The end of the Wheel of Time. Something I wasn’t quite sure would ever happen – not just because Robert Jordan died (although obviously that put a spanner in the works until they organised Brandon Sanderson to finish it off using Jordan’s notes), but also because the series seemed to get a bit out of control in the middle (books 8-10 in my opinion). But here it is, book 14 and The End. And Sanderson has done a bloody good job of writing 3 books by Robert Jordan (if that makes sense).
The first few paragraphs of this post are looking back over the series as a whole and are spoiler free, later there are massive spoilers for book 14 so read past the spoiler warning at your own risk.
The overall plot of the series is the quintessential epic fantasy plot – farmboy discovers he’s the chosen one who will save the world from evil. And Jordan takes that simple structure and makes something more complex and more real feeling out of it. For instance there are prophecies, as you’d expect, but some of them are wrong. Some of them are twisted by repetition through history into something that no longer resembles the truth, even tho they were true prophecy. Some of them are true, but not how you’d expect. Some of them are prophecies for the other side’s victory. None of them are intuitively obvious and true at first glance.
Another example is magic use – and obviously our farmboy is capable of using it and needs to use it, but the source of power for men is tainted by the evil he’s going to fight and will send him mad. And that doesn’t just have implications for him personally, it’s been like that for over three thousand years and the societies of the world are shaped by the knowledge that eventually a male channeller will go mad and will be capable of unleashing unspeakable destruction when he does.
Something Jordan does well is creating an actual world for this all to take place in. The area the action takes place in (the Westlands) is vaguely Renaissance Europe in culture – a patchwork of kingdoms and city states of various sizes, mostly but not all monarchies. All with superficially the same culture, but with differences. The various leaders bicker & posture & argue about relatively petty details – the world might be ending but it’s still politics as usual. It’s not even like most people believe the world is about to end until it gets pretty late on in the story. This area isn’t the whole world, either – there are other cultures like the Aiel (a desert warrior culture who regard wetlanders as weak) or the Seanchan who invade from over the sea because they believe themselves to be the true rulers of the Westlands due to descent from a colony sent out by a King who ruled a thousand years ago. And their prophecies back that up.
Having all these different cultures and factions within them means that nothing ever goes smoothly – even when everyone’s trying to communicate there are misunderstandings because of alien viewpoints. And just about everyone thinks that their place of origin does things right and everyone else is misguided at best and should be educated in the proper way of doing things, which obviously causes friction. Even within a culture people bring their own history and experience along with them, and their own blindspots. It feels real, even though (because?) it also occasionally makes you want to shake people and tell them to stop being so stupid. The Aes Sedai (the organised female magic users) in particular fall into this category – they are generally arrogantly sure they know exactly how things should be done and sometimes their manipulations just make things worse.
It’s not just the characters on the side of the Light who argue amongst themselves and find it hard to agree on a common goal let alone focus on it. The characters on the side of the Dark are even worse – as you’d expect, really. I think a large part of the characterisation of evil in the story is that it’s a desire for personal power. The characters of the Light might want power but those that do generally want to use it to do good or to shape society in a way they think will be good for people (although frequently the theory & practice of what is good don’t match up terribly well). But the major players on the side of the Dark, the Forsaken, want power to make their own lives better and revel in the idea that this is at the cost of other people’s lives & happiness.
It’s certainly not without it’s flaws. As I said above the story gets somewhat carried away with itself in the middle. Part of this is down to point-of-view creep. The series starts off with a few people whose eyes we see through, and gradually more & more are added as events take place in different places. If I was asked to name the primary characters of the series as a whole I’d list half a dozen immediately and then there’s another half a dozen or so to consider if they’re primary or not, and several more who’re definitely not primary characters but are still pretty important. And the net result feels like Jordan ended up with too many balls to juggle, and too many things he thought were too important to skip over. But in book 11 (the last one Jordan wrote) he pulls it back together and re-focuses the story, and from there on they feel big because there’s a lot of story rather than a lot of padding.
I’m not kidding, if you haven’t read the whole series don’t read any further – there’s stuff that happens in book 14 that’s worth coming to unspoilt. The rest of this is going to be a bit more stream of consciousness reactions to the book itself.
I liked the way that the last battle both was & wasn’t important in terms of the actual conflict with the Dark One. I mean, really what was important was Rand & the Dark One outside the Pattern with their almost philosophical debate creating visions (proof-of-concept models) of the way the world would be afterwards. And then Rand managing to use the One Power & the True Power to remake the Pattern to seal in the Dark One rather than just patch it up. But if there had been no battle going on, then the Dark forces could’ve interrupted that conflict, so the battle had its purpose.
I was a bit confused by the body switch at the end, but I think from reading other commentary (in particular posts associated with Leigh Butler’s re-read of the whole series on tor.com) that I’ve mostly suffered from having not re-read everything just before reading this book as well as just reading this one too fast. Basically I think the mingling between Moridin & Rand was starting to happen already. Moridin is by this stage practically an avatar of the Dark One and he is killed as (or before?) the Dark One is sealed up, and Rand’s soul is pretty much in both bodies by that point. And his original body is more damaged, so that dies & he remains in Moridin’s body.
I liked how Rand pretty much becomes an avatar of the Creator in the conflict at the end, and that this stays in some ways once he is back in the Pattern. And it’s good that he “dies” as far as the general population is concerned, much more chance of him enjoying life – he’s done his bit, he should be able to retire in peace. Rather tough for people like his father though.
It was a bit of a surprise that Demandred really had been off somewhere on his “own” for the last 13 books, but once he appears to lead the Dark forces in the last battle I liked the way his desire not to play second fiddle to the Dragon again has warped his plans. I also liked the fact that he really is as badass as he thinks he is – Gawyn goes to duel him, and loses, Galad ditto. And then Lan, and Lan only wins by the one move Demandred wouldn’t’ve anticipated because Demandred wouldn’t conceive of winning a fight at the expense of one’s own life. (Well, Lan survives, but only barely.)
I spent a chunk of the first half of the book thinking “it’s all going awfully smoothly … this can’t be right”, but I still didn’t anticipate the generals being under a subtle Compulsion to just make lots of sub-optimal decisions. Now that was an insidious and sneaky plan. And in retrospect I can see the signs were there through the bit where I was wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.
One thing that the cast of hundreds turned out to be good for is that once the last battle got under way and people started dying they were people I cared about rather than just Footsoldier A or a high level view of Army A taking losses. In terms of main character death the body count isn’t all that large, but I thought those that happened were well done. After Gawyn dies I wasn’t too surprised that Egwene also died. And she went out in a blaze of glory, doing as much as she could without worrying about the price she would pay. And that just fits so well with her character & her story through the whole series. And you could see in the scenes with the treaty how Egwene & Rand between them were the centres of the forces & peoples on the side of the Light – balanced and needing to work together despite their differences. Which ties into one of the major themes of the series, after all, so it also seems fitting (from a story telling perspective) that as far as the world is concerned they both died saving the world.
I’m looking forward to re-reading this once I get to it in my giant re-read of all the fiction. And by then the paperback should be out so I’ll have my own copy not just a library book.