The Last Battle has begun. The fate of the world and time itself hinge upon Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, and his allies. The great city of Caemlyn burns, the Borderlands are overrun and Lan Mandragoran's army at Tarwin's Gap has been overwhelmed. Rand must convince the nations of the world that they must stand united against the Shadow or face oblivion.
For Rand's allies, they have their own struggles to face. The Black Tower is in jeopardy of falling to the Shadow, and it falls to the least-powerful of the Asha'man to try to save the day. Mat Cauthon must convince his wife, the proud Seanchan Empress, to join the great coalition against the Dark One. Perrin Aybara hunts the wolf dream for the creature known as Slayer. And Egwene al'Vere must confront the possible annihilation of the Pattern itself, which is in danger of unravelling from the use of the forbidden weave known as balefire.
On a day that dawns twice, the forces of the Dragon Reborn and those of the Shadow meet in two titanic conflicts. On the Field of Merrilor, millions will fight and die in the greatest battle the world has seen in three and a half thousand years. In the shadow of Shayol Ghul, Rand al'Thor must confront the Dark One and end this struggle once and for all.
The Wheel of Time is finished. That's a statement that's going to take a while to get used to. The first volume of the series, The Eye of the World, was published in January 1990. George Bush Snr. and Margaret Thatcher were still in power and the Cold War was still ongoing. Fourteen books, four million words, eleven thousand pages and over fifty million sales (in North America alone) later, the conclusion has finally arrived. Can it possibly live up to the expectations built up over that time?
It is a tribute to the plotting powers of Robert Jordan, the writing skill of Brandon Sanderson (who took over the series after Jordan's untimely death in 2007) and the hard work of Jordan's editors and assistants that A Memory of Light is - for the most part - a triumphant finale. Given the weight of expectations resting on the novel, not to mention the unfortunate circumstances under it was written, it is unsurprising that it is not perfect. The novel occasionally misfires, is sometimes abrupt in how it resolves long-running plot strands and sometimes feels inconsistent with what has come before. However, it also brings this juggernaut of an epic fantasy narrative to an ending that makes sense, is suitably massive in scope and resolves the series' thematic, plot and character arcs satisfactorily - for the most part.
It is a familiar viewpoint that The Wheel of Time is a slow-burning series, with Robert Jordan not afraid to have his characters sitting around talking about things for entire chapters (or, in one case, an entire novel) rather than getting on with business. However, Jordan at his best used these lengthy dialogue scenes to set up plot twists and explosive confrontations further down the line, pulling together the elements he'd established previously in surprising and interesting ways. This reached a high in the slow-moving sixth book, which ended with what is regarded by many as the series' best climax to date at the Battle of Dumai's Wells. Steven Erikson (whose Malazan series is the most notable recent mega-long fantasy series to have also reached a final conclusion) used the term 'convergence' for such structural climaxes and it's fair to say that this is what A Memory of Light is: a convergence for the entire series. All thirteen of the previous novels lined up plot cannons in preparation for the Last Battle, and in the closing chapters of Towers of Midnight Brandon Sanderson started triggering them.
The result is not The Wheel of Time you may be familiar with. A Memory of Light is a brutal, bruising, 900-page war novel that kicks off with all hell breaking loose and doesn't pause for breath until the ending. The prologue starts with a well-paced sequence as we find out the state of play for the major characters, intercut with Talmanes and the Band of the Red Hand engaging hordes of Shadowspawn on the streets of Caemlyn. The rotation of scenes between the desperate street fighting and more familiar politicking is highly effective and is exhausting in itself. Immediately after this we alternate between Rand's attempts to pull together a coalition against the Shadow whilst a small group of Asha'man try to save their organisation from destruction against overwhelming odds. No sooner is that over than the Last Battle is joined in full force. Vast armies clash, channellers engage one another in One Power exchanges that dwarf anything seen before in the series and lots of stuff blows up. There's more action sequences in A Memory of Light than the rest of the series put together, more than earning the adage 'The Last Battle'.
