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Monday, October 5, 2015

Halfling's Gem by R. A. Salvatore

Given the empire of Forgotten Realms fiction that R.A. Salvatore has put upon this earth (nearly 22 novels), you'd think the first three novels of his would be classics. Forbes did a great interview with the author, and in it Salvatore gives us a plausible reason for this:

“You don’t have to start at the beginning,” he tells me. “Contrast that with George Martin or Robert Jordan and the way they did their series. You couldn’t pick up the sixth book of Wheel of Time and read it, I don’t think, if you hadn’t read the first five. With the Drizzt books you could pick up the 6th book, the 10th book, the 15th book, the 20th book. It’s more like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond.”

Of course, that is the very definition of pulp fiction, and why Martin and Jordan are hailed as serious authors who shook up the world of fantasy fiction.

Halfling's Gem was an atrocious train wreck that I barely feel deserves a review. Not as bad perhaps as Spellfire, but up there.

Halfling's Gem concludes the Icewind Dale Trilogy. The plot continues the drama between the Calishite assassin Artemis Entieri and the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden, as they fight over possession of a Halfling thief. Also appearing for the first time, the man who put the price on the halfling's head, Pasha Pook.
Artemis Entreri

The plot ... is ok. Where this book repeatedly fails is in the juvenile level of the text. Juvenile isn't quite correct because even teen literature is often more nuanced.

Character: Halfling characters get the worst treatment. At least Douglas Niles and Kate Novak used female dwarves and halflings. The D and D rules made these characters pretty limited but creating an interesting back story could have at least made Bruenor more palatable. So SPOILER: Bruenor is assumed dead at the start of the novel having ridden a flaming dragon into the abyss. And a neat part of the book is the discovery and fight through the abandoned city, but for whatever reason Salvatore spoils the surprise for his characters and has the all knowing and all powerful Drizzt realize long before the reveal that Bruenor may yet live. Salvatore had a chance for his characters to explore the very real emotions of raw grief, and he shied away from it to point out, yet again, how cool Drizzt is.

Wulfgar is also pretty terrible. We discussed in my review of The Blade Itself the Barbarian cliche. Wulfgar is that cliche, no twist, no subtlety, if you wanted to describe the Barbarian cliche in one word, that word is Wulfgar. The emotions that Wulfgar feels are simple: love, anger and grief. About as skin deep as you can imagine. Grief is not the mere absence of that which is held dear, it is the cacophony of successive failures, missed opportunities and piercingly poignant memories replayed continually within a mind unwilling or incapable of stopping itself.

I guess what I'm saying is that Salvatore keeps telling us when he should be showing us. A classic writing criticism.  This was 20 years ago, I'm hopeful that Salvatore's technique has been honed by 20+ books.

Last, we have Drizzt, in the second novel in the trilogy we learned that he felt his meeting with Entrieri to be a fateful one. That there was a strange connection through skill of arms with the assassin. While this morbid curiosity might have added a dimension to Drizzt's personality, it fails as Drizzt is forced to utter trite truism after trite truism.  It's sad because I've begun to suspect that Drizzt is actually a fairly deep character. For example Drizzt is offered a magic mask that makes him white. And he uses it because people fear the drow. But he comes to quite enjoy the anonymity and access the mask allows him. The notion of "passing" is an extremely loaded one for African Americans and its place in this banal fantasy novel is notable. Another moment has Drizzt stealing a kiss from the unconscious Cattie-Brie. A kiss which is never addressed again. 

As a general rule: If you were to strike every single line of dialog from the book, it would be immeasurably improved.

Cliche: all the usual D and D cliches apply, so I won't waste any time but to list them: Dwarves, halflings, elves, Dungeons and Dragon's Race Cliche, barbarian.

Some new ones include The Kidnapping, the Middle East and the Thieves Guild.  The Kidnapping is pretty self explanatory: it's a common fiction cliche, helpless child/girl/Halfling taken by force on a long journey, vengeful heroes hot on the trail, always close, but never quite catching until the final pages. One difference here is that the Heroes give up catching the assassin fairly early on and simply make for the final destination. One famous example of the Kidnapping motif would be from Tolkien's Two Towers when Pippin and Merry get taken by the Orcs.

Agrabah, or Calimport by Disney
The Middle East cliche  is a common one as well, Calimport is clearly a middle eastern city, and it's denizens, though magical (halflings, humans and wererats follow the same dress and speech patterns. This type of Orientalism would be offensive to some, but the point of the cliche is to save time and space. Calling to mind a westerner's idea of a 1300th century Middle Eastern city provides leagues of description without straining the readers imagination.  As I get older, and my anthropologist wife teaches me to be more sensitive to and less tolerant of micro aggressions that form the undercurrent to overt racism, I begin to wonder about such tropes, and I begin to understand why so many authors have attempted to create whole new worlds, absent of these cliches.
The internets are loaded down with Skyrim images.  Best I could come up with.

The Thieves Guild cliche is an incredibly common one in fantasy.  One the one hand it gives voice to a real world occurrence in a fantasy world, that of organized crime, and on the other hand, it speaks to the shadow economy that likewise exists in every city and state, the sale of untaxable, untrackable, and unregulated goods.  One thing that the Thieves Guild cliche does frequently in fantasy, however, is to neuter the more dangerous and pyschopathic elements of such a community.  To Salvatore's credit, his thieves guild is pretty despicable.  Pasha Pook the crime boss of Calimsport runs the guild with the aid of three henchmen, a dark wizard (fairly servile, as evil wizards go) the deadly assassin Entrieri, and a runaway pack of were-rats.  Though the subplot in Halfling's Gem of trouble in Pasha Pook's organization is never really explored or prevailed upon in any major way, it does give voice to the fact that such an organization would be almost impossible to govern.  But If you're looking for fantasy mafia stories to thrill and awe you, leave Halfling's Gem on the penny shelf, and pick up Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard trilogy.

Completeness:  Sadly, I think Halfling's Gem is not the end of this pitiful story.  As the action closes and the heroes sail away righteous and victorious, we know a larger battle is on the horizon as the dwarves of clan Battle Hammer are massing to retake the mines of Bruenor's father.  Still, this story does wrap up the unexplained nature of the halfling's powers and the mystery of how he obtained his magical gem.  It also sheds further light on several new areas of the Realms.

