's Review No: 2

On Fantasy Giants, Magic Systems, and Cool Metatextual Stuff

Rating:

namewind

Fantasy, like few other genres of popular culture, is the land of giants. Metaphorical ones, of course, but I can’t think of many more artistic endeavors where the playing field is dominated by a mere few authors. One only has to pick up any Terry Brooks novel, for instance, to see the long shadows cast by JRR Tolkien (Classic Fantasy Hero’s Journey) and CS Lewis (People Magically Transported to a Strange Place). More recently, JK Rowling (Manichaean Battle with Scholastic Backdrop) and George RR Martin (Gritty World That Ignores All The Genre Rules) have exerted their own tidal pull on the genre. Writing truly original fantasy is, in a way, like trying to make a reggae record that doesn’t rip off Bob Marley: the degree of difficulty is high.

So where does that leave us? How does a fantasy author navigate this minefield and bring something new to the table? Some authors go completely off the reservation (I’m thinking Steve Erickson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, or China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, as quality, bugfuck examples of such), or they use other literary traditions as foundational templates (like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, fantasy and noir and the Western canon put on puree by a mad cackling Welshman), or they put a new spin on an existing template. Lev Grossman’s Magician books, for instance, are fascinating, adult syntheses of Rowling and Lewis.

The Name of the Wind, the first book of a trilogy (and Patrick Rothfuss’ first novel), at first glance doesn’t really distinguish itself from the pack. Kvothe is our hero, and his childhood as part of the Edema Ruh, Gypsy-like travelling entertainers, is first idyllic, then considerably less so. Of course he’s an extraordinary child. Then he goes off the the University, where the bulk of the book’s action takes place. Of course he proves to be one of the cleverest students in school, achieving in days what usually takes years. Of course he almost immediately makes a mortal enemy of another student but also makes boon companions of people he basically meets by accident.

But this rather stock system of story points conceals a story of substantial emotional weight that’s told in a fairly interesting way. At the beginning of the book, Kvothe is already a legend, albeit a legend with a price on his head who is hiding out as an innkeeper in a backwater village. A newcomer called the Chronicler manages to convince Kvothe to tell his story, whereupon the boom shifts from third to first person, and we get the story of Kvothe’s childhood told in deep retrospective. It’s a cool concept, one that allows for all sorts of fun metatextual shit. It’s telling that, less than halfway through the book, I ordered the sequel (which I’ll certainly be reviewing at some point).

But then, the way the story is told isn’t the only attraction. Rothfuss does some fne worldbuilding here. The magic system, for instance, is fantastic, speaking as an amateur critic of various such systems. It brings to mind the old “any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic” saw, as there’s a fairly scientific underpinning to, well, weird things that people can do with their minds, should their minds be so constructed. There are various branches of magic, including sympathy (telekinesis, seemingly the most common), sygaldry (runes), and most importantly, Naming. It’s the last that introduces enough noise to a well-ordered scientific system to provide some of the book’s significant story moments. As a child, Kvothe saw a peddler speak the Name of the Wind. That peddler turns out to be a magician (or arcanist), and shortly becomes Kvothe’s tutor. Kvothe’s search for the Name of the Wind not only gives the book its name, it provides the backbone of the overall story.

And oh, the music. No lay of Beleriad or drunken rendition of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” can hold a candle to what Rothfuss does with music. It’s the glue that holds the book together, it’s what gives Kvothe so much of his depth, and it’s cleverly used as exposition as part of the book’s recursive stories-within-stories structure. Various lutes, in fact, are stronger supporting characters than many of the actual supporting characters, which of course is both a good and bad thing.

And the supporting characters are many. Kvothe’s school chums, and his great enemy, are right out of the Hogwarts playbook, though Rothfuss gives class issues a deeper look and sharper bite than Rowling ever did. Sad to say, almost everyone at the University ends up being fairly one-note, which is one note more than most of the folks in the present-day framing story. The Chronicler is given a bit of depth, and Bast, Kvothe’s student, definitely has an agenda. But make no mistake, this story is all Kvothe’s.

