Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Wheel of Time - Act 3 - Books 10-14 (part 2)

Having now reread A Memory of Light, I will revisit Act 3 of The Wheel of Time, comprising Books 10-14. The original post on Act 3 is here (, posted before I had read A Memory of Light for the first time. I find it eerily on target, and rather than repeat it, I suggest you supplement this post by reading that one as well.

Act 3 of The Wheel of Time builds on the concept that Rand must not only defeat the Dark One, but he must also defeat him in exactly the right way, or all is lost.

Rand is absent at first, keeping readers wondering about his temperament after being locked away in the dungeons of Far Madding. When he tentatively attempts to stick to the path he must follow, Semirhage’s trickery instead pushes him down a hardened and bleak path. First she foils his alliance with the Seanchan, then she compels him to attack a woman he holds dear to his heart, nearly recreating Lews Therin Kinslayer’s sin.  

Rand thus becomes more and more determined to accomplish his task, alone, with no help except that which he commands from people. His friends in similar command situations have been much quicker to realize the limits of what they will do to achieve their goals or enforce their will on others. Early on, Perrin's attempts to find and free his wife are stymied by his own realization that if he doesn’t free her in the right way, she will not accept the man he has become. Egwene similarly learns that leadership isn’t about occupying the seat of power, but of representing it, even if she must lead by example from the bottom rung of the White Tower’s hierarchy.

Rand falls so far from the path, he even threatens to kill his father rather than let Cadsuane guide his actions. His descent is frighteningly self-reinforcing. He loses his conscience, twisting everything Nynaeve says into a means to deliver a desired end. Only on the verge of destroying the pattern in a fit of balefire does he consider an alternative to taking responsibility for the acts of all humanity. Rand’s epiphany atop Dragonmount is driven by recognizing that what he wants is another chance to get things right. For him, and for all humanity, mistakes are allowed, and can always be corrected.

Following this path he doesn’t help Rand bring the armies and rulers of the world to his cause. It is only when his mentor Moiraine returns that all parties agree to stand together. Building on this success, Rand meets the Seanchan Empress and makes concessions which it will be up to others to live with or overturn. Rand puts his faith in his others and hopes for the best, which is similar to how he wind the Last Battle.

It still amazes me how the Last Battle hinges on subtle character traits and choices made by Rand, and how those literally affect the fate of the world. I do not know of any other story where the personal and world-spanning consequences are so well intertwined. The ending, or the last three hundred pages of it, perfectly encapsulates the themes running through the series, providing logical and fulfilling closure to the series.

Unlike most stories, all of the major romantic storylines have been fully resolved long before the story ends. The prize for winning is not a mate or a partner, but their own identity. The Wheel of Time has mostly presented obstacles of character, not of contrivance, and once the heroes have decided on a love interest, there is little that gets in its way.

The earlier focus on magic items has fallen by the wayside in Act 3. No quests for ter’angreal are undertaken, they have been replaced by insurmountable quests to change the minds of profoundly stubborn people.

Somewhat surprisingly, the heavily featured magical elements of Tel’aran’rhiod and balefire do not play central roles in the mechanics of the Last Battle. Instead, balefire is a temptation that the heroes reject while Rand demonstrates that the reality-shaping power of Tel’aran’rhiod is a prize for staying true to himself.

Following the earlier comparisons of the series to American History, this final act covers the modern era, when America considered the use of nuclear weapons in a cold war standoff. As with Padan Fain’s philosophy, some people’s hate was so strong they seriously accepted the idea of destroying themselves so long as the opponent went down first. The question of how far one should go to win, and whether you lose who you were, continues to be relevant in today’s conflicts.