As I become more home in the world of the Realms, I see that there is very little overlap or common knowledge.  Virtually none of the stories I've read or reviewed so far even occur within the same thirty year period.  While, this excites me on some level to know that the breadth of the history of this place is huge, it also feels sloppy and haphazard in the retelling.  I have attempted to follow the date of publication for these books rather than take a timeline version of the books approach.  I chose that route because I want to see the vision of the realms as its actual creation was occurring, not as a second-guessed, revised version.  However, this choice has lead to some frustration on my part.  Right now the only common element is Elminster, and he's kind of crotchety and fallible for an Old Wizard type. 

On the whole, I'd say feel free to skip the Icewind Dale Trilogy.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself is a phenomenal fantasy novel, blending elements of Conan the Barbarian, Jane Austen's 19th Century English romanticism/ victorianism, and a Glen Cook style of magic and majesty. As you know I reviewed Abercrombie's Half a King recently. I was nonplussed, the novel was entertaining but not what I'd been promised. My biggest complaint by far was the lack of detail. I wanted the novel to be 200 pages longer. Weighing in at over 500 pages, The Blade Itself is exactly what the doctor ordered. The level of detail is majestic. Characters are never simply speaking, they are talking while trimming blisters, emptying the chamber pot, or suffering terrible indigestion. It's mundane details like these that really make a novel come alive.  So once again, I must eat crow: Abercrombie is everything I was lead to believe and if you like epic fantasy with a dry touch of humor this book is a must read.
Logen Nine Fingers, Found on

Characters: the characters in the Blade Itself are excellently drawn. The Barbarian, Logen Nine Fingers is constantly surprising us with his sensitivity, intelligence and laconic wit. Each narrator in the book has one or two modus operandi phrases, a technique used very effectively by Abercrombie to create very distinct individuals. In Logen's case, the lines are "I'm still alive!" And "you have to be realistic about these things."  The first is shouted at the top of his lung, or muttered quietly after every violent encounter, not in some balls to the wall defiant war cry, but an honest to goodness, joi de vivre. Unusual  and greatly endearing for a barbarian known throughout the land in bloody song and story. The second phrase is muttered frequently in resigned acceptance of the most horrendous if fates, whether he's dangling from a cliff or running from twenty armed men.

Inquisitor Exempt Sand den Glokta is a beautifully written character. And a fantastically original one. How many ex-playboy, swordsman, dandies, tortured for six years and turned crippled at
Inquisitor Glokta by Sirheartsalot Deviant Art
the age of thirty do you see in fiction, fantasy or otherwise. Add to that the fact that the man has turned his experiences in the dungeons of the Empire into a new career and now tortures people for a living.  Think about how fucked up that is. And yet you still like him. Really. It's not just pitty, it is his wit and hatred of his entire society that makes him such an enjoyable character. His words: Why am I doing this? Uttered every day when he sees his arch enemy: the stairs. And: "body found floating in the bay..."  That said, as a raging liberal, and a generally caring individual, torture scenes are particularly trying for me to read.  I don't question Abercrombie for his use of these scenes, afterall, "you have to be realistic about these things," and Abercrombie makes it dreadfully apparent that the tortured will sign anything to end the torment.  Still, the scenes can be extremely discomfiting, so reader beware.

And then there is Jezal. A nobleman of the worst variety, a young man training for the Contest, a yearly fencing event that eager gentlemen throughout the Union engage in because winning brings fame and place within Union society. Hating Jezal is a given, even at the novels' end after (SPOILER: ) falling in love with a commoner, he still thinks the common soldier is beneath his notice. Still this classicism is so British that it adds a marvelous layer of reality to the novel. While kings and peasants are the bread and butter of fantasy, it is a rare novel that doesn't use some sort of diamond in the rough trope allowing the commoner to advance within society without facing the scorn of his betters. We like Jezal too, though it is unclear, aside from playing Mr. Darcy, what role he has in the action packed saga about to unfold.

Cliche: First there is The Barbarian. Logen is a man of the north. A common cliche in fantasy, most popularly used in Game of Thrones, as the peoples who live beyond the wall. Savage, scarred, filthy, wearing skins and uneducated. Think the Goths and the Visigoths and you won't be far off. Conan the Barbarian as envisioned by Howard is also probably the seminal work of Barbarian fiction.  Steven Erikson, as I've linked to before, has a neat essay on the concept of the Barbarian in fantasy.

Next there is the Old Wizard cliche: represented by the First of the Magi Bayaz. While Bayaz has no long grey beard or pointy hat, he does have the arrogance and the long lifespan of those who practice the art. Of course, Abercrombie puts his own twist to the cliche. Bayaz looks like a blacksmith and so far, no lightning bolts or fireballs. I won't spoil the magic for you, but it's there, and it's tastefully done. There is something off-putting about Bayaz.  Something vaguely distasteful, almost disingenuous about Bayaz.  Like he doesn't believe his own platitudes. 

Another new cliche for us is the First Law cliche. There is often something tongue and cheek about the First Law cliche, perhaps because speaking directly to the reader requires a deft touch, else it sound ham fisted and trite. It is a set of laws or principles which govern the system of magic, or other secretive or cliquish gathering.  Here the First law is that it is forbidden to touch the Other Side or speak with devils. The first law doesn't have much significance in this volume, though the second does, "it is forbidden to eat the flesh of humans." Other fine examples of the First Law cliche exist in the Wheel of Time, both in the repeated catechism against the Shadow, or in the rules for embracing the Source. It's a cliche, that done well, adds a sense of realism to the world, after all we do live in a world of laws and too often fantasy novels dispense with such mundanities.

The Middlemarche cliche. I've already mentioned it a bit, in my reference to Austen's Pride & Prejudice (the Pride and Prejudice Cliche just doesn't work as well)  the use of very classic forms of British class structure to inform the world. it's important to note that Abercrombie is British and as such has an implicit advantage over his Canadian and American contemporaries. In general I believe Erikson to be the leader of modern fantasy, but in this small aspect Erikson falls behind. Abercrombie's Jezal is so spot on detailing English snobbery it hurts.

The Evil Empire cliche and Migrating Other cliche: one thing I rather like about the First Law books and The Blade itself is that it has already painted two or three epic baddies who have nothing to do with the book's actual plot. This frees up the narrator to focus on the here and now while still allowing the book to expand into a series. I always hated the Wizard's First Law Books because the first two seemed like stand alone novels and the epic that emerged was appended to the first story with scotch tape. Not so here, we already have a variety of enemies and none of them are really central to any of the main characters. The Evil Empire cliche is often steeped in Orientalism, a West versus East, narrative. And while this is another racist element of fantasy as a genre, it remains, even today a pretty effective one: China and the Middle East remain bogeymen to most people and are great political fodder for applying motivational fear. In the Blade Itself we learn relatively little about the Empire. It is vast, it has a magical cadre of sorcerers known as Eaters, and it has a new, young emperor looking to earn his chops.

