Since last October, I’ve spent part of my time in another world. For about three months, I reread the massive fantasy series The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The final book, A Memory of Light, came out Jan. 8 and I was smart -- and loyal -- enough to pre-order it from our local bookstore in order to take advantage of a pretty great sale price.
The publication of this last book is a Big Deal, and not just to all of its fans, but to the publishing world as well.
Robert Jordan, whose real name was James Oliver Rigney Jr. was born, lived most of his life, and died in Charleston right here in South Carolina. He served two tours in Vietnam before attending The Citadel, received an undergraduate degree in physics. Under several pseudonyms -- all containing some aspect of his initials -- he wrote The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan), a western called Cheyenne Raiders (Jackson O’Reilley), an historical romance series called The Fallon Saga (Reagan O’Neal) and several Conan the Barbarian novels (also as Robert Jordan).
The Wheel of Time is his best known and most massive work. With A Memory of Light, it spanned 14 books written during a 23-year time span starting in 1990. I began reading the series in the mid-1990s, and even met Jordan briefly at a book signing.
Unfortunately, Jordan contracted cardiac amyloidosis, a rare blood disease, in 2006. Although he thought he might live as much as another four years, he passed away in September 2007, nearly two years before the publication of what was to be the last installment.
So, how did TOR Books and Jordan’s wife, Harriett McDougal, get the Wheel of Time finished for his millions -- and yes, I mean millions -- of fans? (The series has sold an estimated 44 million copies.)
The story goes that McDougal read a touching eulogy posted by a lesser-known fantasy author named Brandon Sanderson. She then reportedly read Sanderson’s own fantasy trilogy called Mistborn. Convinced that she had found someone who could complete her husband’s work, she contacted Tom Doherty of TOR Books and asked him to see if Sanderson would be willing to take on the project.
Was he! It turned out that The Wheel of Time was Sanderson’s inspiration for becoming a writer. As soon as I learned of McDougal’s choice and Sanderson’s acceptance, I ran out and purchased the Mistborn trilogy. It’s very, very good with two of the biggest twists I’ve ever read. I won’t give them away except to say that one comes near the end of the first book and the second comes at the end of the trilogy itself.
Sanderson also wrote a terrific stand-alone novel called Elantris. I’ve never read it but I have listened to a huge 20-hour long 18-CD full audio production of the novel complete with a voice cast, sound effects and musical score. And I picked it up at a massive discount from the Friends of the Kershaw County Library book sale a couple of years ago.
Sanderson flew to Charleston from where he lives in Utah, met with McDougal and learned that Jordan had written the final scenes of the saga before he died. He also left behind tons and tons of notes on how the story ends. Jordan once said he intended for a book called “A Memory of Light” to be the final book even if it spanned 2,000 pages.
Well, Sanderson convinced TOR it had to be split into three books, The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light. On average, each of the 14 books is around 300,000 words or about 830 pages.
A Memory of Light is a monster book at 912 pages and around 360,000 words.
Why would anyone want to read a series spanning 14 books, nearly 12,000 pages and more than 4 million words?
Because it’s the best fantasy series ever written. In some ways, it’s better than JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It’s certainly more accessible despite its massive length.
The Wheel of Time is about a young man named Rand al’Thor who discovers he is destined to save the world from the Dark One, but that he’ll likely go mad doing so and die. That’s the short version. There are, literally, thousands of characters supporting Rand’s journey, including his childhood friends, Perrin, Mat and Egwene, who have pretty major destinies of their own with dozens of plot lines.
Are the novels perfect, especially this last one? No, but then nothing ever is. Jordan was vilified by many for making his women look like constant meddlers. I happen to think they’re some of the best female characters in the genre. Some of the middle novels -- say books seven through 10 -- seem to take up way more space than they should have. Jordan said he imagined a six-book cycle. As much as I enjoy Sanderson’s writing, his treatment of some characters was -- and he admits this -- uneven. And yet, as I spent these last few months rereading the series and the ending, I have trouble imaging what could have been left out or different.
For those of you that are intrigued, I won’t give away the ending except to say that I found it paradoxically frustratingly satisfying.
The strongest feeling I experienced was an immediate sense of loss: knowing that I -- as promised by McDougal and Sanderson -- will never read another Wheel of Time book. Well, except for a new “encyclopedia” that’s supposed to be published in the near future. Who knows, there might be a TV series or video games.
I’m just happy I made it to the end so I could wish a fond farewell to some “friends” I’ve shared the last 15 or so years of my life. I’ll likely visit them again sometime. After all, the Wheel of Time never really ends