Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A sweeping epic brought to a fitting end in A Memory of Light

From The Week of January 7, 2013

While it can, at times, descend into a hell of pompous verbosity, a composition riddled with more splash than substance, few forms of human expression rival the epic. For its numerous volumes, its thousands of pages and its countless words are, for the reader, not a flowery attempt to maximize profits by stretching to its limits a good idea but a singular commitment to the author's literary fantasy, an act of faith that is rewarded with membership to an exclusive club of fans, who like Brahmin, know the secret words and gestures, the symbols and the poetry, of something special, of something unique. The epic creates a world of ideas and textures, heros and villains, made three-dimensional by not only the room to be more fully developed, but by the passage of time outside the epic, years in which the reader matures in both his understanding of the world and of its universal themes. This simply cannot be replicated by a single, passing volume. For nothing that can be consumed in a day can evoke the same intensity of emotion, much less kindle, with its conclusion, the same sense of loss. It is a parallel world and few have been woven with such vividness and flair than The Wheel of Time which is brought to a fittingly apocalyptic end with The Memory of Light.

In a world of magic and sword, of beauty and taint, the Last Battle has come, heralding the end of everything. For what was set in motion thousands of years earlier, with the opening of the Dark One's prison by ambitious men and women made foolish by an unquenchable lust for power, has now culminated in a climactic war between the beleaguered and vulnerable forces of the Light and the ascendent and merciless powers of shadow which clash to determine the future of the world.

The Light, helmed by the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnated general who failed in his attempt to mitigate the damage of his former friends who bored into the Dark One's prison, seeks to preserve what they know, to fight for the queens and customs, the banners and the lands, that comprise their battered world. The shadow, meanwhile, guided by Shai'tan, the manifestation of annihilation, seeks to end it, to unweave the Pattern of life and either replace it with nothingness, as some would have it, or, alternatively, with a world of manifest darkness, a world of fealty and slavery, of suffering and ownership.

The Light cannot win. For they failed in their only other attempt to stanch the shadow, an attempt which broke the world, devolving it from a jewel of technology and freedom into a morass of ignorance and loss. And if the Dark One could not be stopped by the skill and the knowledge of a civilization at its peak, then how can a ragtag collection of medieval farmers and knights, of self-important mystics and magicians, do better? And yet they must. For should they fail, everything that they ever were, centuries of lives and memories, of love and labor, will be lost, leaving beauty to be consumed by the void.

Begun with 1990's The Eye of The World, The Wheel of Time spanned 23 years, 14 volumes and two authors. At times, it was devoured by its own self-importance, descending into an obsessive attention to detail that caused its conceiver, James Rigney, writing under the pseudonym Robert Jordan, to dramatically expand the series from its six initial volumes, a choice which both haunted the epic and necessitated, with Mr. Rigney's death, its conclusion by another, younger hand. It was a series characterized by shrewish women, overwrought mysticism and countless plot digressions. And yet, for all its flaws, it was a work of astonishing imagination, of unbelievable complexity and of unrivaled escapism that encouraged a generation of readers to reconceive of everything from love to war, of heroism to cowardice. In this, it was a remarkable success.

For all its virtues, though, The Wheel of Time would have been little more than an exercise in torment had its concluding volume failed to steer this ponderous ship into a rewarding and safe harbor. Fortunately, then, A Memory of Light is a worthy end to a worthy epic. For after the series spent thirteen volumes promising a war to end all wars, A Memory of Light delivers with 992 pages of cacophonous conflict that, at times, seems to turn the entire world to rubble. The destinies of all of its primary characters are finally fulfilled and in a manner which pleases far more than it frustrates. This is no minor achievement from a series that promised so much for so long.

For all its heros and its battles, its magic and its apocalyptica, The Wheel of Time will be remembered for its mythos which lurches to a surprising conclusion in this final novel. This was an epic about balanced polarities, light and dark, purity and taint, women and men, implying strongly that the world is only balanced through a cosmic game of tug of war executed by two equally potent opponents. This seems like an overly simplistic conception of a world which appears to be much more about spectrums than polarities. Moreover, the series elevated steadfastness of character to the foremost rank of virtue while largely rejecting the notion that wisdom comes through knowledge. It contends, rather, that knowledge leads to power and that power breeds the kind of pride and selfishness that can break the world. This sad tale has surely occurred and yet the inverse is also true. Simple folk have produced just as many narrowminded, ignorant souls as the educated have produced powermongers. It is a matter of temperament not lifestyle, of personality not temptation. Nonetheless, that the series dares to ask these questions, and that it answers them with a fully formed opinion, puts it well above the fray.

This is, for most of those who read it, a memorable series that has, here, been brought to a close with a momentous coda that won't be soon forgotten. A wonderful series that, now that it is over, can proceed to have its annoyances and missteps polished by the fondness of time's passing. (4/5 Stars)

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