Then there is the King Beyond the Wall, a Mance Rayder type of baddy who is a Northman sweeping down to ravage the soft middle countries of the Union. This cliche is somewhat tired given the current popularity of Game of Thrones.
a Shanka, by rynomyte at Zbrushcentral

Last, there is a new cliche: the Migrating Other. History is a patina of competing movements of men, tribes coming north or south in droves and driving the current inhabitants further inland. The Migrating Other is the bad guy, even though he in turn flees another bad guy displacing him. In fantasy however, the Migrating Other can frequently be a race of non men, orcs or in this case the Flat Tops. Sanderson uses the Migrating Other cliche in the Way of Kings to describe the enemy with which the Kingdom is trapped in aimless and endless war.  The cliche by itself, though realistic enough, is generally not enough for fantasy. But, overpopulation, displacement, and finding food and resources simply does not provide the clear moral imperative that fantasy so often requires. So when used it's usually used in tandem with other cliches or as Abercrombie explains in the final pages (SPOILER) it is a race created by magic to serve as an army of destruction.

Completeness:Abercrombie has created a fully believable world with genuine, detailed characters. He also excels at the honourable mention: that writing technique in which a few lines of detailed text provides volumes of exposition. His listing of court lords and ladies is an excellent example of this. Though the Court has almost a non existent presence in the book, it still feels replete with characters that are differentiated, complete and ready to be picked up and exploited should the author need them. There's nothing more amateur hour then having a character added at the end to provide necessary information to end the story.  Also quite compelling its the idea of the Old Empire.  A great civilization destroyed by a war between magi, that has spent the following centuries in perpetual strife.
The fall of Manetheran, gorgeous, not sure whose image

The world feels completely fleshed out, easily a dozen nations are described or mentioned, though only three are relevant. Politics and trade seems real and even modern. As a fantasist with an interest in economics I was thrilled to see some discussion within the text of the economic relationships between provinces, the financing of the war with the Empire, a union bashing autocrat, and even discussion of crown and union debts.

Another delightful detail was in the small physical ticks the characters have: for example Logen Nine Fingers trims his blisters next to the fire, Marshal Burr has a weak stomach that causes him to burp unfortunately. These are the sort of details that really make a story sing.

But to top it all off. And I saw a reviewer (Mark Monday) on Goodreads mention this, the book is a truly funny read. It's dark humor, true enough, but the book is laugh out loud funny! Even my wife commented on my laughing while reading!

So, please give Abercrombie another chance, and my hats off to this new bright star in the realms of fantasy.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Waterdeep, by a different Richard Awlinson

So Waterdeep is the last novel in the Avatar Trilogy, though the story picks up again in two more later volumes.  Interesting side note: Richard Awlinson is a pen name for two separate men. Why? I don't know, the Forgotten Realms Wiki is silent on this issue. That said, Troy Denning, the author of this one did a fine job of finishing the series.

Waterdeep takes the remaining members of the Company of the Lynx, from the city of Tantras to the mega city of Waterdeep. It says something that I can't even find Tantras on the map.  The journey is long, and given the chaos of the Realms during the so called Time of Troubles, difficult. Of course, in fantasy, the Quest cliche is 90% of the story, so it's not surprising. The Time of Troubles, you recall, was initiated by the theft of the Tablets of Fate, and the expulsion of the gods from their astral plane to the mortal realm.  Midnight, Her lover, Kellemvor, and the cleric Adon, search for the second Tablet of Fate, which they hope to return to Ao, the over god of the Realms, and so end the Time of Troubles.

Character:  The characters remain startlingly satisfying in this third installment. I can tell you, I'm a third of the way through the Halfling's Gem, and I'm sick to death of Drizzt, Wulfgar, etc. but Midnight, Kellemvor, Adon, and Cyric are excellent characters.  Let me start with Cyric. In Tantras, we saw Cyric take a darker turn, becoming a minion, though a freelancer, to the dark god Bane. And while he was a cold mother fucker, you got the sense that Midnight's faith in him would be rewarded. SPOILER: it's not. Cyric becomes a truly awful human being in this novel. He slays a village full of halflings with women and children, he cuts the throat of another hanging from a rope. He slays an innkeeper, sole survivor of a zombie attack, mere minutes after the poor man gives him food and beverage from his ruined livelihood. Why? Because he simply does not care, and because people irk him.

Adon also continues to grow, becoming the group's leader. And while his faith in Sune is completely lost, by the story's end, his faith is yet restored. Though not in Sune, the goddess of beauty. Kellemvor, the group's former leader has made catastrophic decision after decision. Having had his curse removed in Tantras, he keeps leaping to the aid of defenseless citizens. While laudable, he's not the sharpest tool in the shed, and he's forgotten that at least three gods have been trying to track them down and kill them. After falling into half a dozen ambushes with his bull headed attempts, his confidence is finally assailed.
The exciting conclusion of Waterdeep

Cliche: Midnight is perhaps the biggest cliche of the entire series. She's just rather generic as a female character: she loves Kellemvor, but is furious with him for not trusting Cyric, and they spend half the novel fighting over it. She is strong, but uninteresting for the most part, and her history is left entirely unexplored.  What's worse is that she is, completely wrong in her faith, only enforcing an unpleasant gender stereotype. Another character cliche is in Adon's character. The Faithless Priest, is a half decent cliche and Adon's inner struggle, and his ultimate belief in humanism as a faith, is (Spoiler!) only made more interesting when Midnight ascends to god hood.  He becomes her High Priest, and but as Midnight is no longer merely mortal, is it still humanism? Which brings forth another cliche: Ascension.
Tablets of Fate, Johndowson

I've talked about Ascension before in all of my Erikson, Malazan Book of the Fallen, reviews. (Spoilers!) At the end of Waterdeep, Mystra, Bane, Bhaal, and Mykrul, the gods of magic, strife, murder, and death, have all been killed. Quite a coup for the forces of light. Except Forgotten Realms doesn't really work that way, even Evil isn't really all that evil, and good is pretty tedious and ineffectual. The over god, Ao, appoints two mortals to become gods and take up the balance. This idea of men becoming Gods, is an old one, but for a former philosophy student, it is gobsmacking. That said, the idea of godhood here, as elsewhere, is really quite petty. Nonetheless, Ascension is a neat concept, and I always enjoy seeing it play out.

