Let's start with a spoiler-free review, shall we? A Memory of Light is an incredibly fitting end to Robert Jordan's sprawling, immersive and often aggravating Wheel of Time saga. It's both epic and weirdly perfunctory, as Brandon Sanderson — who of course took over for Robert Jordan when he died in 2007 — manages to juggle most of the balls that Jordan had thrown up in the air through the series first 11 books, and I think most Wheel of Time fans who have stuck through the series through this fourteenth volume will close A Memory of Light feeling pretty satisfied. Personally, I think Sanderson probably gave us a better end than Jordan actually would have, although to explain more would mean talking specific — so consider this your spoiler warning for the rest of the review.
Just so you know where I stand: I'm not a huge fan of The Wheel of Time series. Oh, I started out as one, agog at the massive world Robert Jordan created in The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt; even though it seems like he was copying a great many ideas from other fantasy and sci-fi series. But since he was including so many of them, and then integrating them together, I was more than willing to forgive him.
Then the third and fourth books seemed to go off the rails a bit. I remember absolutely nothing happening in the sixth book, Lord of Chaos, and found the seventh book pretty much the same, so I gave up on the series for many years ( Jordan's gender politics — which is to say all his female characters were terrible — was a large part of the problem).
But I think Sanderson has managed to bring out the best in The Wheel of Time, in a way that Jordan couldn't. Admittedly, he picked up the reins at the last book — albeit a last book so gargantuan it had to be three "last books" — but he brought a focus to the series I'd been missing since the first two books. If only by virtue of having to wrap things up, Sanderson brought made every page seem like it was actually part of the Wheel of Time tale, instead of just characters just dawdling until they could get back on track. And he brought urgency back to the series, all of which I greatly appreciated (He also toned down Jordan's female characters so that it was more like a fantasy version of Everybody Loves Raymond [women are nags, men are befuddled at women] which isn't great, but still better than the alternative. And it's certainly true to Jordan's "style").
The thing Sanderson mostly does right in A Memory of Light is The Last Battle, at least the last battle portion of The Last Battle. The war — which takes up almost the entirety of he book, is appropriately massive, epic, and wonderfully paced. It cover countless characters and locations, and Sanderson balances it all as both short-term and long-term narratives. It can feel a bit overlong occasionally, but if you've stuck with The Wheel of Time series this far, you won't mind (or even notice, probably). And if there's one part of this series you want to feel overstuffed, it's probably the climatic war, right?
Unfortunately, one of the (many) problems Jordan left for Sanderson was a plethora overwhelmingly powerful main characters. Rand, Mat and Perrin have been Characters of Mass Destruction for a while, and the side characters (especially the magic users like the Asha'man and the Aes Sedai) only slightly less so. How to make a fight interesting when Rand could practically annihilate an entire Trolloc army with a thought?
Sanderson manages a very careful balancing act of checks and balances: Rand can't solve the crisis at the Black Tower because he knows it's a trap by the Forsaken, and he has to be in tip-top shape for The Last Battle. He can't reveal himself at war's many battlefields for the same reason - Forsaken and Dreadlords will get him — although he can disguise himself and help a little. As for the rest of the war, it's just a matter of numbers: for however many bad guys the Aes Sedai and the Aiel and Lan and the dragon cannons and all the other badasses kill — and man, do they kill a ton; Sanderson can't write about a battle with describing the crimson mist as hundreds of Trollocs are basically pulped per minute — there are always more of The Dark One's armies, meaning the good guys eventually run out of steam. Sanderson conveys this lion's share of the book remarkably well, beginning with he visceral thrills of these characters we know kick unholy ass, and then slowly, inevitably get overwhelmed in a way that makes sense.
The Last Battle itself — the one between Rand and The Dark One — is more problematic. Sanderson figures out a very clever way to keep what should be a pretty quick battle between Rand and TDO spread out over the 500+ pages of the war by claiming his battle is in some kind of time dilation; as the regular war rages for days, only minutes pass in Rand's fight. It's clever, but it does mean that at the end of the book, Rand's battle with TDO amounts about 50 pages spread out over 500 or so, with most of that being Rand and TDO playing show-and-tell (of potential realities). I don't know how much of this was based on Jordan's notes, so I'm not sure what Sanderson could have done otherwise, but compared to the epic war going on in the rest of the kingdom, Rand's The Last Battle is both brief and underwhelming.