The action sequences (which make up almost the whole book) are, for the most part, impressive but benefit from unpredictability. Jordan has been criticised for making his characters too safe, with almost no major character of note (on either side) dying in the previous books of the series. This limitation has been removed for the Last Battle. Major characters, middling ones and scores of minor ones are scythed down in this final confrontation with near-wild abandon. Some get heroic, fitting, blaze-of-glory ends. Some die in manners so unexpected, offhand and callous that even George R.R. Martin might nod in approval. Many of the survivors are seriously wounded, either in body or mind. Jordan's experiences as a Vietnam vet informed Rand al'Thor's arc in The Gathering Storm, and resurface here when one major character is tortured by the Shadow before being rescued, but spends the rest of the book suffering the effects of his experiences. The war scenes are suitably epic and exciting, but Sanderson remembers to include moments counting the cost of such a struggle.
That said, there is an annoying discrepancy in the Last Battle sequence compared to earlier novels. Based on the army sizes in previous volumes and the number of channellers in each faction, the good guys should have brought the better part of a million troops and five thousand One Power-wielders to the Last Battle, and the Shadow several times more. There is no indication that such vast numbers are present, which seems rather odd. There is also the fact that the channellers suddenly seem to be much less effective in mass combat than previously shown. This is most blatant when Logain is angrily told that he and a couple of dozen Asha'man cannot hope to defeat a hundred thousand Trollocs by themselves. Given this is exactly what happened in one scene in Knife of Dreams, I can only conclude that the channellers were deliberately reduced in power for this book, which is very strange.
For the most part, this is the level of problems A Memory of Light presents: something mildly irritating to those who prefer consistency from fictional works but ultimately not hugely relevant to the overall thrust of the narrative. Similar issues can be found with a number of very minor subplots that the novel fails to resolve (or even address) from earlier volumes. In some cases these may be examples of what Robert Jordan himself said would happen in the last book, with some elements left deliberately hanging to give the illusion that life goes on after the last page is turned. In other cases, it may be that Jordan did not draft out how those storylines ended, so Sanderson chose to leave them rather than risk too inventing too much of his own material. Sanderson even refuses to name an important river that Jordan did not name himself, resulting is a slightly awkward battle sequence where characters talk about the 'river on the border', the 'river on the battlefield' and so on, which is a bit laboured.
However, whilst the war scenes rage there is also a philosophical struggle at the heart of the book, and of the series. This struggle is shown in the confrontation between Rand and the Dark One in which their visions of the world and the Wheel are shown in conflict with one another. Robert Jordan was convinced that whilst there were certainly complexities and shades of grey in real life, he also believed that real good and real evil existed, and these ideas form part of the philosophical struggle that takes place alongside the battles. How successful this is will vary (perhaps immensely) from reader to reader, but is not helped by some muddling of the issues. The primary struggle of the books has consistently been Good vs. Evil, but in this philosophy-off the idea of the Creator personifying Order and the Dark One Chaos also arises, possibly as their primary roles. This is in conflict with the rest of the series and is also more tiresomely familiar and predictable. Once that interpretation arises, it's impossible not to think of the ending of the Shadow War in the TV series Babylon 5, and the resolution we get is not a million miles away from it (Rand even gets a line almost as awful as "Get the hell out of our galaxy!").
On the prose side of things, it's pretty much the same set-up as The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight: acceptable, faster-paced and a bit less prone to unnecessary introspection. Where Sanderson comes undone (yet again) is his very occasional use of terminology and language that Jordan would never have used, particularly modern words and terms. Though relatively rare, they still jar a little bit when they appear. The book's centrepiece is a single chapter that is almost 200 pages (and 70,000 words) long in hardcover, with some 70 POV characters playing a role. Apparently both Sanderson and Jordan wrote parts of this chapter, and a few minor inconsistencies aside their writing styles mesh very well. The very last section of the epilogue, written by Robert Jordan himself before he passed (including, rather eerily, Jordan's epitaph from his own funeral), is indeed a fitting way to end the book.
Taking everything into account, A Memory of Light (****½) is a lot better than perhaps we had any right to expect. The book is a relentless steamroller of action, explosions, plot resolutions, deaths and philosophical (if somewhat confused) arguing. Some elements are under-resolved, or a little too convenient, or not fleshed out enough. But that's par for the course with any ending to a series this huge. The big questions are answered, the final scene is fitting and the story ends in a way that is true to itself, which is the most we can ask for. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.