The last cliche I'll mention, is The Balance Cliche. Need I say more? Evil is always trying to usurp good, and good, when evil is struck down, becomes corrupt, greedy, and ultimately, because men are awful, evil. It's tiresome, but it does allow fantasy to keep going as a genre. One of the neat things about the Wheel of a time was that it dealt with this concept directly: Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon, was reborn in a new vessel every thousand years or so, to fight the Dark One in a different battle. I'm sure non fantasists would find that tiresome. But what can I say, I find it thrilling. The chance, as Rand al'Thor discovers at the end, to try again.
“Why do we live again? Lews Therin asked, suddenly. His voice was crisp and distinct.
Yes, Rand said, pleading. Tell me. Why?
Maybe … Lews Therin said, shockingly lucid, not a hint of madness to him. He spoke softly, reverently. Why? Could it be … Maybe it’s so that we can have a second chance.
Completeness: so I'd been looking forward to Waterdeep for some time, because I thought it would tell me about the largest city in all of Faerun. And I was not disappointed. Ok, well, slightly disappointed. They don't get to Waterdeep until the very end, and so even though the detail is there, it was tantalizingly thin. What did we learn? Waterdeep is governed by a benign group of lords and protectors, most of whom remain secret. The city is reportedly democratic, but how you can have democracy with secret rulers is ... Ok ... Well, I guess realistic.  We learn some about the Watch, and how defense of the city is maintained. We also learn a bit about the Archmagus, Blackstaff, who, with Elminster's aid, attempts to help the heroes defeat Mykrul the god of the dead. We also learn street names! I love details like that, and they are so often overlooked.

So, I've found my first big inconsistency in the Realms. Douglas Niles made Bhaal out to be a powerhouse of a god. And so, you'd think, in the Avatar series, where Bhaal is brought to life, you'd at least find some of the same attributes.  But no. He may be the god of murder, but in point of fact, he really is the Patron of Assassins. Which is really quite different from the Moonwell corrupting, Druid slaying Bhaal of the Moonshae series. Keep in mind that none of these books or series follow a timeline. They're all out of whack,  but given that Bhaal kicks it after this installment, it seems unlikely to be resolved.  The Forgotten Realms wiki touches briefly on the matter, but it is not entirely believable.

Waterdeep is a pretty good Forgotten Realms novel.  We got to meet some important characters, names we will be seeing again, and we did get the origin story of at least two new gods.  But, it is still 80s-90s fantasy, and it just doesn't compare to what we've come to expect.  That said, it was a page turner, and worth a read if you've gotten to the end of Tantras and are wondering if you'd like to continue.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Tantras by Richard Awlinson

This scene never takes place
So Tantras marks book two in Awlinson's Avatar series.  The book has a great beginning, a boring and confusing middle, and a fun finish.  If you're into going back into the history of the Realms, Tantras is worth a read. I should note that Awlinson is a pen name, and that this marks the last book in the Avatar trilogy that is written by Scott Ciencin.  That's right, Waterdeep the last book in the trilogy is written by another dude under the same pen name.  WTF?

As I have done in the past with books in a series, I will skip my usual rubric for critique and simply comment on more general aspects, namely character, plot and setting. Beware, this review is replete with spoilers.

I was very impressed with the first book in this series, Shadowdale. (Note that all of my adjectives, "impressed," "unusual," "great," are meant to be relative to what was being produced during this period of 1980s game world fantasy fiction.) The main characters were complex with unusually detailed backgrounds.

First there is Kellemvor with his nasty, giant cat breaks free of his chest in the most disgusting manner, curse.  There is Cyric, the Zhentish thief, seeking freedom from his past.  There is Adon, a playboy cleric, who suffers a disfiguring scar and abruptly becomes a morose, useless, foot dragging, minor warrior.  And of course, the least developed, the female lead, Midnight. Whose past we know very little about, but at the same time is the center of a love triangle between Kellemvor and Cyric.

All four characters figure heavily in Book 2. And some drastic changes occur. I've been waiting for some crossover between the different Forgotten Realms novels, and by this time, about ten books into the world of Faerun, I'm beginning to see some. Ed Greenwood, in Spellfire, described all the characters in Shadowdale in such idyllic terms of brotherhood that the place seemed a lot like Monty Python's version of Camelot, "it's a silly place." Awlinson's Shadowdale takes a much darker turn. When Elminster is trapped in a demon realm at the end of the first book, he is assumed dead, and The Lord of Shadowdale, Mourngrym, holds a show trial in which Midnight and Adon are condemned to execution. Many of Greenwood's characters are given a third dimension in the first half of this book.

Which leads me to wonder about the dark turn that Cyric takes. the Zhentish thief decides to free Midnight from prison the night before the execution. And in so doing, he kills four guards in cold blood. This begins the transformation of the sarcastic, cynical thief into something far darker. Cyril's transformation is excellently done, his frustration with Adon, and his futile affection for Midnight turning him into something far worse than he might have been. That said, the crimes he commits in freeing Midnight seem mitigated to me by the fact that it's a lot easier to kill guards then to render them unconscious.  Moreover it was his friends, wrongly accused and falsely tried, whose lives were at stake. That said, by the end of Tantris, Cyric is clearly in Neutral Evil category.

Meanwhile, Kellemvor, who was falling in love with Midnight, leaves her to her fate, and even leads a search party to return the trio to the gibbet. Kellemvor's character is rather straightforward, he wants to be good, but his curse doesn't allow him to do any good deeds. That said, in Tantras, he allows himself to be duped frequently. At first I was quite bothered by this, but upon further examination, I think it actually quite subtle. As a mercenary whose curse requires him to be paid for services rendered, he has become unusually good at accepting jobs that allow him to do a decent thing or two, while still getting his reward. This type of quandary would, of course, make for a very pliable character, someone who could easily justify a complete change of heart.

Adon spends the novel becoming useful again. In the Avatar series, clerics have lost their powers unless they are literally standing right next to the avatar of their god. So Adon had already lost his abilities to heal and cast other priestly spells. But when he lost his face, his overwhelming self-pity destroyed the boyish self-confidence he displayed in Shadowdale. While the priest loses his faith, he does gain a measure of self esteem by the end of Tantris.

Darth Krayt, but to my mind a good representation of Bane
No discussion of characters would be complete without the only other character worth noting, Bane the God of Strife and Tyranny. The God of Strife is a complete idiot. This is a major flaw in these novels to date.  So, it stands to reason that the God of Strife would be fairly petty. But gods have to be more than simply humans with massive powers. Though Awlinson made a few efforts in that direction in Shadowdale, by Tantras, the god is a mewling, cantankerous moron, careening from one disaster to the next.

I have made no study of the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms. But so far I am not impressed. We have Bane, we have Bhaal, we have Mykrul, all evil gods, but none save Bhaal seem particularly nasty. But, SPOILER, given that Bane doesn't make it past this novel the gods of evil do not seem particularly strong, or pernicious.

