read it.


Anonymous said...

I wonder sometimes how much of the issues with the Wheel of Time were writing, and how much were actually editorial. The book has some powerful themes. Villagers who come to rule the world. A savior who brings destruction in his wake. The classic Campbell heroes journey. The writing wasn't amazing, but I can't think of many other series where reading a POV in the first and last book are so completely different. How many pages shorter would it have been if every silly descriptor and repetition would have been cut out, and every side characters POV removed? You could have gotten rid of almost a full novel's worth just cutting out the hunt for the Black Ajah in the White Tower, a series of events that had zero ramifications for the last book. The editor for this book was the wife of the author, and nepotism always leads to failures. I think there was probably a good 6 or 7 book series in here. Flawed,admittedly, but good. It's a shame.

Larry Nolen said...

I didn't talk about it in my review here, but I too think a lot of it could be the need for judicious editing, not just at the line/copy edit level, but at the storyboard level. The vast number of secondary and tertiary character PoVs in this particular case seem to have masked those elements (the ones you mention, plus having a hero suffering from a form of PTSD) that did appeal enough to me when I first read the series in November 1997 to continue on to the (bitter) end.

Eric Rhoads said...

I started reading Jordan's work when he was writing Conan novels. I bought his WoT books simply because I liked his Conan books. That said, I was rather young at the time.

Over the 20+ years I have read the series, I have slowly lost interest in it and read more to see the end of the story than any other reason.

My main issue is as you mentioned, Jordan's style. As I read more, particularly in college, I enjoyed Jordan's work less. Sanderson's involvement only worsened things as his rendition of my favorite character, Mat, is just off. Sanderson's own weaknesses exacerbates Jordan's. I think their styles are too similar.

I do agree that a more active editor could have fixed a lot of issues with the series. In particular pruning the various sub-plots that branched endlessly from the main sequence.

I will still likely enjoy the book simply because of the story and the fact I have been reading it for so long. It is one of the last remaining threads of my childhood. But I will not enjoy the endless descriptions of tile work, gilded furniture or other such things.

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, that's why I put in the hyperbolic "burn this after you've read it" at the end, because for many readers, such as myself, the ending offers very little in the way of re-read value, as virtually all of the series' weaknesses are on display and almost all of its strengths as a story are either absent or explained in such a way as to make it difficult to want to re-read it again for all but a scant few memorable moments.

Anonymous said...

I lost interest in the series after Knife of Dreams was released; Robert Jordan had a gift for world building and enjoyable melodrama, but as you've pointed out quite succinctly, the man padded his books too damn much. Crown of Thorns, Path of Daggers, and Knife of Dreams weren't really needed at all were they? I haven't read a word of W.O.T since 2005, but I'm delighted by the news that it's finally over, and I'm grateful to this blog for delivering the news, although the author may want to spoiler-tag the bit about the character who died in order to avoid pre-release drama.

Larry Nolen said...

I've only once used spoiler tags (which involve splicing in HTML code in Blogger, as it's not a native feature) and that was for some graphic sexual scenes that I quoted from a novel. Book's been out since the 8th, so nothing pre-release about it (I bought it, by the way, so that ended up being a poor use of $20). Glad to hear that this at least let you know what happened.

Somhairle Kelly said...

I think I strained something with my eye-rolling when Sanderson introduced two new antagonist groups. Other than that, it's eminently forgettable and extremely cursory.

It was quite a pleasant surprise to see two actual open references to male homosexuality, though. (Using, admittedly, the exact same wording each time.) Fan pressure?

Larry Nolen said...

I seem to recall reading some interview years ago with RJ before his death where he said there were gays as well as lesbians in his setting, but it wouldn't surprise me if fan pressure did lead to revelations this late. Unfortunately, my eyes glazed over so much while reading this book that I barely could recall who was revealed because it was mixed in with that morass of bland scenes and poor character interactions.

Anonymous said...

this was the worst and most far off review I have ever read

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