(2012/3) Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson, Orbit, £25, hrdbk, 909pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49872-0
This book came out in the US in 2012, but has only now (2013) been published in Britain. Robert Jordan died in 2007 before completing his 20-year 'Wheel of Time' sequence, with this final novel unfinished. Brandon Sanderson has completed it after researching the entire sequence, studying Jordan’s manuscripts and notes as well as consulting his widow. Bringing so large an undertaking to a close is an achievement in itself, but can it be read as a stand-alone novel – like, say, one of the'Culture' novels from Iain M. Banks' – another recent loss to the field?
Briefly, the answer is 'yes' – just – but without knowing the previous story arcs of the many characters, it is hard to identify with them or their relationships and concerns, as they come together for the final struggle between good and evil. The eve of the battle fills the first half of the book, with ongoing battles and fresh skirmishes pushing the characters towards choosing their ground for the last great fight. It is well paced, with a growing sense of dread that the odds are too great. The enemy, too, has been planning for a long time: key forces for good have been subverted, vital talismans stolen, others lost or in the hands of minor players who don’t know how to use them or how to reach those who can.
As the final battle squares up, on one hand we have the forces of evil, with human leadership but with vast hordes of 'Trollocs', beings created like Tolkien's Orcs, but literal cannon-fodder in this case. At the beginning of the novel there is an issue about the preservation of 'dragons', which aren’t eggs or hatchlings but this world’s first examples of artillery.
Against the hosts of darkness stand the armies of humanity, or what's left of them, already exhausted, hungry and demoralised by a world in which the enemy has made the climate permanently hostile and destroyed all the plant life. There are groups of humans with special powers, but the enemy has those powers too, and some humans have thrown in their lot with them, or been 'turned'. One major group of the characters from previous books are captured in the first half, and the action keeps jumping to them as they’re pressured to change sides. The central character, Rand Al'Thor – the Dragon Reborn – has much bigger worries, because he’s destined to meet the Dark One himself, the disembodied but personified essence of evil, in single combat. That conflict continues throughout the battle, fought out in caves below the mountain nearby, and in various alternative versions of reality.
Time passes at a different rate in the caves, but even so, the battle outside is on epic scale and lasts a very long time. I did wonder just how the human armies maintain cohesion for so long when they’re under the equivalent of constant shelling, without even the protection of First World War trenches. But because I was distanced from the central characters by ignorance of their back-stories, I found myself thinking still more about the Trollocs. Reading The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad is enough to make anyone think again about the supposedly evil hordes so often met with in fantasy.
One of the disconcerting moments in The Lord of the Rings, when the action reaches Mordor, is the realisation that the foot-soldiers of Sauron have the power of speech and are probably no worse, individually and in small groups, that soldiers have been in any more conventional war. In A Memory of Light it is not clear whether Trollocs can speak, but they are humanoid, and they have enough intelligence to wield weapons, though without skill – any human with training in sword or axe fighting can seemingly wade through ranks of them. They have enough sense not to want to go there: they have to be whipped into battle by their overseers, who might usefully have been targeted more by the adepts on our side. The principal manifestation of their evil is that they eat human dead, and their own, by which we are supposed to be horrified – but they have been bred to do that, and since their masters spread devastation over the countryside wherever they go, there is nothing else for them to eat. In battle, they frequently lose interest and turn to consume the slain – again, we are supposed to be horrified, but 'don't kill more than you can eat' is a motto that one wishes Great White Hunters had adopted in their time. I found myself wondering how much DNA Trollocs and human have in common, compared with chimpanzees and gorillas, whom some think should be accorded human rights. Do Trollocs survive the defeat of the Dark One? Can they breed? Can they evolve?
I suspect that regular readers will not be asking such questions. Like the characters we join briefly at the end, they will be searching the battlefield for loved ones, grieving over the fallen, rejoicing where a casualty had survived against the odds. There is talk about the dawn of a new age, though we do not see it – there is no counterpart to the cleansing of the Shire. But I kept thinking back to those 'dragons' at the beginning. There is a turning point in the novel, where the adepts realise that their ability to open matter-transmitting portals allows the cannon to be used far more effectively. But once human affairs have settled down, it will not be too long before somebody realises that with aerial reconnaissance and longer-range guns, one can achieve the same effects without using paranormal powers at all. There will be no magic in the new age, and it will be the technology of warfare that drives it out.
To sum up, coming to A Memory of Light as a first-time reader of the series, I was drawn in by the tension before the epic battle, but I was not sufficiently engaged by the characters to be hooked by the twists and turns of the battle itself. After 13 previous books building them up, I imagine that regular readers would be waiting anxiously to find out what happens to the key players, and would get a lot more out of it. In reply to the question, 'can it be read as a stand-alone novel?' I would say 'yes', and the earlier stories will add to it.
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