Finally, the whole reason for my continued self debasement of reading these Forgotten Realms novels is to learn about the fascinating world of Faerun.  I've shown the map before, and it is HUGE.  After ten novels I'm pleased to say that we still haven't explored more than an eighth of it, at best.

But what do we learn? Shadowdale is but one dale of many, all vying for control of a few areas. Scardale is one such town, an area garrisoned by troops from a loose federation of city states. We learn that Tantras is a city state that primarily worships the god of duty, Torm.  Of course, Torm doesn't seem to make it either, so I think at least one of Greenwood's characters is out of an occupation.  No natural wonders like there are in some of the other books, like the Icewind Dale series and it's troll infested marshlands. That said, since the day of Arrival, when all the gods were forced to assume mortal forms, major effed up crap has been happening across the realms. Like trees coming alive and spawning undead wax monkeys, or hot mists rising from nowhere and boiling people alive, or troops of trees marching to war.  And Awlinson has come up with some truly horrific encounters, something that adds a great deal of fun to the novel, and allows him to break with the fairly limited selection of Dungeon and Dragons monsters.

Overall, Tantras is a good romp.  And hopefully Bane will stay good and dead, as he was a particularly laughable villain.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

This was my first Abercrombie novel, though he is the author of the best-selling First Law trilogy. Abercrombie came highly recommended to me, not by my peer group, of whom there are precious few fantasists, but by a blog post by Steven Erikson who mentioned the author in passing. Then, of course, the book jacket has George R. R. Martin praising the book as well. Now, Martin is a fame whore, so that could mean anything. But the man is obviously super intelligent, certainly enough to know his name means something, and that he ought not to abuse it.

The cover isn't much. A book in the new style, I suppose to reach out to other markets. Those swords and sorcery covers of the 80s and 90s are a dying breed. While sleek, for all the inventiveness and relevancy of the cover art, the book could have been self published! I should note that more recent copies have rectified this oversight. The modern way to market fantasy novels appears to be with heavily stylized images on stark unicolour backgrounds.  It's a damn shame given the high quality of illustration out there today. If the 80s had publishers would have been peeing their pants.

Which leads me, finally, to a substantive critique.  I found this book enjoyable, and certainly page turning.  But, also very hard to read. The prose isn't difficult.  In fact it's the very opposite.  It's almost Hemmingway sparse.  After having completed a reread of Erikson's Midnight Tides, I found the prose rather simplistic.  But, it was also hard to read because it seemed almost grammatically incorrect.  Now, even a casual glance at my writing on this site would indicate that I am not a stickler for the rules of grammar.  As a former actor, I tend to write as I speak, or as I hear the words in my mind. So my prose is commatastic!

Abercrombie's prose is distinctly lacking in commas. I'm not saying he's wrong, or that the staff at Del Rey is either, just that I was frequently thrown for a loop by some of the descriptive sentences.  This is my major criticism of Half a King, there was something off-putting about the writing for me.  I think it is likely a matter of taste. Let me say simply, it is nothing like Erikson's.

That said, the story was decent. Not sweeping, like Jordan, Erikson, or Martin, but certainly a bonafide world sparsely but deftly described.

A Maester, from ASoIF
Character:  our main character is a teenage boy named Yarvi, the perspective from which the entire story is told. There is no switching of narratives, as there frequently is in epic fantasy. The novel is the start of at least a trilogy, according to Abernathy's website.  Yarvi starts off the novel a true anti-hero, a thirdson, a sniveling, cowardly, deformed wretch slated to become a king's counselor, a Minister, much like the Maesters of George R.R. Martin's world (Academics sworn to serve their king, yet members of a larger enlightened circle of scholars.). Yarvi is proud of his achievements and excited to take the final test.  But The day before he sets sail for the capital city he finds out that his elder brother and father are slain.  At first blush the novel seems a Coming of Age type where an enlightened king gains the respect of his people and leads them to greatness.  However, to Abernathy's credit, this is NOT the direction the novel takes.  SPOILER: The boy ends up a rowing slave on a merchant galley.  END SPOILER.  Yarvi's character development is decent and believable, and the Slave to Greatness cliche is used quite effectively here in his growth from boy to man.  Yarvi's companions are interesting and each is given a decent character sketch, though the best minor character is killed off before story's end.  But none are worth mentioning, telling. Half a King would have benefited immensely from an additional two hundred pages.  That would have given the sub-characters real time to grow.  In common fiction, brevity is highly laudable.  In epic fantasy, this really isn't so, and I feel disappointed that I will never learn more about them.

Cliches:  I've already mentioned a few of them.  The most obvious is the Coming of Age cliche.  Yarvi is a boy, weak, with little or no confidence in his ability to lead, and by story's end he is a leader and a man capable of killing in cold blood.  The Second Son cliche is a new one for this blog.  It's the idea that in a medieval kingdom, the first son becomes the heir to the throne, and the second is a spare, often sent to the priesthood.  Second Sons are not taught to rule, though though they are taught the same princely arts that first sons are.  As usual with my naming convention, I do not exclude daughters, though certainly it was a rare medieval kingdom that passed leadership onto women.  The Advisor Cliche, that of the trusted advisor taught at a central university, or passing certain certification tests, and then assuming a position as a hand of the king.  The Slave to Greatness cliche: where a person spends some time in the annealing fires of misery that only slavery can teach.  Inevitably, the hero escapes slavery and his derring-do, righteous rage, and astounding humility astonish the local nobility.  One interesting note: when Yarvi escapes slavery, he does not abolish or make slavery more palatable in any way.  In fact, he seems to give a mental shrug and say "someone has to row the boat."  That's a nice touch, certainly realistic, I suspect.  The Shattered Sea has much in common with the Norse medieval cliche.  Not so much the series of gods, or the serpentine dragon called the Nidhogg, but the idea of a warrior culture thriving in cold weather, crossing the sea with longships and raiding the neighboring kingdoms. All in all, I'd say the novel's use of cliche was effective, and this is one example where the cliche speaks a thousand words.  By using these cliche's Abercrombie is able to write a slightly shorter novel.
The Niddhogg, definitely not in this novel

Which leads us to completeness:  the Norse cliche gives the world a binding ambiance for the setting of the Shattered Sea, without delving into the complex relationships that must exist between the various kingdoms.  But the novel is billed by it's own advertising as a thriller of betrayal.  Several of these betrayals were startling, several were indeed quite obvious.  Some of these betrayals were made obvious by the lack of explanation occurring in the novel's set up.  The king and his brother were killed, and since everyone says its an ambush by a rival kingdom, the main character does too. But the story's narrator is Yarvi, a scholar, who should be asking these questions for us. He does, once, question the whole "who really killed my father and brother" thing, but only once and the question is ignored thereafter. But in the last ten pages you find out that in Yarvi's secret life, when he's not rowing, starving, freezing, or wheedling himself out of a sticky situation, he has thought about these things extensively and come up with a cruel, cold plan for revenge. Nonetheless, it seems an obvious and unfortunate fail on Abercrombie's part.  Rowing is tough work, and being chained night and day to a bench with an oar would make some higher thinking difficult, but he seems to accomplish enough whinging during this time to make it seem more like an oversight.

