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.

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