The obvious bone of contention in Act 3 is Sanderson’s succession of Jordan, and the sharp contrast in their pacing, level of detail, and the number of switches in point of view. Sanderson’s style fits the Last Battle very well, perhaps better than the style which Jordan used throughout the series. The constraints of Jordan’s notes undoubtedly helped the story maintain its focus on the prevailing thematic elements; but it is doubtful Sanderson could have done much to interfere with them given how frequently they recur in the preceding books. Sanderson succeeds in elevating these elements to a fitting level of focus, never letting them dominate, never letting them be forgotten. It is a wonderful balancing act, and worthy of recognition; Sanderson was the right choice to complete the series not only because of his writing skill, but because he understands and correctly interprets these themes.

Writing Lessons:

It is possible to telegraph exactly how your story will unfold, yet still surprise and delight your audience.

Friday, 21 February 2014

A Memory of Light Summary

A Memory of Light brings Rand's epic journey to a cataclysmic end in near perfect harmony with the rest of The Wheel of Time books.

The majority of A Memory of Light is taken up by battle. A few early moments of respite allow the heroes to make their goodbyes before the final confrontation takes their attention, and in many cases, their lives. The clever placement of a scene where Rand crafts a treaty to guide the nations after his death informs readers what the world will be like after the series ends, leaving the remainder of the story free to concentrate almost exclusively on the struggle against overwhelming odds. It makes it possible to end the story at the exact moment of Rand’s final victory.

The buildup to the Last Battle is itself monumental, as capitals are torched and entire nations laid to waste by innumerable hordes of Trollocs. The defense of human lands quickly degrades into a struggle to survive as humanity's leaders are undercut by the hidden influence of the Forsaken. Each of the principal heroes from the early parts of The Wheel of Time has a time to shine, bringing the story full circle, and one new addition has a significant number of pages dedicated to the struggle faced by Rand's successors at the Black Tower.

With reluctance and the haste of necessity, the forces of the Light make allegiance with the enigmatic Seanchan, whose very way of life is an affront to the White Tower. All of humanity sets aside its differences to make a final stand upon the Field of Merrilor.

Unlike the precision with which earlier books carefully followed travel times and offered cues which allowed the timing of events in one locale to be compared to the next, the author uses a convenient explanation of time dilation radiating outward from Shayol Ghul to cause the final confrontations in all locales to take place simultaneously, but at different rates of progression. The battles leading to Merrilor last weeks, while Rand’s confrontation lasts less than a day. This effect is mostly due to the Dark One's touch on the world, yet it could be argued that as Tel'aran'rhiod disintegrates, its relativistic temporal properties are transferring in some fashion to the waking world. It offers the author immense freedom to allow events in any locale to unfold as needed with as much or as little detail as seen fit to include. In particular, it allows three key events to occur at precisely the same time, forming the cornerstone moment around which the rest of the book is centred. The rapid changes in point of view are essential to the build up to that key moment, and are more appropriate here than in the preceding novels. The result is a magnificent and emotional resolution to several pivotal characters’ story arcs, and offers an unforgettable climax to a gruelling build up of tension.

Rand battles the Dark One on a previously unimaginable scale, wielding the force of creation itself, literally able to remake the world as he sees fit. His conflict is not only against the Dark One, but against himself, as even at this late stage he has yet to fully embrace the lessons others have tried to impart upon him. Matching the reality-altering consequences of Rand’s choices to aspects of his character keeps the scale grand even as his battle is personal and intimate. The Last Battle is truly about Rand choosing what kind of man he will be.

The central tenet of the series is well represented in Rand’s reluctant allegiance with the hated Seanchan, his late realization that destroying the Dark One is as bad as letting him win, and in several characters defeating the potential hate and mistrust in their hearts by compromising and accepting alternate points of view.  The absolutism represented by Padan Fain is thus defeated, and so he is dispatched just as simply as each character in turn chooses not to win at any cost, even preferring to lose than change who they are and what they stand for.

Keeping with my ongoing comparison of the series to American history, Fain is akin to the nuclear era, the scorched earth doctrine, the possibility of wielding power enough to destroy oneself along with the enemy just for the sake of defeating them at any cost. Embracing Fain’s philosophy carries heavy consequences.