One last note on the subject. SPOILER: Given that this book is the first of a trio, it is difficult to say where the next two novels will go. This can be a good thing, if the groundwork for what comes was layed properly. What mysteries remain: who are the Elves? What is god, is he the shattered version post elf Apocalypse, or The One God of the High King? The High King is characterized as a silly, vain, weak-willed ruler. If so, who is pulling his strings?  Yarvi has relinquished his kingship to his other Uncle, who after a 15 plus year absence happily marries the widowed Queen, his moms. Will Yarvi ever be King? The a rule of law says no, when a man becomes one of these advisor types he relinquishes his title. But of course, there are always those who would change that. What about Yarvi's almost-girlfriend, will she prove a reoccurring character. Or now that Yarvi is sworn to celibacy will she become irrelevant. (Why these scholars are sworn to celibacy is beyond me.  Having been around academics for over a decade I can tell you they are anything but!)

Clearly there is much to go forward with, but what there is not at this point is a Big Bad, nor a coming Apocalypse. Unless its the concept of one currency.  The old Queen was beginning a plan to stamp her own currency and to proliferate it throughout her economic sphere as the only currency. As a Queen who "minted" money for her kingdom, it's not inconceivable that she could have the clout to do so. And, I must say, as an economic blogger, this would indeed be a sequel worth writing about.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

So, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and indeed the DragonLance Saga was one of those formational books in my career as a fantasist.  The timing was apocryphal, 80s fantasy was proliferating, and the fantasy section of Waldenbooks (remember them?) was expanding from four shelves to an entire section.

But the writing was still in its infancy, it was a simpler time in fantasy.  Which is not to say that there weren't complex characters or narratives, merely that the expectation was merely swords and sorcery, not quality. Just about anything with a sword or dragon could qualify back then.

I say all of this because Tor has commenced its own DragonLance reread, and both bloggers, Jared and Muvesh, point out the text is simplistic and rife with cliche.  They're not wrong, but they started their reread with the creme de la creme. I started my reread with the dreck that is the first five novels of the Forgotten Realms books.

The Tor bloggers also point out what I have mentioned in my Forgotten Realm reviews, namely that these novels are limited by the fantasy rules of Dungeons & Dragons. Jared and Muvesh come from two different backgrounds, Jared obviously played the game "way to roll a 1 beardy!", and Muvesh came to the novels fresh, having grown up far far away from the kitsch of American consumerism in the 80s.

I actually purchased the DragonLance module for the D&D world, intending to Dungeon Master it for my friends. Unfortunately, my friends "grew up" before I did, and so I never got the chance. But I've actually seen the stats for the story's heroes. If you recall, or if you were born after 1985, the stats were rolled with a six-sided die. That I even had to qualify the number of sides for you is pretty indicative of the type of geek I'm talking about. All of this to say, the highest number you could get, at least in the original rules, was 18. The better your stats, the better your character's chance of hitting, dodging, casting spells, attracting followers, etc.  All of this was rolled into those first computer games, D&D and 4-bit Heroes of Might and Magic. Except for the fact that the game developers learned pretty quickly that if the same number of missed swings continued in battle, they would kill their market pretty quickly.

I bring this up because I remember being slightly puzzled by how low the stats of all the DragonLance Heroes had actually been, except for Raistlin whose intelligence was a stunning 17. As a young teen none of us wanted our heroes to be ordinary, so we gamed our dice until we came up with a number we felt comfortable with. The Realms computer game Baldur's Gate came up with a clever way of bypassing this, let the computer roll your stats, and then get a few flex points to tailor your character as you wish. Point is, the Heroes of the Lance were rather ordinary.

Anyway, Dragons of Autumn Twilight was published before even the first Realms book came out, so there was some real trailblazing here.

Character: Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Sturm, Flint and Tas. Need I say more? The figurehead, the leader,
and the character we all loved unequivocally, was Tanis Half-Elf. The product of rape, a dichotomy of elf and human, long and short lived, noble and peasant, lustful and pure, courageous but filled with self doubt and inner torment.  And a love triangle!  In Jared's reread week #2, he points out that DragonLancers fall into two categories, Raistlin or Tanis fans.  If this is true, then I confess I am probably a Tanis fan.  Though I do love the character of Raistlin, his all-consuming thirst for power was less interesting to me then the painfully torn personal anguish that Tanis felt.  In retrospect though, the writing of Tanis' inner torment is of a lower quality then that of Raistlin's.  That said, Tanis is the story's main hero, its leader, and there is just more detail regarding his thoughts and feelings.

The Twins, Raistlin and Caramon, darkness and light, Mage and warrior, ambition and loyalty. These two were so beloved that Weiss and Hickman wrote an entirely different series for them! I recall an interview with Margaret Weiss where she told us that Raistlin was her favorite character. The dynamic of the Twins told us so much of human nature.  The desire to protect and help our lesser brother, as the warrior Caramon so often did with Raist. The desire to be free from physical constraint and independent, as Raistlin personified. And ambition, oh, so much about ambition.  And it's converse.  Caramon's greatest desire, his most fundamental ambition is to make lots of babies with Tika Waylan, and live on a farm with his kooky brother as one big family. In stark contrast to Raistlin, who would one day challenge a god with his magic, not to vanquish her evil, but to consume and supplant it!

Then we had Sturm, himself a conundrum.  A boy aspiring to the past glories of knighthood. Trying to live the code, My Honour is my Life, yet knowing that he was no knight in truth, and the organization he worshiped, the Solamnic Knights had grown petty and powerless. As a teen, it was Sturm who captured my imagination.  I had the Death of Sturm, that famous Larry Elmore painting, taped to my college dorm room wall. His courage and his sacrifice were symbolic to me of all that men were meant to be. On my reread, I realize now that Sturm was also incredibly angry and intolerant.   Something
that probably appealed to me then.

