The final installment in the Wheel of Time series entitled “A Memory of Light” has been completed by Brandon Sanderson, the stand-in author now that Robert Jordan is dead. Like the other thirteen books in the series, it is a colossus coming in at 908 pages. It is a good book, although flawed in several serious ways.
It would be impossible to summarize with any degree of lucidity an epic tale spanning some 10,000 pages of text, so I won’t even try. I’ll give you a few highlights, if that: It is a typical fantasy epic depicting the clash between good and evil, light and dark, in this case, the Light, and the Dark One. The central main character is Rand Al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, a young man destined to face the Dark One in battle. With 10,000 pages, there is ample room to develop a whole slew of other characters including, but not limited to: Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, Aviendha, Min, Faile, Lan, Gawyn, Galad, Moiraine, Cadsuane, and a number of others. Most of these characters are too complex and well-developed to be called minor characters, so I’ll just call them major characters.
Book Fourteen, “A Memory of Light,” completes the story with the final climactic battle between the forces of good and evil. There is some development to the final battle in the form of four lesser battles, all being waged simultaneously. There is also Rand’s showdown with the Dark One. The book is a good book, if you like battles. I’d say about 700 or more of its pages is devoted to one or more of the various battles fought. Personally, I found the one or two smaller side adventures—like the stuff going on at the Black Tower—to be more interesting. Still, the battles were good.
There were a number of mistakes in this book, however. I suspect the publisher just wanted to get the book out there as quickly as possible and didn’t give it time for proper editing. The first one I noticed is fairly minor and hardly worthy of mention: Mat’s hat disappeared and reappeared inexplicably—I wouldn’t have even noticed it, except Mat went through quite a bit of effort to say how he loved his hat and had lost it, only to have it reappear on his head several paragraphs later. A minor detail, but I noticed it. The next issue is somewhat more serious. The foxhead medallions, if I recall correctly, only protected the wearer from someone channeling saidar, not saidin. Back in book whatever, Mat was killed by Rahvin’s lightning while wearing the foxhead medallion. I remember the author specifically saying that the medallion didn’t protect against saidin. There was also another issue involving the number of Trollocs the army was facing in the Last Battle. At one point, the author said the numbers were reduced so that both sides were equal, then they were being swarmed again. Again, a small issue, but there seemed to be a number of small issues which crept into the book.
Still, overall, it was a good book and it ended well. The series is complete and I don’t have to wait for any more to come out ever again. However, the unfortunate reality is that the series is fourteen books and probably over 10,000 pages long. I really enjoyed the series, but I will never read it again. It is too much of a colossus to imagine wading through that much text ever again. Perhaps in my youth, I might have considered it; but I have my own writing to work on.
Overall, I’ll give the book four stars out of five.
This review originally appeared on Goodreads on 2/17/13.
The fantasy literature genre, like any other genre, evolves over time. The standards of good fiction of yesteryear are not necessarily the standards of today. One of the elements of fantasy literature that has evolved through the years, and one that I’ve touched on, if only slightly, in other posts, is the number of characters. No, I’m not talking about the tendency of characters to multiply as you write—I’ve written about that directly before—instead I want to explore the issue of whether or not there should be just one main character or many. Of course, I say that, but I think in most pieces of fiction there is just one main character, but there may also be a whole bevy of support characters with very detailed backgrounds and interactions.
Take Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time,” for example. The main character is unquestionably Rand Al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn. However, there is a whole host of “lesser” characters (Perrin, Mat, Nynaeve, Egwene, Elayne, Aviendha… just to name a few). Most of these “lesser” characters warrant an entire story thread all to themselves. And, at a certain level, it seems these “lesser” characters are almost as important as the main character. We come to care about them as much as we do the main one, and we learn much of their stories. In fact, I don’t feel comfortable calling them “minor” characters, because there is just too much time and development devoted to each one individually. I don’t know what to call them. Maybe “major” characters? That seems to work. And I have used that term elsewhere: actually I’ve gone further, and distinguished between major major characters and just major characters. I think, in the above, Perrin, Mat, and Egwene would be major major, and the others merely major (are you confused yet?). Basically, there are more shades than just “main,” “major,” and “minor,” so those can serve as general groupings, not discrete categories.
Anyway, every writer must make a decision about how many main/major characters he or she is going to write about. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is an upper limit here. One cannot write an intelligible piece of fiction featuring fifty major characters. It just won’t work. “The Wheel of Time,” as noted above, has somewhere around seven major characters. I think that is pretty close to the max. The problem is, of course, the resulting story is invariably incredibly long. “The Wheel of Time” is currently on the fourteenth (or is it the fifteenth) and last book. So, I guess the point of this post is to warn starting writers about the critical decision that they must make concerning the number of characters. And I’ve found, through my own experience, that it is best to answer this question sooner rather than later.
I’m going to kill Brandon Sanderson. I purchased “The Way of Kings” a ways back, and started reading it. My initial reaction was kind of ho-hum; it was okay but not spectacular. But it’s 1200 pages long. And once I started, I had to read the whole thing. And I just started liking it more and more the longer I read it. Why am I going to kill him, you ask? Because it’s only book 1 in, what I guess, is a coming series ten books long. Another “Wheel of Time” type series. And the first book was 1200 pages! I’m supposed to read 12,000 pages of story! Good God, no! Although, silly me, I probably will because I like the story. Even though I may be dead by the time its finished.
Well, on to the review.
The story involves a number of subplots. It’s a little too complex to condense into a review; there’s just too much going on. There’s an assassin going around killing everybody. There’s a scholar/thief desperately trying to help her family. There’s a slave, who’s at the nadir of existence and struggling to find meaning, hope, and strength. There’s a high prince who’s trying to save his kingdom. Those are the major players; all their stories interweave in an intriguing fashion. But like I said, I won’t even try to elucidate on the story itself any further.
