The years and years that people were waiting for the end of the Wheel of Time made it almost impossible that A Memory of Light could live up to expectations. Somehow, though, this book turned out to be almost everything readers could hope for. It is sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic, but always riveting. Both times I’ve read it has grabbed me and forced me through it as fast as possible. A Memory of Light will never be counted among my favorite books in this series; in fact, I would put it somewhere near the bottom, but it is a great ending to this towering series.
This last volume highlights the differences in how Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson deal with magic. Jordan’s writing is very detailed on how magic is performed and what it takes from the user. Channeling in Wheel of Time is some combination of weaving and chemistry. Mix the right balance of elements and it makes something else. But what is done with magical power is usually pretty prosaic. People make fireballs and use wind like telekinesis. Sanderson’s style goes much more in depth with what people do with that power. For example, Androl Genhold, a character that had been around since Winter’s Heart but really seems to be a pet of Sanderson’s, is not especially strong in the power, but in A Memory of Light he finds a lot of was to use the power he does have. Androl has a special Talent with making gateways and he puts that to some rather creative use throughout the book. Like when he makes a gateway to let lava out of a volcano to flow into an army of Trollocs. The myriad of was he finds to use that power, while a perfectly logical extension of his skills, is completely unlike anything else in the series. It would feel right at home, however, in Sanderson’s Mistborn books. It isn’t really that I find either method here superior, though I do slightly prefer the way Jordan does things, but it is undeniably different. It really contributes to how much this book, with a couple of notable exceptions, feels more like Sanderson’s work than Jordan’s. Again, it is in a different way than the previous two books. The Gathering Storm was Sanderson struggling to get a feel for the characters and Towers of Midnight felt like a perfect synthesis of the two. A Memory of Light has Sanderson triumphant. These may be Robert Jordan’s characters and his world, but this is Sanderson’s book.
The points of view in this book are kind of oddly parceled out. After a brief opening where everyone gathers, the first big meeting of all the forces of the Light, they split up to fight the massive armies of Trollocs that are now swarming down from the Blight. That opening moves pretty quickly through the viewpoints of all the major characters in attendance, which is nearly everybody but Mat. Early on, Rand is the driving force, forging the good guys into something resembling a cohesive force. Once the fighting starts, Rand kind of disappears. And Mat has been largely a non-presence to that point. A lot of the book at that point rest on the shoulders of characters like Elayne and Androl. The main players, Rand, Mat and Perrin, are present but not central. Perrin is the first to have his chance to shine, again setting off into the Wolf Dream and clashing with Slayer. He has to be there, because the dream world is the best avenue to attack Rand that exists. While everyone else directly fights the Trollocs in the real world, he enters the dream and protects Rand from there. Soon, he disappears and Mat steps in, leading the forces of light in the actual last battle. Eventually, Rand comes back to have his prophesied fight with the Dark One. Really, though, those three get surprisingly few pages in this last volume.
Outside of the central characters, A Memory of Light also gives some very important characters very little to do. Characters like Siuan, Thom, and Faile, or most disappointing Moiraine and Nynaeve, end up with almost nothing to do. Moiraine’s return is one of the most disappointing parts of the whole series. It had been teased since before she even “died” and she comes back to have a bit role in the last book. Her actual role, being one of the two women to go with Rand to Shayol Ghul, is quite important, but it doesn’t really give her much to do. Rand is the big player there. That vital but passive role also catches Nynaeve, but it is a little more acceptable for her. She’s been around the whole series as one of the two most prominent women in the series. I knew I wasn’t going to get all that I wanted out of her return, to see her meet up with all the characters who thought her dead, like Siuan. Those five characters I mentioned were big parts of the series, most of them characters who had been around since the first or second book. To see them set aside at the end and newer characters take more prominent roles just didn’t feel right.
The thing is it still works, though it feels very different from what came before. This is a book the majority of which is spent in a handful of battles. Before this, fighting in the Wheel of Time has been messy and short. Battles didn’t tend to last for more than a chapter and the individual scenes tended to be quite short. They also tended to be caught up in the nitty gritty of the fighting, not tending to give a clear picture of the overall battle until the dust has settled. This worked great at Dumai’s Wells and in Crown of Swords. The nature and scope of the Last Battle almost assured that it would be handled differently. All of the politicking and maneuvering is over as well. This is just the good guys versus the bad guys. That is what the entire series had been building to, of course, but it is by necessity different that the previous dozen books. Still, it does manage to pay off nearly every characters own arc. Perrin finally, totally learns how to let go, to be himself and a leader, a man and a wolf. Mat’s luck and stolen battle skills save the day. Egwene leads the Aes Sedai, finally managing to effectively herd cats. Elayne gets to put her skills as a leader to use on a large scale. It is great to see these characters all grown up one last time, but it is bittersweet to know that this is the last time. That is what makes it really hard to call this book a favorite. Before this, every character had potential for future action. This is the culmination of that, but it also means that all of the potential is not spent. Everything is past now.
Rand’s fight with the Dark One manages to be exactly what I expected and completely surprising at the same time. Careful readers were able to guess exactly what was going on during part of it, but it was fitting that the showdown would be a philosophical one, not a physical one. How can anyone fight the personification of evil? What Rand had to do was gain understanding, which let him finally learn that it couldn’t be destroyed; only removed.
The ending [Spoilers, of course] was simultaneously perfect and completely disappointing. What is there is absolutely perfect. I would bet that the very last chapter is all Jordon. (or maybe I know that but forgot where I got that information) It does a pretty great job of closing out the stories for most of the main characters, especially Rand and his trio of women. Maybe Nynaeve’s is enough as well, and Perrin too. But anyone outside of the main characters is all but forgotten. I wanted some sort of final tally, or at least confirmation on the life or death of a great number of characters that, while minor in the grand scheme of this series, had been a peripheral part of the series for as many as a dozen books. For example, Mat’s scout/horse thief Chel Vanin. He had ridden with Mat’s Band since at least Lord of Chaos and while his role was never more than minor, he was a constant piece of window dressing. This book leaves him being chased by Trollocs in an attempt to save the Horn of Valere from falling into the hands of the Shadow. Whether he lives or dies is never made clear. One last point of contention, the last bit is also from the wrong POV. It should be Moiraine seeing Rand ride off into the sunset, not Cadsuane. Moiraine is the one with the connection to Rand; Cadsuane was never more than an obstacle.
While the finality of A Memory of Light will always make it a hard book to reread, at least for me, it is certainly a better ending than I ever expected after Jordan was unable to complete it. There are questions left unanswered, there were always going to be. It manages to wrap up all the important things in satisfying and frequently surprising ways. I did cry a little when reading this book, at the death of a certain character. Not the one people would likely expect, though. At the end, I am not eager to read this book again, but I am to get to about half of the dozen that came before it. As far as I’m concerned, the Wheel of Time is still the king of the fantasy genre.