Then there were Flint and Tas, the crusty dwarf and the irascible kender.  As a side note, I learned last month that in those early days, TSR the owner of Dungeons & Dragons was involved in a number of disputes with the the owner of the Tolkien merchandising, one Saul Zaentz. Possession of the term Hobbit was one of them, and by 1978 per Sacnoth's Scriptorium the most obvious terms, Ent, Hobbit, Nazgul, etc. were gone from the franchises. TSR compensated in a variety of ways, creating Halflings and Gnomes in the Forgotten Realms, Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes in the DragonLance series. While all dwarves seem to assume fairly typical clich├ęd attributes, and Flint is no exception, the splinter races of Hobbit take on a variety of different tropes. Gnomes are tiny but ingenious and industrious, Gully dwarves are filthy, uneducated and the lowest caste, and kender are the fun loving scamps of the tiny person world. Tas was one of these, and it's the relationship between these two that grants Flint a life beyond mere Dwarf cliches. To be sure, even Flint's fury at the kender's antics is fairly cliched, but the Death of Flint still brings tears to my eyes.

There are others, great loves and great heroes, but these are the essential Heroes Party.  Itself a cliche, a group of five or six heroes who compliment each other's skill sets and agree to quest together.

Cliche:  Where to begin?  Let's skip the obvious ones.  Dungeons and Dragons was all about cliche.  In fact, the original rules didn't even have a Dwarf class, the Dwarf was simply a fighter, the Elf, simply an Archer.  I mentioned one above, the Heroes Party cliche.  I note this because the cliche has certainly changed over time.  In the D&D world, the characters were very failable, your heroes died all the time.  You could get them resurrected without too much trouble, but only if someone in your party survived and was able to haul your keister back. To wit, the parties were larger.  You could have as many as seven or eight people to a party.  More with a good DM.  Parties are smaller these days, and videogames blazed that particular trail, parties are typically three now, with more characters waiting in the background.

Fan art, tried to find all three together. by Autumn-Sacura
I mentioned the Love Triangle earlier, a cliche but not one native to fantasy.  Tanis grew up in love with an elf maid, a princess of his people.  She loved him back with childlike naivety. But Tanis left because Elves are intolerant to the extreme, big on social purity.  And though humans are no better, human society is much less structured than the that of the long-lived elves.  And his other lover is a human woman who isn't even "good!"

Which calls to mind another D&D creation, the Character Alignment Cliche.  So when creating your character you had to choose two of six attributes, one from a set of three.  Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic, Neutral, Lawful.  For a great listing of character of alignments in D&D click here.  Why bother you ask?  Well, despite the massive amounts of rules, D&D attempted to create real story telling.  Which necessitated real characters, which necessitated real thought.  Choosing an alignment was a way of thinking about your character.  In effect, it made the game more fun.  "I will kill this murderer!" says the Paladin, "because I am the arbiter of justice, and because the rule of law says that this man must die!"  "I'm sorry," says the ex-soldier now adventurer, who continues "Though he is guilty of murder, he is also deserving of kindness.  He murdered only to protect his kin!"  Part of what made the Party system so interesting was that you had to have your six or seven heroes all get along together!  You don't see this cliche too often anymore.

As the Tor blog pointed out, the book begins in an Inn, a symbolic setting for the Dungeons & Dragons meme. And the Inn certainly manifests itself often enough in fantasy to warrant its own cliche. the jovial innkeeper, warm fire, large bosomed barmaids. Or it's the Evil Inn cousin, think shifty innkeeper, slatterns, and nefarious doings in the corner.  But in Dragons, it's the Inn of the Last Home, where friends gather to eat Otik's famous potatoes and flirt with the luscious Tika Waylan. And so the epic starts as Friends gather after a long absence.

Completeness: I talk sometimes about scope, and in this simple thematic device, that of old friends meeting, the book establishes a complicated history from page one. Why did the friends part? Where did they go? Why are some together, and some separate? Were there mixed feelings, old dramas, triumphs of old? What about that sensation we've all had about life: that the past is dead, never to be felt again.  That you can't go home, and that memory is always different then what was.  I actually can't think of another fantasy book that begins quite this way. The Eddings' Belgariad had old friends meeting up along the road, but off hand that's it.  For all it's tropism in the Dungeon & Dragons world, it is fairly novel.

"Dragons" suffers from a very obvious and perfectly explainable completeness issue: much is purposely left unexplained. The back story to the characters is only alluded to within the trilogy.  Other authors were contracted to pick up the yarn and finish these quests.  This was frustrating in the 80s, as the other authors were never as strong as Weiss & Hickman.  In some cases entire chapters seem to be left out.  That said, Dragons was a pretty thick book for back then.  Particularly given that the average "game module book" probably ran about 250 pages.  It might well be that some of the missing content was merely cut for size.
Flint the King, what Flint did during his 5 year trip

There are a few interesting points I wish to make here.  In almost all fantasy genres of the 80s and early 90s, the basic baddy, the foot soldier of evil was more or less incomprehensible, the other, alien and bestial (orcs, trollocs, demons.  Not so in DragonLance.  Hobgoblins and Draconians are fully sentient, frequently speak the common tongue, and are sometimes even playable races within the games.  So when, in that first chapter of Dragons, Tanis and Flint have a conversation with Fewmaster Toede (a hobgoblin comic-relief villain) it's almost shocking.  Usually when orcs appear, swords are drawn, and orc blood rains black from the heavens.  There is no discussion, no capacity for empathy.  It's just kind of a neat thing.  For all that Jordan advanced the genre, the only conversation he ever had with a Trolloc was one where it was being tortured for information, or attempting to trick its human target.

Fewmaster Toede, almost all of these images are Elmore originals
Last, what Dragons lacks in completeness, the game module, the other books in the series, and the other books in DragonLance as a whole compliment and fill utterly.  Though the book itself seems riddled with holes, you can rest assured that everything is explainable with reference to some rule in the Player's Handbook or in the lore of the series, or even in the fanverse that has, in the intervening years given these books a completely new life.

Having completed my reread of the first novel, I still love the Heroes of the Lance.  My admiration for Weiss and Hickman remains, though it is tempered by the amazing writing of what the future of fantasy would soon hold.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Weird cover clearly designed to attract non geeks
The Name of the Wind is a novel that came to me highly reviewed by several what I would call, junior faculty members of the fantasy intelligentsia, meaning those who dabble, or have only recently expressed a burgeoning interest in fantasy.  In other words: less geeky than I.  In addition, the Onion AV Club gave the novel the raviest review of all, "THE NAME OF THE WIND is quite simply the best fantasy novel of the past 10 years, although attaching a genre qualification threatens to damn it with faint praise. Say instead that THE NAME OF THE WIND is one of the best stories told in any medium in a decade." This from Rothfuss own website.  To those who recommended the novel to me, I can't thank you enough.  I'm always looking for a good read.  That said, I think the AV Club is singularly heavy handed with its praise, or, let's just say, flat out wrong.  Weirdly, in the review of the first book, the reviewer seemingly got some important elements of the plot just slightly wrong, which makes me wonder about whether or not she even read it.