According to the book’s wiki page, it’s been optioned as a potential TV show. There’s an argument to be made that A Song of Ice and Fire’s current place in the fantasy firmament owes much to Game of Thrones, much more so than, say, Harry Potter, as the boy wizard was a global phenomenon well in advance of the films. The Name of the Wind is copyright 2007, and I wonder if Rothfuss wouldn’t be making the rounds of late-night talk shows if Eddie Redmayne had been playing Kvothe since 2010. Fantasy has become a sexy medium over the last decade, thanks in part to the massive success of the Lord of the Rings movies. And thankfully, as the spotlight has shined brighter on this once-dismissed genre, the authors that provide the stories have been stepping up their games. All told, fantasy is a considerably richer genre than it was when I was tucking into Shannara and Wheel of Time and Dragonlance books in my misspent youth. Rothfuss may not have the q-rating of Martin or Rowling, but the tale he spins is one that any lover of great stories should pick up

(Image via Marc Simonetti at deviantart)

12 comments to On Fantasy Giants, Magic Systems, and Cool Metatextual Stuff

  • narfna

    This is one of the best reviews I’ve read of this book. I’ve been a Rothfuss pusher since 2009, so I always love seeing someone fall in love with his books for the first time. Looking forward to seeing what you have to say about book two.

  • Jen K

    Great review. Kind of a tangent based on your first paragraph – where would you put a name like Robert B. Jordan? When reading The Name of the Wind, I feel like I could see definitely small influences or references that could be traced to Jordan, and I think he has influenced current fantasy, but given how long and tedious the series The Wheel of Time was at points, I’m not sure if he will have the staying power because 14 books is a lot to read through just for historical knowledge on the genre. What do you think?

  • Incandenza

    Thank you both for the kind words.

    narfna, I have another review or two to get through, but I’m hoping to have a Wise Man’s Fear review up in the not-too-terribly distant future. I think I have a good hook for that one.

    Jen, I’d classify myself as generally uncharitable toward Jordan. I started reading WoT in my early teens and burned through the first five books rather quickly. Then I had to settle in and wait for subsequent books to publish, and that kind of killed my momentum. I’d have to go back and at least browse previous books just to know what the heck was going on. Then, for lack of a more flattering way of putting it, I just felt like Jordan had crawled so far up his own backside that the books just became needlessly discursive. Every cool concept (the Seanchan, the taint on the male magic pool, the Aiel, Mat freakin’ Cauthon) was either run into the ground or abandoned for 1500 pages at a time. And it was just too, well, Tolkein-y. I mean, I get it, many many many fantasy authors have difficulty getting away from Tolkein at the beginning of their careers, but just because Jordan (for instance) gave some nuance to his Ringwraiths-lite doesn’t mean they weren’t essentially Ringwraiths.

    All that being said, Jordan does have influence on the genre, in that the WoT was one of the first big bestselling epics. I’m sure there were other 10+ book series before him, but he really captured the market there for awhile. While I didn’t end up particularly enjoying the last few books I read, I certainly respect the way he paved for the preposterously long fantasy series. In retrospect, I wonder how much I would have enjoyed, say, the Malazan Books of the Fallen had I not gotten into them just as the final book came out in paperback, and instead had to go back and reread piecemeal as I did with WoT. (on a side note, OMG Malazan, I heart the hell out of those daffy books)

    Finally, now that you mention it, I can certainly see where Rothfuss might have been influenced by Jordan (there’s some parallel between the Aiel and the Adem, certainly, and Rothfuss has his own Ringwraiths-lite), though it’s been so long since I darkened the metaphorical doorstep of the Wheel of Time that I simply didn’t pick up on them. Good catch.

    • Jen K

      I didn’t start reading the series until 12 or 13 of the books were already out but if I had been forced to wait for some of the middle ones I would have given up. He’s also oddly sexist with all the spanking and the inability of the men and women to actually have a conversation with each other and understand each other’s motives. I think one big parallel I also saw with Rothfuss was between the Tinkers and the Edema Ruh, and both of course owe something to the gypsy/Roma culture or at least the idea of it.

      • Incandenza

        It’s been so long since I read WoT that I completely forgot about the Tinkers, so there’s that. But I’m not quite ready to credit Jordan with the first instance of co-opting gypsy/roma culture in fantasy, so I couldn’t say how much WoT specifically influenced the Edema Ruh.

        And yeah, women are problematic in WoT, but then again, fantasy as a whole has a problem with women. Hell, women are problematic in Name of the Wind, which is something I’ll be addressing in my Wise Man’s Fear review, as Rothfuss’ depiction of women goes from rather strange to, in my humble opinion, full barking mad.

  • Alexis

    This is indeed a great review.

