A Memory Of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Too good to be true: Brandon Sanderson, having just completed The Wheel Of Time, is now working on something called The Book Of Endless Pages.
If you don't see the joke, you haven't spent the last 22 years wondering whether The Wheel Of Time would ever end.
The history of the series actually goes back further than that, to 1984, when Robert Jordan first took a three-volume epic fantasy pitch to his publishers, three having been the standard number of volumes for fantasy epics since Tolkien.
Jordan's publishers are one reason this is no longer the case: they gave him a six-book contract, suspecting his story might need extra space. They had no idea.
Jordan died in 2007, 11 books into his magnum opus, leaving behind detailed notes for its completion and a request that his editor find someone capable of writing them up. His editor picked Sanderson, the bright young author of a well-regarded epic (Mistborn, three volumes).
Sanderson went to work, and I can now report that The Wheel Of Time is finished, and roughly four million words long.
Does this fixation on word-count seem reductive? When a story is eight times longer than War And Peace - give or take - questions of scale trump all others. Like many works of heroic fantasy, this one features competent rather than eloquent prose, characters who can be labelled archetypes or stereotypes depending on how friendly the labeller is feeling, and an elaborate imaginary history which serves as the motivating backdrop for a war story. But its resemblance to most other fantasy epics is that of an iceberg to an ice cube.
For good and for bad, reading it feels like a major life event.
Jordan was a keen amateur historian, and his world has the rich improbability of actual human history: thousands of years of nations rising and falling, made vivid and startlingly immersive by accumulated detail. When our hero attempts to unite all the peoples of the world to stave off an approaching apocalypse, he finds himself having to deal with political and military complexities that feel entirely non-fantastical.
So the series, in its middle books, becomes all about micro-management: making deals, putting out fires, following a million threads towards the end of the world. Readers therefore arrive at this final volume with an immense depth of knowledge about the world in question, and a correspondingly immense expectation of pay-off. Can Sanderson deliver?
He certainly pulls the threads together, an organisational feat that ranks with pulling off the D-Day landings.
The book is essentially one gargantuan fight scene, broken down into a fractal infinity of skirmishes and showdowns: no one could complain that he wraps things up with an insufficiently loud bang.
In the midst of all this nicely realised mayhem, an astonishing number of major and minor characters take the stage for their final bows, and this is where readers are likely to find themselves shellshocked.
It's fascinating that the end of this story should feel so unexpected, given that I've spent two decades waiting for it. At every point where a character exits, some feet first, some in chains, some smiling happy smiles, I found myself thinking, "Hey! Too abrupt! Bring them back!"
There is simply no way to end a story this long, I conclude, that will feel appropriately proportionate.
Is this a flaw in the mega-epic form, or is it a curious strength? By writing at such length, Jordan and Sanderson set readers up to feel a wrench quite unlike even the most memorable of conventional endings.
There are weaknesses and imperfections to The Wheel Of Time, no question, but it has enough internal dynamism that its ending feels very like a death.
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.