I think this is fan art, but whose?  beautiful!
As usual, with new author breakouts, I confess to turning an uncomfortable shade of chartreuse.  Of course, I look at it and say, "I could do better."  But in this case, I can also say that the fantasy genre of the past 20 years is roundly the equal of The KingKiller Chronicle.  If not, frankly, superior.  I don't want to be a downer.  It is good.  It was just really unfortunately hyped.

Character:  One of the triumphs of The Name of the Wind, is that there are some excellent characters.  However, I am of two minds about the main character.  On the one hand I find him to be interesting, and humorous.  On the other hand, I find his extreme youth to be difficult to relate to, and I sometimes feel like his character has some major contradictions.  The framework for NotW is that a famous scribe named Chronicler has found Kvothe the Bloodless, a man of infamous repute, working as an innkeeper in a flyspeck town.  He tells Chronicler that he will need three full days to tell his story.  So Book One, marks the end of Day One, and so it goes.  He then proceeds to tell his entire life story.  My problem with Kvothe is that the man in the inn seems to be so completely different from the boy we see growing up.  While this is intentional, I do not find it convincing.

One of the things that the critics laud about NotW is that main character is an anti-hero, because his adventuring life ends in ignominy and despair. This is not as uncommon in fantasy as the reviewers seem to believe, but the innkeeper, Kote (he changed his name by two letters for anonymity) is particularly maudlin as compared to the rather flamboyant youth that Rothfuss describes.  This is the heart of the story, how a flamboyant boy/actor/musician type, becomes a weary, hardened, and embittered killer.  But so what? The Coming of Age cliche frequently ends in the Loss of Innocence cliche.
Smart lady with the watermark.  rohanelf, nice work!

That said there are a lot of wonderful characters.  I, too am in love with the love interest, the mysterious Denna (though their verbal sparring grows tiresome, "I think of you like the dew on a daisy petal at dusk."  (not a quote, just an example)).  I am also quite fond of the other students at the Arcanum, Kvothe's friends at the University.

Denna, unattributed
Cliche:  As I discussed in my post on Elizabeth Hayden's Rhapsody, NotW draws from many popular cliches.  The first and most obvious is that of the Bard.  Kvothe is an Edema Ruh, which is a cliche of it's own, the Traveling People (so named by Jordan's Tu'athan, who traveled in large wagons).  The Ruh however are players, actors and musicians too, but largely actors.  This is an interesting thing because many of the classic fantasy novels, including the Wheel of Time, eschew acting troupes as crass and foolish.  I honestly don't know what the historical basis for this would be, other than that a solo act is easier to pick up and move, and that since it lacks the bells and whistles of theatre, requires a larger imaginative investment.  Regardless Kvothe, for the most part fits the stereotype.  He's brash, he's colorful, and dramatic, and magical.  He is not particularly adept with women, but hey, he's only 15.
Jordan's Traveling People

Another cliche might be The University.  This is not too common a cliche in fantasy, but it certainly exists, as it does elsewhere in literature.  Though the opening pages of the book stress that Kvothe's time at the university is limited, it certainly seems to follow a year per year formula that the Harry Potter saga followed.  That said, it is a wonderful and useful cliche and adds a fair amount of depth to the medieval/renaissance world that birthed the concept of higher learning.

The Real Hogwarts
And along with the University Cliche, comes the City Cliche.  I imagine that this is the difference between authors who have dwelt in a major metropolitan area, and those that live in the sticks, or even in large sized towns.  This is another great and rare fantasy cliche.  After having lived in NYC for over a decade, I can tell you hundreds of details about the city that prove just how diverse and unusual each neighborhood.
The city of Camorr
Too often in fantasy, large cities are simply background to travelers passing through, and possibly getting mugged.  The idea is simple, in the midst of this fantasy world is a massive, sprawling city: the center of government, commerce, learning, music and art.  And a central part of this cliche is that the city is described as any normal city would be, with various quarters and districts, specializations and peoples of many nationalities and backgrounds.  Again, it adds a degree of realism that is very much missing in many fantasy epics.  Some examples from other worlds.  The Gentleman Bastard's city of Camorr, modeled off of medieval Venice.  Also, Darujhistan from the Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Jordan's cities each had its own character, and there were dozens of cities in which the characters spent time, but detail at this level was rarely provided.

I said in my last post that I wouldn't bother with this in the future, but I think a note must be made on the Name of the Wind's magic system.  Much time is spent describing this system called Sympathy, and it is pretty neat overall, described in the link above as pseudoscientific energy manipulation. Overlapped with it however, seems to be various other magics, The Power of Names cliche for one (hence the book's title), the power of demons, and the mysterious powers of the arch-enemy, the Chandrian.
Kvothe and the Chandrian, by sir-hearts-a-lot

Completeness:  So... you get the sense that the world is indeed a large place, but so much of this first book takes place in one city that it can be easily forgotten.  That said, the denizens of the city are quite diverse, and Kvothe's family of friends are all foreigners.  Also, his people, the Adema Ruh, are traveling performers, and that in itself is suggestive of a wide scope.  More than anything, though the book is written believably enough that even though the world itself seems somewhat hazy at the end of this first book, you trust the author to make amends for this in later books.  I'd say it stands up.

However, there do seem to be plot holes, and this is a major flaw in the book as far as I am concerned.  The most obvious, and previously alluded to is the Szcherezade aspect of the story, in which Kvoth tells his story in three days.  By the end of the first story he's barely 17.  If the next book does a full four years (which it doesn't, he'd just barely be 21.  Leaving our embittered assassin killer bard a bare 25.  I'm sorry, you don't have the right to be bitter at 25.

There are others too: Rothfuss has a habit of telling stories within stories.  I love a good flashback, but when a flashback goes forty or fifty pages of a 350 page novel, and then gets interrupted to tell a 20 page parable within the middle of said flashback, enough is enough.  For another intelligent review of NotW, read Benjo's Books review.

At the end of the first book we are left with many questions.  This might be genius at work, maybe he's setting us up.  I'd like to believe that, but I just can't.  To me it seems too much like the TV show Lost.  Which was pretty much Lost after its first season.