The concluding pages offer a couple of unexplained mysteries regarding a mysterious woman and Rand’s new ability. For these I offer my suggestion that his mother spoke with him one last time before he entered adulthood, and that Rand’s ability is a literal representation that a man guided by his conscience and his duty can accomplish anything. This new power is the story’s final message, in line with the themes expressed in both this book and the earlier books in the story, and as with many of the story elements readers have grappled with over the years, it is subtle enough to invoke much debate.

A Memory of Light is fulfilling in every way I hoped, surprising me, delivering on promises, shining with heroism and dripping with sacrifice. It has taken me a year to read and reread it and comprehend its magnitude, and its deep personal meaning to me. I don’t want it to be over. Of course, there are no endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time…

Writing Lessons:

End your story right after the critical moment by foreshadowing less important epilogue elements earlier in the story.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Memory of Light - Epilogue

In this final section, glimmers of the future are shown and loose threads are tied up.

Rand’s quest ended on exactly the last page of the story, and the epilogue has a scant sixteen pages to wrap up many loose ends, which it does quite successfully.

Rand is blind and burdened with weight. After escaping the Pit of Doom, Rand realizes an unfamiliar woman is kneeling next to him, guiding him on what to do. The major clue to her identity comes in the following paragraph with the juxtaposition of two ideas in successive sentences: He blinked, his vision fuzzy. Was that Aiel clothing? An old woman with gray hair? Her form retreated, and Rand reached toward her, not wanting to be alone. Wanting to explain himself. Rand not wanting to be alone refers to his attaining adulthood, which firms up the link with his mother, Shaiel. She is offering him final words of encouragement as he enters the world alone, and he is expressing his final regrets about leaving the dependence of childhood behind. It is reasonable that the last to let go of a child who grows into a man is his mother, and since there has been much ado over Rand’s father figures, it is appropriate for his mother to have her brief time on the page as well.

Shaiel’s death was only ever confirmed by Tam, and that came in a fever-dream. If she somehow survived Rand’s birth, it seems implausible that a woman of her renown could have returned to Aiel society without being recognized. She might have intentionally lived alone in the wilderness for two decades, if so motivated by Gitara’s original Foretelling. More likely is that she is a Hero of the Horn, which explains her appearance in Aiel garb and her apparent knowledge about what Rand should do. It does not however explain her appearance at Aviendha’s side when she was tested at Rhuidean, if she is the same woman, as seems likely.

Rand ambiguously reveals what he asked the Aelfinn. Rand had asked the Aelfinn how to win the Last Battle and survive, and the answer had been “The north and the east must be as one. The south and west must be as one. The two must be as one. To live you must die.” Given that this is the moment where Rand is dying, his newfound understanding of how to live and die could be what he is explaining to the Aiel woman, but the link is tenuous. His second question on how to cleanse the taint from saidin has been resolved. Was Rand’s third question to ask what his fate was and receive the answer ‘to choose’?

 “I see the answer now,” he whispered. “I asked the Aelfinn the wrong question. To choose is our fate. If you have no choice, then you aren’t a man at all. You’re a puppet…” 

The concept of free will has been present since the beginning of the series, and the revelation of Rand’s third answer from the Aelfinn at this late point in the story infuses the concept with even more importance. While the Wheel forces Rand to come to a certain place at a certain time, it cannot force him to do anything; it can present him with choices, but can’t compel him to choose one path over another. Even when the choice is to die or take another action, it remains a choice.

In the same Mat paragraph, the pleasantness of the sun is contrasted with the stinking blackness of Fain’s body. Mat wins every gamble he takes, yet even he won’t touch the cursed Shadar Logoth dagger. As the most reckless character, Mat is associated with the most instinctual behaviour, and he clearly rejects the path set out by Fain. Believing that the end justifies the means is the gamble that can’t be won; there is no way to preserve yourself when you start down that line of reasoning. The final phrase’s use of mess carries psychologically symbolic meaning: Behind, the dagger, ruby and all, melted away into the mess that had been Padan Fain. Again, this idea that absolutism is bad has been incorporated into the series from a very early point, and is reinforced by its placement here at the end of the story.

