It’s probably for the best that not every book I pick up seizes me in quite the same fashion that the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy did, because it would severely interfere with my writing output if that were the case. The Dragonbone Chair might prove near the top of the list for books that I read this year, and Stone of Farewell was nearly as good, suffering only the mildest case of second-book syndrome. I jumped eagerly into To Green Angel Tower with mysteries to solve and a world to save, and I finished it feeling…a little let down, to be honest.
Do not misunderstand me: this is still a fantastic book, a worthy and fulfilling conclusion to the trilogy, and well worth your time reading. If you’ve made it this far into the trilogy, I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t decide to finish it, no matter what I might write in this review. While I may not be the first person you’d think of to be giving critiques on endings, considering my own struggles in that area, it was in truth only the very ending that left me feeling a little disappointed. But we’ll get to that, because first there are a whole lot of things to talk about in this book that were excellent.
Right from the start, To Green Angel Tower does exactly what I was hoping it would do. In fact, if everything in about the first third or so of the book had been instead attached to the conclusion of Stone of Farewell, it would perfectly address every minor critique I had for the second book. It provides the rousing climax that the second book was sort of lacking, it gives us a direction and momentum for the final book, and it puts the characters where they need to be in their arcs for the third book to be fulfilling. Simon gains just the right amount of maturity at just the time that I was starting to get annoyed with his inability to grow up, without it being an unrealistic flipping of a switch.
In fact, let’s imagine for a moment that it actually was written that way, that Stone of Farewell ended with the battle at the titular Leave-taking Stone, and that To Green Angel Tower picks up immediately afterwards, as the survivors are attempting to determine what their next move should be. Since the trilogy is structured more like The Lord of the Rings, where it’s essentially one book that’s been split into three for logistical and publishing purposes (as opposed to something like Stormlight Archive, in which each book in the series is distinct, while still connected to those that preceded it), this does not seem an unreasonable stretch of the imagination. In this paradigm, we would avoid what really feels like a false climax so early in the book.
Even structured as it is, Williams does a remarkable job of building the tension back up almost immediately, and I only briefly felt let down by the mid-book climax. There are more than enough mysteries and questions to keep the reader interested while the story gathers fresh momentum, so that like the characters we are only offered the briefest of respites. It’s hard to pull off something like this, but it’s also almost a necessity when you start getting into books as long as To Green Angel Tower (Sanderson had spoken and written extensively about some of the considerations that he puts into writing his longer works, so I will direct you to those dialogues rather than belaboring the subject here). These were also some of my favorite moments of the book.
There might be some kind of lesson in the way that this trilogy is plotted and the characters constructed, something that I am still trying to distil into an orderly understanding. On the one hand, there are a lot of elements in the story that are sort of obvious to genre fiction readers from the get-go, aspects of the plot and the journeys, trials, and tribulations involved that are so standard as to be tropes in this type of writing. Yet Williams seems to be managing to purposely toy with the reader’s expectations based on those tropes, to the point that even parts of the story that are straight out of, say, the hero’s journey plot archetype, can become surprising to the most experienced genre reader, precisely because in other places Williams has led us down that road only to put something very different at the end.
This is notably different from something like Game of Thrones, which revels in its trope-defying nature. By the time you get to the end of the first book in Martin’s epic, you’re no longer being caught by surprise when anti-trope moments occur, because you learned long ago that those preconceptions cannot and should not be applied to that series. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, on the other hand, hews closely enough to the tropes and expectations that the reader does not quite toss them aside, but also strays and subverts them often enough that even the trope-iest moments can feel fresh and unanticipated. That delicate balance is part of what caught my attention in The Dragonbone Chair and propelled me to read the other two books in the trilogy, and is also why I enjoyed so much of To Green Angel Tower…except for the ending.
First of all, and I realize that I am the last one who should be offering criticism here, I think the ending was rushed. The voice changed, the whole feel of the story changed, and instead of finishing the story in the characters’ heads, where we had spent the last two thousand-odd pages, we finish the story a step removed, as if the chaos of the ending has thrown us out and left us as observers only, not as participants. In the longest book of the trilogy, the ending felt rushed. It felt, to be most brutally honest, like one of my endings, and I’m not sure to whom that is being most brutal.
I’m not, for the most part, talking about the climax. The climax was fantastic, although I think it ended too soon. Yet again, it subverted my expectations in just the right ways to make it immensely tense and immensely satisfying. It was the denouement that fell flat on its face before my reading eyes, that tiny handful of pages, that few moments of reading, the final two percent of the book that just didn’t work for me. It needed to be a little longer, it needed to be in our main protagonists’ viewpoints, and it needed to be story, not just exposition. It was a giant info-dump, as the saying goes, and it seemed very much like Williams was feeling the same way that I sometimes feel when I’m getting to the end of a Blood Magic episode that’s gone on too long: okay, I’m almost done, and the end of the month is practically here, so let’s just throw a quick conversation in here between Kiluron and Doil to say ‘yep, we’re done here,’ and get onto the next story. In other words, it’s something I can relate to, but also something that should really be worked out in editing and revisions. This is a perfect example of what there should have been more showing and less telling.
Still, despite that, I really enjoyed the book, and the series. There will be a review coming out next week for the trilogy as a whole, wherein we will attempt to parse in a little more detail just how Williams struck his balance, and why this series worked so well for me. I’ll warn you now: that review will probably have some spoilers in it, although I try very hard to keep spoilers out of my normal book reviews. With all of that being said, I suspect that this trilogy will prove one of the best pieces of writing I have the pleasure of reading this year, and I highly encourage you to give it a try soon.
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