I finished reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time! I have unlocked an achievement! After a Herculean marathon, I re-read most of the books over the Christmas break, and have now caught up on the last three books, co-written with Brandon Sanderson.
I remember reading the early books in high school and at university. My favourites were those first four or five books, but after the sixth book, Lord of Chaos, the wait between each book got longer and eventually I lost interest. In 2007, Robert Jordan passed away, meaning that the last three books were written by Brandon Sanderson from Robert Jordan’s notes. Having enjoyed Brandon’s Mistborn series, I had confidence that the Wheel of Time would be finished competently.
The early books in the saga are quite gripping. They’re my favourites; the ones I remember the most. Not that they weren’t flawless – Robert Jordan had several tics and themes that he was fond of – rich descriptions, men and women not understanding each other in a hammy comedy of manners, sniffing and braid-tugging and women folding their arms beneath their breasts (which is harder than it looks). But he did epic scale fantastically. Each of the earlier books had a wide scope – protagonists would split apart – but then snap together for the big, slam bang conclusion which tied everything together. Jordan also had a good way of building tension and mounting fear – I remember the last act of the Great Hunt vividly, where Egwene was caught and enslaved by the Seanchan. I loved the Fremen-inspired Aiel culture and Rand’s visions in the city of Rhuidean. I liked the sense of fear and shadowy machinations – who could they characters trust in the White Tower?
Then, the sense of pace was lost in the middle of the series. Epic deeds gave way to a stronger focus on the comedy of manners, as though Jordan really wanted to be writing nineteenth century novels. Characters spun away from each other and books would simply stop before reaching any kind of solid convergence of plotlines or a conclusion. In the early run of the books, Robert Jordan’s slow, cluttered writing style worked in his favour. I enjoyed the slow bucolic descriptions of the Two Rivers and the harsh Aiel Waste. During the slowdown of the middle books, these descriptions became fascinated with furniture, clothing and cups of tea. Although Jordan was interested in gender politics and communication, he explored this mainly through people making assumptions about each other, often having frustrating stupidities arising as a result. He hammered this trope so hard it became was quite a relief when the characters would actually sit down and talk to each other! Knife of Dreams shows signs of Jordan’s return to the epic fantasy scope; a sign that he had branched out as far as he could and was drawing everything for the big ramp up to the last act of the series.
Only Knife of Dreams was Robert Jordan’s last novel. The last three books, co-authored with Brandon Sanderson, had to basically provide a solid conclusion to the previous eleven books.
Overall, the first of Sanderson’s trilogy, the Gathering Storm, was my favourite. There was a sense of pace again; Rand’s story arc peaked as he struggled with his personal darkness and Egwene strove to unite the White Tower. Jordan’s little ticks and themes were pushed aside, and the dialogue shifted to more of a snappy banter. Some characters didn’t quite seem themselves, but in general, I was very pleased with it. The next book, Towers of Midnight, while it had some excellent core scenes, felt a bit piecemeal, as though a large chunk of its chapters should have been the previous book. And finally, I read the last book, A Memory of Light. Its primary focus is the Last Battle; and much of it is taken up with battle planning and Trolloc blasting and troop movements. There are some character deaths; although it did feel like some of the characters should have died, rather than miraculously surviving.
What I missed from the last book was an epilogue. One of my favourite conclusions to an epic fantasy series was the last chunk of David Eddings’ Belgariad, which covered the characters’ life after their epic quest, and how it changed people and how they moved on. A Memory of Light doesn’t offer that sense of closure; it simply ends when the battle ends. It felt like as if the Return of the King ended after Frodo and Sam had just been rescued by the giant eagles. The epilogue is scattered across Brandon Sanderson’s last three books – in the conclusion of character arcs, in the glimpse of alternate realities when Rand conducts his battle with the Dark One. Given the lengthy, almost sumptuous pace at how this earlier plotlines were developed, the ending felt almost abrupt, and unfulfilling. Some of the plotlines are touched, resolve as if they were being ticked off a list. Other plotlines are treated with the epic scope they deserved, and I quite enjoyed the series of duels against the villainous Demandred.
So the concluding trilogy was good; but didn’t quite scratch that itch to make it solidly satisfying to me. If you got stalled by the middle period of the book, I’d suggest trying the last three books out. Overall, it’s great that a twenty two year journey for me has finally ended and I’m reminded of once more why I love epic fantasy in this series.