Friday, January 25, 2013

Makers of Memory and Magic

For those of you not familiar with the Wheel of Time (affectionately known as WoT), it is a fifteen novel high fantasy series written by James Rigney, Jr. under the pen name Robert Jordan. The first book in the series The Eye of the World (although not chronologically first within the world) was published in 1990, and initially follows the adventures of three young men from a small rural village, but quickly expands to an all encompassing epic of the world in which they live. In 2007, Robert Jordan died, and extensive notes on the final book of the series were passed on to long time author and fan Brandon Sanderson for finishing. What was initially intended to be a single novel became three, and the final three books of the series, The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light were all written by Brandon Sanderson from Robert Jordan’s notes.

Before going into any more detail about the series or the final book A Memory of Light, I should explain my relationship with the Wheel of Time. Last May, after having read Wise Man’s Fear (by fantasy author Pat Rothfuss), I was looking for a fantasy series that was already complete (or nearly complete), but more importantly, consisted of a large number of books, so I wouldn’t have to decide what to read for at least a few months. Wheel of Time fit the bill perfectly, so I began with The Eye of the World and made my way steadily through the series. In the end, my timing was nearly spot on, and by the publication date of A Memory of Light I had made it through the rest of the series, with a few other books thrown in on the side for variety and timing. Consequently, I would not consider myself a dedicated Wheel of Time fan, and if anything I’ve written below offends true fans, please remember that my opinion doesn’t really count.

So what is my opinion that might offend? I’m glad that Brandon Sanderson finished the series, and think that he probably did a better job than Robert Jordan could have. Is this as bad as saying that C.S. Lewis could have done a better job than J.R.R. Tolkien in finishing The Lord of the Rings? (Just to clarify, I don’t think that about Lord of the Rings.) This is not to say that Brandon Sanderson would have done a better job writing the entire series. The vision for the world has always been, and will always be Robert Jordan’s, and Brandon Sanderson himself was strongly influenced by Jordan.

One of the unique features of Wheel of Time is the imbalance of the magic system which leads to a world with strong gender equality, and perhaps even gender inequality in favor of women (although certainly not always). One of the ways that Jordan explored this feature of the world was by looking through the perspectives of either men or women, and often times creating conflicts based on simplified and unbelievable gender stereotypes. For example, women think men are “wool-headed” fools who can’t think, and men think of women as uncompromising and big-headed.

In some of the later books, particularly around books four through eight, the bickering between men and women became so exaggerated that it began to interfere with the telling of the story. Not only did the frequency become annoying, but also these arguments became seeds for larger dissidence which did not develop in a believable fashion. In A Memory of Light, Sanderson still maintains many important conflicts between characters, but does so with much more realistic motivation.  The reduction in bickering is justified primarily by the rapid maturing of many of the characters, which does create a small discontinuity in some character development, but provides a respite which I believe is well worth the sacrifice.

One of my favorite characters throughout the series is Mat Cauthon, but as written by Sanderson, not Jordan. The scenes involving Mat are always fast moving, clever, and most importantly, humorous. While humor certainly is not a necessary component for fantasy, it can be used to great effect; i.e. the Harry Potter series. In many of the earlier Wheel of Time books by Jordan, I felt that he attempted to half-heartedly create humor that almost seemed out of place. Sanderson, on the other hand, effectively uses Mat as a comedic foil to some of the more serious characters in the book, and can take a reader from crying to laughing in the turn of a page.

I think one of the main reasons that Sanderson is able to use the characters more effectively than Jordan, is that in A Memory of Light, he spends significantly more time focusing on the primary characters, rather than the multitude of side characters introduced in the earlier portions of the series. This is not to say Sanderson abandons side characters; he still uses them, but in a way where the reader is not required to remember every single character. This might be a point of contention for many fans, but in the end, I feel this adds to A Memory of Light. In many ways, I feel that George R.R. Martin is suffering a similar issue in A Song of Ice and Fire, and perhaps should take a lesson from Sanderson in consolidation.

But enough about the characters.  Let’s look at the magic. I have loved the magic system of Wheel of Time from the beginning, as it has always been a “hard magic” system, and feel that this plays directly into one of Sanderson’s primary strengths. For those familiar with Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy and beyond, his dedication to using the magical ruleset to drive the novels is almost heroic. Throughout A Memory of Light, Sanderson’s touch on the magical realm is very apparent. For example, the uses for magical gateways (a tool I felt was never utilized to its full potential) is greatly expanded, and I have a feeling this is almost entirely an addition made by Sanderson.

Additionally, the interplay between the world of dreams and reality is explored even more than in the past, and leads to a clarification of some of the rules which were previously somewhat unclear.  Here, however, I think Sanderson might have gone too far, as it leads to a scenario where characters are able to perform feats which should have been known to the Forsaken (the three thousand year old bad guys) in previous novels. I appreciated the expansion and unification of the magic system, but perhaps not at this cost.

I realize that most of this review has been singing the praises of Sanderson, and so now it is time to give some credit to Jordan. I thoroughly enjoyed A Memory of Light and the previous two novels by Sanderson, but one of the reasons they were so enjoyable was because of all the hard work Jordan spent in laying the groundwork. Some of the middle books of the series are downright tedious; characters are not doing the right thing, politics are rampant, and nothing is getting done. It is through these low points that Sanderson is able to bring about A Memory of Light. In the end, Sanderson got to write the fun part.

By Philip Ilten