Perrin surveys the losses and celebration of victory in the camp, still worrying about his duty to protect Rand. He sees Rand dying in the tent, with the two best healers unable to prevent him dying. Perrin stands equal with Nynaeve: “Dogs obey that command, Nynaeve,” Perrin said, “not wolves.” He consoles her over Egwene’s death. Moridin is also in the tent, dying. Lan also sees Perrin as an equal. No one has seen Faile.

Loial’s walk through the camp, like Perrin’s, allows a couple of small plots to be resolved, including succession to a throne, naming surviving Aes Sedai, and planting straightforward clues to something odd: None of Rand’s loves seems to care that Rand is dying. Amusingly, Loial frets over the correct way to record dates after the Last Battle, an indication that with the Last Battle done, concerns are swiftly turning back to the everyday and mundane.

Mat is renowned amongst the Sharans, but when he calls the fireworks display the best in the history of “my land or yours”, he reveals that he does not see himself as one of his wife’s people. For Mat, being off the hook seems to imply he is free to leave. Tuon’s threat makes it clear that Mat can choose to do whatever he wants, but there will be consequences if he angers his wife. It is a ridiculous and funny predicament to leave him in at the close of the story.

Perrin faces the insurmountable task of finding Faile’s body amongst the hundreds of thousands of dead. Exhausted, he falls into sleep.

Moghedien has survived the Last Battle and no one knows that she lives. She too is free to act as she chooses with the Dark One imprisoned again, and she begins by strangling a worker and assuming her appearance. She thinks she can rule the world within a few years. Her own subterfuge works against her as a sul’dam captures her and deduces from her skulking that Moghedien will not be missed after she is dragged back to serve the Seanchan. Her poor selfish choices dictated her fate.

Nynaeve announces Rand’s death. She tries to corner Aviendha and bully her into revealing why she doesn’t seem upset, but Aviendha deflects her question. Aviendha, always representing Rand’s past, has been wounded and will never fight again, another metaphor of his having grown into adulthood. The fate of the Aiel, and of a couple of kings is revealed in passing.

When Perrin was last in Tel’aran’rhiod, Dragonmount was drawing near Shayol Ghul as the world shrank and large portions of it were destroyed and pulled up into the sky. That damage has seemingly been repaired with Rand’s victory. Perrin travels easily across the countryside as a wolf, lamenting his loss, struggling to understand why he has lost Faile when he did everything his duty compelled him to do. A clue draws him to Faile, whose wounds are healed in moments with Perrin’s creative use of the Wolf Dream to bring her back to the camp quickly. Their reunion is immensely rewarding despite its brevity, and also shows that Perrin’s decision to follow duty was well made.  Perhaps brevity is what makes this scene work; after having tormented the reader with doubt that Faile survived, once she is healed what further point is there in saying anything beyond ‘they lived happily ever after’?

Birgitte asks Elayne a blunt question in the same vein as that which Nynaeve posed to Aviendha, and gets a noncommittal response. She tweaks Elayne’s nose by telling her Olver and the Horn have been sent away, which Elayne recognizes was the best outcome for all. With a mature outlook, she agrees that there is little need to keep a powerful instrument of war such as the Horn as a deterrent. Birgitte is being reborn, and it turns out her interpretation of Gaidal as a young child somewhere out there was correct. Birgitte too gets her reward of being with the one she loves.

Tam notes signs of life in Shayol Ghul, a place that was once feared above all others. He reflects on what all humanity has been given by his son, how all men stand equal: In the evening, even with his light, it was hard to tell Aiel from Aes Sedai, Two Rivers man from Tairen king. All were shapes in the night, saluting the body of the Dragon Reborn. Tam stands next to Moiraine and Thom, pride and reverence in his heart.