So, on to the strengths. Sanderson incorporates some philosophical ruminations in his work, and I like that. I was a philosophy major in college, and I enjoy the intricacies of philosophical discussion. Sanderson’s work isn’t quite the same thing as wading through Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics” or Plato’s “Gorgias,” but it is still enjoyable. I also find myself agreeing with much of Sanderson’s world view (or what I think is coming across through his books). Particularly concerning the nature of nobility. Yes, the bulk of nobles are greedy, soul-sucking dirtbags concerned only with power and wealth, but there is the occasional truly noble individual aspiring towards higher ideals. Like Elend Venture in the Mistborn series, and Dalinar Kholin in this series (the name of the series is “The Stormlight Archive” by the way). It’s just so easy to disparage everyone who has wealth and power because, well, they have wealth and power. It’s nice to see that there is the occasional jewel sparkling in the slime. I just happen to like that. Also, Sanderson has once again invented a cool “magic” system, and again, I’m not sure I want to call it magic. It’s clever and cool and makes the world unique.
Weaknesses. I’ve previously mentioned this on my blog, but I think Sanderson is almost too creative for his own good. He’s created an alien world that is so different from the Earth in so many different respects, the reader has difficulty keeping track. I read the whole book, and I still don’t know how many moons his world has. He mentioned several in passing, but not often enough for me to really figure them out. He’s got a different calendar, with different names for the days of the week—I think his week may be of different length, too. The weather patterns on the world are different as well (although, that’s kind of cool). He’s got different kinds of plants, animals, and material for clothing. Although all that is logical—it would be silly for another world to divide it’s year up into 52 weeks of seven days named Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc…–it can leave the reader bewildered. I mean, the logical end of such thinking forces one to give your alien world a completely new language, because they certainly shouldn’t be speaking English. But at that point, who wants to read something that’s unintelligible. The key is to strike a balance. Sanderson’s got 1200 pages to work with, so by the end, I was kind of used to the “rockbuds” and “cremlings,” but other basic things still escaped me (days of the week and moons among them). So, over all, I would weigh that against the book. Additionally, the enormous size of the book, is a point against it. I enjoyed the book, but I will probably never read it again. And the fact that he plans for nine more, I find almost disheartening. Finally, the plot… I don’t want to give away too much, but someone significant dies at the end of the book. He’s used that before, and I assume he’s tying it into his other books and series, but… really? It’s starting to get repetitive at this point.
Of course, despite my complaints, I intend to keep reading the series.
Overall, I’ll give the book four, maybe even four and a half stars. Good read. But long.
This review originally appeared on Shelfari.com on 7/29/2012.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my life. Nowadays, I’ve started making a focused effort to write and publish my own work. One issue that seems to pop up and bear investigation and discussion is the number of major characters in a piece of literature. Many modern fantasy stories have a sizable number of such major characters, so much so, that it is difficult to categorize any single one as the “main character;” in fact, I would argue that in many cases, the notion of a main character is subsiding and being replaced by the notion of several major characters. Each character provides his or her own point of view and plotline. The author then weaves these all together to form a complete story, switching from one character and one point of view to another, and back and forth throughout, so that the whole resembles a kind of tapestry woven from the various plot threads. If done poorly, this can lead to confusion, or, if there are too many plot threads, this can lead to boredom as the reader fails to become invested in any of the characters. Masters of the craft, though, seem to have a knack for building up tension in each character’s plot thread, and switching point of view in such a way that the reader must continue reading, not only to find out what happens with the one character, but also with the next. Sometimes the plotlines blend for a time, as two or three major characters travel together or what-have-you, then separate. But my question is: is there a maximum number of characters that one can effectively have in a series?
I don’t want to give a specific number but I believe there is. The more major characters you add to a story, the more diluted the central plotline becomes. Often when I have read lengthy novels or trilogies, or what-have-you, and get to the end, I look back and am fascinated with how little each character actually accomplished over sometimes thousands of pages. They were driven from their castle, puttered around in a foreign city, then returned home with an army to retake the castle. And that’s all. The reason this happens is because of the number of major characters. Few novels these days tell a single story; instead, there are multiple sub-stories woven together. Obviously, if there are four sub-stories in an 800 page book, then each sub-story usually only gets about 200 pages or so. Clearly, the writer cannot accomplish as much in that shorter length. Hence, as I noted above, the characters are limited in what they can do, too.
One of my favorite series is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (now being completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death). It is, however, a testament to the problem of having too many major characters. I suppose, theoretically, Rand Al’Thor as the Dragon Reborn is the main character, but that is only a technicality. All the major characters have consumed a comparable number of pages. And the result is a very LONG series. I think they’re at book fourteen, now. Hopefully, Brandon Sanderson will be able to finish it. But let’s just go through a list of the major characters (and this is just off the top of my head): Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Elayne, Min, Aviendha… all right, that’s eight; I was expecting more, so maybe it’s not too bad. Except most of those demand equal or near equal time in the books. Is there any wonder why the series is so long? I enjoy the series. I really do. But because of the number of plotlines and major characters the series is so long that I’ll never sit down and read the entire bloody thing again. Which is a shame, because parts of it were really good. Well, the whole series was good. It’s just too much of a colossus to embark on again.
And that, I think, is a danger one risks when one writes. Characters have a tendency to multiply as you go along. The disciplined writer must learn to rein in his tendency to keep adding character upon character, and plotline upon plotline, or the end result might just be a literary mess.