Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: A Memory of Light

[This is the Book 14 Review, and it's mostly spoiler-free. Book 12 is reviewed here and Book 13 here.]

More than 20 years ago, on the strong recommendation of my friend Adam, I picked up The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, which seemed like a standard coming of age fantasy novel but led off with a volcanic prologue and contained many hints that this was going to be far better than your average Joseph Campbell/J.R.R. Tolkien mashup. Fourteen books later those hints are confirmed. This is THE turn-of-the-21st-century fantasy epic, the story shaped by Vietnam the same way that The Lord of the Rings was shaped by the World Wars.

After Jordan died, Brandon Sanderson took up the pen for the last three books from Jordan's files. I'm a bit ambivalent, especially in this book, because the cracks between his and Jordan's styles show up more and more frequently. Every few pages there's a line of dialogue or metaphor that pulls me up short -- something I am sure Jordan would not have done. Actually, it was worst for me at the very end, because there I know Jordan wrote the epilogue, and I could tell, because every page there was a detail or moment that sparkled rather than thudded. Ultimately, though, this book is about the plot and finding out what happens, and I really don't know if there's anyone alive that could do that better than Sanderson. He definitely put his hours in. Sanderson can't help it if when Jordan died something unique was lost. Finishing Jordan's series (even with copious notes) was a thankless task that I'm very glad Sanderson did, and it could have been a lot worse. He managed to spin together a last half of a book that was as consistently thrilling as anything I've read, and I mean anything. It was a true payoff for what I calculate must be at least 250 hours of reading. This may be the most time I've spent with any band of fictional characters.

With great reluctance I have to say that Robert Jordan has become in my opinion better than Tad Williams. Now that I've seen how all his plots come together, it really does pay off in the end. All these seemingly extraneous events and items fit together into a 900-page book that is one big climax. They fit together in the big ways, sure, but even more in the small ways. The resolution of the smallest, youngest regular character's story (Olver) was my personal favorite, and it's only a handful of pages, but it was such a surprising joy that it's what I remember most.

Still, there are shortcomings in the story that I believe are Jordan's, often at the philosophical level. I've got a whole new appreciation for the solidity of Tolkien's philosophy, and that is what will endure longest. Jordan does not eclipse Tolkien. There's a whole spoiler-filled Jordan vs. Tolkien post I've got rolling like dice in my head right now. But that's enough for today. I've just read a compelling account of The Last Battle. Now I need to go rest my eyes.

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