Min stands with her two friends watching Rand’s body burn. Her Viewing fulfilled, they discuss the future and she nods agreement to the idea that they will make sure that the world believes Rand is gone. Leading toward the final revelation, she senses her bond pulsing stronger each moment.

Rand awakens alone, rested, healthy, and whole. The mirror shows Moridin's face, with a single saa held motionless in his eye, representing that Rand will always be able to see things with a bit of the Shadow's nihilistic or selfish point of view. But that dark viewpoint is held motionless; Rand will know it, but it will not drive him or affect him, he is in control. In effect, he now has a mature outlook on life, no longer carefree or innocent, one which acknowledges a wider array of possibilities, both good and bad.

Alivia has left him clothing and money, and a horse as means of transportation. He has Laman's sword. Shayol Ghul is blooming and full of life. From a distance he watches as his old body - Moridin's body now - is cremated. He leaves as the onlookers watch his funeral pyre. All but one whom he acknowledges with a nod of his head before heeling the horse away.

From that, Cadsuane deduces that inexplicably, Rand is in Moridin's body. She thinks she may be able to use this information in some unexplained fashion, but then is ambushed by four Sitters. They have decided that Cadsuane will be the new Amyrlin. This is quite appropriate, as Cadsuane has closely represented the Light itself, and now the Light is being forced to take up the responsibility of caring for humanity, the logical outcome of Rand choosing Light over Shadow. It is also the logical outcome of filling the void left by Rand’s death, for he would have been the obvious choice to lead the world under the Light. There will be no further abdication of leadership by the Light, no further manipulation of Rand, for Cadsuane and the Light have a more direct role to play in shepherding humanity.

Rand sees the world with a hint of Shadow, but has acknowledged the Light, and no one has impeded his departure. He has everything he needs, and is now completely free, with no restrictions over him from any person or agent.

Representing this ultimate freedom, he lights his pipe by thought alone, a matter of willing it to be so, just as if he were in Tel'aran'rhiod. The choice of a pipe in this symbolic act is appropriate, since smoking is often portrayed as a deliberate act of defiance and freedom in today's world. He inspected it for a moment in the darkness, then thought of the pipe being lit. And it was. This scene potently completes Rand's evolution from an uncertain youth into a grown man who can now literally do anything he puts his mind to.

While Rand embodies this new Power, and may be unique in using it, the story in its entirety implies that with the right driving forces and moral bearings to guide someone, they too can manipulate reality and get what they want. For physical explanation, the most logical is that some characteristics of Tel’aran’rhiod now exist in the waking world, and Rand is the first, perhaps only one, to have unlocked the secret of using them. Or perhaps Rand unlocked the secret for everyone, and the ultimate choice of what each person will do with it comprises their own eventual personal Last Battle.

Rand wonders which of his three lovers will follow, and which he might pick. As his past, present, and future, he is completely unable to pick one over the others; they are all a part of him. He can't leave his past behind (Aviendha), he can't simply live for the moment (Elayne) and he can't only dream about the future (Min).

With his newfound freedom, Rand is pleased to have the leisure to explore and experience the world as he sees fit. Funnily, he sees the royal trappings of powerful rulers he has seen as just one thing out of many to experience, not as the end point that many of the Forsaken sought. The final wind that rises showcases the duality that pervades Rand’s mental state and so much of the story: The wind rose high and free, to soar in an open sky with no clouds. It passed over a broken landscape scattered with corpses not yet buried. A landscape covered, at the same time, with celebrations. It tickled the branches of trees that had finally begun to put forth buds. The wind blew southward, through knotted forests, over shimmering plains and towards lands unexplored.

Writing Lessons:

Keep the story alive in your reader’s mind by inciting them to imagine what happens next.