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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.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Three C's of Fantasy

So, for the past few years, I have sought to structure my reviews according to a 5 part matrix for assessing fantasy novels. The fantasy five I called them. They were: Character, Cliche, Scope, Magic and Theme. Unfortunately, this lead to massive reviews that take a long time to write, and that I suspect bore my readers to tears.
The Bridgeburners

So I am reducing the rubric.  I'm keeping the first two, Character and Cliche.  character speaks for itself, what is a story without great characters? And I find the cliche aspect of my work to be Very Important.  Many writers have taken a stab at identifying classic fantasy cliches but I have yet to find a really cohesive list.  And as I've said about a billion times, cliche in fantasy is necessary and good.  Why use a hundred words when one good cliche can suffice? Also, cliches are an excellent cross reference between and among the classics. They are almost like phylogenetic trees! Oh he uses halflings? Oh well, then the author probably played video games, or Dungeons & Dragons, which means that he's calling to mind the world of Tolkien. Or he uses absurd humor and zany anachronism? His work calls to mind Lewis Carol.

However, I had a bit of trouble deciding the third category.

 I love discussing magical systems in these works, but it turns out, in so many of the best novels these systems are anything but clear.  And while they may appear internally consistent, a rigorous discussion can be a dive into minutiae that just isn't necessary in a review.  I've also noticed over the last few years that i tend to discuss magic in other parts of the review, frequently when discussing characters.
Moretta, Dragonlady of Pern

Scope and Theme are important factors as well, but they are anything but clear.  What is clear is that a good novel has both in droves and that "you know it when you see it." Which leads us to the third factor: completeness.

The Eye of the World
I don't much care for the word, it leaves a lot to be desired and I may change it. But it does encapsulate a lot of important ideas: 1) the idea that the fantasy world is believable, detailed and coherent (scope) 2) that there are no major plot holes 3) that this completeness contains a palpable theme, a vision and artistic direction (theme).

So here are my reduced factors, three categories:

1) Character
2) Cliche
3) Completeness

My next review will either be Dragons of Autumn Twilight, or the sequel to Shadowdale, Tantras.

By the way, what are we thinking of my Forgotten Realms reviews? Am I bogging down on something that is ancient history? The fact of the matter is they seem to be generating a fair number of hits, so I'm inclined to continue.  But the phone lines are open, so call in!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Wise Words of Karsa Orlong, House of Chains, Steven Erikson

So, in the Malazan world, a favorite character of mine, and of fandom, is the Thelomon Toblakai, Karsa Orlong.  The character change this of this behemoth blade-master changes much over-time, but even at his most barbaric, he speaks with a gravitas, that is always stirring.  Even the author finds Karsa an interesting study.  For Erikson's treatise on Karsa and 'the other,' click here.

This quote, from Steven Erikson's House of Chains, occurs as the Teblor warrior muses on the rebellion known as The Apocalypse.  He has thrown in his lot with the Apocalypse, almost by chance.  He abhors the rebellion's avowed purpose, and by now has come to admire the Malazan Empire somewhat.  These are his musings on the War of the Apocalypse.

And if you read my other blog, RavingLeftatic, you'll see why I excerpted this here.  All credit goes to the author, again, Steven Erikson.

by shadaan
"The notion of a life spent tilling fields was repellent to the Teblor Warrior.  The rewards seemed to be exclusive to the highborn landowners, whilst the labourers themselves had only a minimal existence, prematurely aged and worn down by the ceaseless toil.  And the distinction between high and low status, was born from farming itself -- or so it seemed to Karsa.  Wealth was measured in control over other people, and the grip of that control could never be permitted to loosen.  Odd then, that this rebellion had nothing to do with such inequities, that in truth it had been little more than a struggle between those who would be in charge.

Yet the majority of the suffering had descended upon the lowborn, upon the common folk.  What matter the colour of the collar around a man's neck, if the chains linked to them were identical?

Better to struggle against helplessness, as far as he was concerned.  This blood-soaked Apocalypse was pointless, a misdirected explosion of fury that, when it passed, left the world unchanged."
by slaine69 at deviantart