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After more than 20 years, the Wheel of Time is drawing to a close. The Last Battle looms on the horizon, but as of the last page of 2009's The Gathering Storm, there was still much to do. As impressed as I was with The Gathering Storm, I admit I closed the book and wondered how in the Light the late Robert Jordan's successor, Brandon Sanderson, could suitably conclude all the dangling storylines in only two more books. Fortunately, Towers of Midnight, the penultimate book in the series, is further evidence that Robert Jordan's opus was left in capable hands.
The Gathering Storm was occasionally riddled with exposition, a means of reminding readers where characters stood in their respective adventures since the release of the previous Wheel of Time book, Knife of Dreams, in 2005. Such reminders were necessary, seeing as four years separated Knife of Dreams and The Gathering Storm. Towers of Midnight, released only 13 months after The Gathering Storm, has no such recaps to wade through. Consequently, the pace Sanderson sets in Towers of Midnight is, by and large, appropriately quick and infused with adrenaline.
Aside from some slight slowdown approximately three-quarters through, there is always something happening. Battles are fought, relationships--romantic and otherwise--are explored, and perhaps most importantly, plot threads that began way back in the first four books come to a close, and beautifully. Towers of Midnight very much has a "full circle" kind of feel. As characters move toward resolving their personal plights, dozens of allusions to The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, and The Shadow Rising are made, not only reminding readers of the origins of threads in Robert Jordan's Pattern, but why the characters featured in Towers of Midnight have become so beloved by readers over the last two decades. As character thought back on events, I recalled those circumstances right along with them, which served up a warm dose of nostalgia that instilled the desire to reread the series yet again.
What characters am I referring to? The vast majority. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Thom, Egwene, Nynaeve, Lan, Gawyn, Galad, Faile, Birgitte, Min, Aviendha, Tuon, Cadsuane, Morgase, a few Forsaken, various Aes Sedai and Asha'man... Burn me, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a Wheel of Time book with a more generous spread of characters--and that list only includes characters whose points-of-view are directly explored. Each character receives as much attention as is needed to move things forward, so don't worry that the large volume of plots weaved throughout Towers of Midnight results in any one story or character getting shafted.
The advancements each character makes in Towers of Midnight is by far the most exciting element of the story. Rand, having conquered the darkness inside him, makes moves to right the many wrongs born of his self-imposed emotional numbness. Egwene may be the Amyrlin Seat, but the White Tower is still suffering a schism due to her predecessor's mad machinations that pitted Ajah against Ajah, as well as fear over the encroaching Seanchan. Mat and Perrin, only occasionally mentioned in The Gathering Storm in order to move them into position like stones on a stones board, are given much larger roles in Towers of Midnight. Perrin makes strides to come to grips with leadership and his inner wolf, while Mat, who many fans felt was not quite himself in Brandon Sanderson's hands, steals the show at several intervals with his trademark blend of wit, action, and the Dark One's own bloody luck.
Although I enjoyed spending time with all of my favorite characters, there were two segments of Towers of Midnight that especially stood out. The first is an emotional reunion between two characters that has been a long time coming. The second comes when one character finally voices a question I've asked myself countless times since reading the first book: do Aes Sedai really serve the world, or do they only purport to serve others while serving themselves? As much as I like many Aes Sedai characters in the series, they have all too often come across as bullies, using magic to bend others to their will in order to see their own schemes bear fruit, the rest of the world be damned. The fact that these questions are (finally) voiced, and voiced by a significant character, will hopefully bring about a change in the way the women of the White Tower view themselves and others. Such a change likely won't be seen by readers, given that only one book remains in the series. But I would be satisfied with Aes Sedai (especially their Amyrlin) resolving to analyze and adjust their attitudes as the characters continue to exist in their world long after readers have read the final page of the final book.
If Towers of Midnight has any failing, it is that some storylines are wrapped up quick as a blink, which may leave some readers with whiplash. This very problem also occurred infrequently in The Gathering Storm, such as when the wife of one character murdered one of the series' main antagonists--one who had risen to power over the course of approximately nine books, only to die in little more than three pages. However, the sheer magnitude of plot that had to be resolved over the final three books in the series dictated that some stories would simply have to end more abruptly than others. In this writer's opinion, Sanderson was prudent in determining which loose ends to tie up posthaste, and which to draw out to appropriate and satisfying lengths.
With its emphasis on character development, exciting pace, and large cast of characters, Towers of Midnight is the Wheel of Time book fans have been waiting for since The Shadow Rising. The amount of ground covered in a single novel is staggering, and if Towers of Midnight is any indication as to what awaits us in the forthcoming A Memory of Light, the end, while bittersweet, is sure to be incredible.