Still, Sanderson gets a lot more right than wrong, and again, I've enjoyed Sanderson's Wheel of Time books more than most of Jordan's. Sanderson's done right by Jordan, his fantasy series, and its many, many fans. I'd still say the Wheel rolled much further than it needed to, but at least in A Memory of Light it comes to a stop in a decent location.
• When the good guys where drawing up their battle plans, I assume everyone reading was, like me, yelling, "Hello? Oh, you need a general? Then maybe you should contact the dude WHO HAS THE ENTIRETY OF MILITARY HISTORY HANGING OUT IN HIS SKULL." By sticking Mat with the Seanchean and having the Seanchean come in later, Sanderson managed to keep Mat out of the way in reasonable enough fashion until he could save the day at the end. It was aggravating at first, but it worked out well enough.
• As for Perrin, well, he looks for Slayer. Fights Slayer. Fails to kill Slayer. Sleeps through 98% of The Last Battle. Wakes up. Finds Slayer again. Fights Slayer again. Kills Slayer this time. Clearly Sanderson was just trying to keep him out of the way until the end, i.e. "The Superman Dilemma" (i.e. in Justice League, when writers try to figure out a way to keep Superman out of the fight until the very end, so the fight doesn't end prematurely). But seriously? A nap? That's pretty annoying.
• For being a primary protagonist, Nyneave was pretty much a non-factor throughout the book, and no, I don't really count healing that random bond-woman of Rand's at Shayol Ghul as a major plot point. It was more like a consolation prize. Still, the less Nyneave the better, I suppose, because she's the worst.
• The prologue for A Memory of Light is 60 pages long. That sums up so much of A Wheel of Time for me.
• When I was a teenager and reading this books in the ‘90s, I thought Mat was awesome. Now that I'm in my mid-‘30s, Mat seems like a bit of an asshole to me. Like, I wouldn't want to hang around him, because he'd be constantly grumbling about how awesome his life is. I don't know if it's an age thing, or just me. Anyone else change their point of view on him?
• I'm sure some people will disagree with my assessment of Jordan's misogyny, but I saw him at a book signing before the days of the internet where he… let's just say based on his experiences, he believed he was accurately portraying women in his books. Also, read through Memory of Light and see which characters are more concerned with who looks more important than who in meetings as opposed to saving the world. It's all women, every single time.
• I feel like the heroes got off too easy. Basically, of the main characters, only Egwene died, and she'd gone from likeable character to the Aes Sedai-est of the Aes Sedai, which is to say, callous and manipulative and uncompassionate. After 14 books, with the stakes as high as they were, I was really, really expecting more deaths, and I'm kind of irked we didn't get them.
• ESPECIALLY Rand. That whole transference-into-Moridin thing was complete bullshit. Not only does it negate most of the sacrifice he made, it means rand ends the story running away from all his friends (except the three hot chicks who have all agreed to have sex with him) and family thinking he's dead. Again, I have no idea if this was Jordan's plan or not, but I think the book - and the series - would have been much better if Rand had just died.
• Looking back over The Wheel of Time entire: Rand spent a great, great deal of the book's pagecount being awful, insane and shockingly unlikable. And not in a fun Game of Thrones way. More in a "why am I still reading about this lunatic?" way.
• Thought: If Jordan had dropped the Seanchean entirely, The Wheel of Time would be a much better, tighter series and not have lost a thing. Agree/disagree?
• Here's my biggest grip with The Wheel of Time overall: While many things happened (many, many things) very little of it felt like progress. It felt like things were occurring, but it wasn't really pushing any of the characters forward, it was just taking up time. I'm not really sure how to articulate the difference, except I look back and think of all the things that happened and try and figure what really mattered to bring Rand and pals to this conclusion, and it honestly doesn't seem like a lot. Maybe it's that the stuff that happened seemed more like detours to the story than the actual story itself.