    I am a great lover of big meaty fantasy books that take a little while to settle into but rolling, are a great ride. And Rothfuss definitely earns a spot on the top list of meaty fantasy reads. And to be clear I really enjoy his books and will be rushing to get #3 when available.

    But there are a bunch of niggling issues that keep me from fully going fangirl on him. There are large chunks of the stories (note: I read both a while a go so details are blurry and I can’t distinguish what happened in which book) where nothing much happens. I caught myself wondering, “Would the book work just as well if you cut out that whole section?” For example we see him repeatedly struggling to pay his tuition. More times than needed. And the whole stretch where he’s essentially a starving street urchin felt looong. And if it was really necessary, the payoff is a long time coming (as in it hasn’t come yet, if it shows up in book #3 I would argue it’s too long).

    The whole fair land sexursion in book #2 had me somewhere between laughing out loud and in a fit of feminist rage.

    So yes I love these books too and would adore them as a well-made TV serial. But I had a lot more “buts” in my review. That I didn’t write. And wouldn’t have been as lovely as yours if I had :)

  • Alexis

    PS. Apologies for typos. I am noticing them now but we aren’t able to go back and edit our own posts so….blerg :P

    • Incandenza

      The pacing in Name of the Wind isn’t bad, but it does become a problem in the second book, which is definitely something that I’ll be talking about in my review. I didn’t mind the period where he was a street urchin, as I felt it sufficiently distanced him from his warm and fuzzy childhood. Plus it put into stark relief the difference between Kvothe and pretty much every other student at the University. Granted, Rothfuss does sometimes hammer home that fact with little subtlety, but it’s rather rare in fantasy to have a main character who simply has no idea how he’s going to pay the bills. It felt like a nice change of pace from, say, Harry Potter finding out he’s sitting on a hill of gold. Plus it gave Rothfuss the chance to introduce Devi the moneylender, who was one of the few secondary characters that seemed to have some actual depth and nuance.

      As far as the sexcursion, yeah, we’ll be talking about that. Oh man.

      And of course, thank you for the kind words. Writing reviews has been enjoyable, but actually chatting with fellow fans of the books has been the real joy during my first CBR, so an additional thank you.

  • This is a fantastic review, and I will have to check out this book. I really am not sure what you were saying half the time, but your review is very well-written that it made me more interested. I think I am generally a fan of fantasy, but mostly because so much good young adult is fantasy and I <3 young adult.

    • Incandenza

      To my mind, there’s not a ton of daylight between YA fantasy and just plain-old fantasy. I read the Lord of the Rings when I was around ten, and while there are certainly series that might not be terribly appropriate for a ten-year-old, I would rather see a child reading a fantasy series than playing Grand Theft Auto.

      Thank you for the kind words. If there’s anything in the review that doesn’t make sense, just ask and I’d be happy to talk about it.

  • What all the others said. Great review. I always enjoy other people’s takes on fantasy I love. I’m honestly not sure if there is any epic fantasy series that don’t have any niggles at all for me. I agree that Rothfuss isn’t perfect, and the pacing of book 2 got to me a lot more than the meandering pace of book 1, but I still think he’s up there among my favourites, simply because I forget most of the niggles until I’m done reading his gorgeous language.

    I’d love to hear your arguments as to why I should re-try the Steven Erikson books. I got to two thirds through the second book and then gave up because I was soooo bored. I just don’t see the greatness there.

    • Incandenza

      Sadly I think you might’ve bailed on the Malazan books at the worst time. Book two can be a bit of a slog, but the resolution for the two main storylines is pretty insane. In particular, the fate of the Chain of Dogs is wrenching. More to the point, Memories of Ice (book three) is where Erickson really seems to hit his stride. MoI and Reaper’s Gale (book seven) are probably my two favorites of the series. So if you’re up to it, you’re right on the verge of things getting good. Don’t let that boring old stick-in-the-mud Heboric chase you off.

      The Malazan books certainly aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They can be a bit meandering, the POVs are split up a bit more than I’d like, and sometimes small things take like four thousand pages to pay off, and you’d better pay attention because Erickson doesn’t offer much in the way of “previously on…” signposting. That said, I read all ten books, all twelve thousand-some-odd pages, back-to-back, and then picked up book one and started again (I made it through book seven before finally putting them aside and reading something else). All told, I spent six months completely immersed in the series, so my opinions may not be those of a completely sane person.

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