This review is going to be one of those exercises in futility, I suspect. Particularly, the kind of futility that comes from trying to puzzle out popu...moreThis review is going to be one of those exercises in futility, I suspect. Particularly, the kind of futility that comes from trying to puzzle out popularity. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
I spent a lot of The Name of the Wind trying to puzzle out why so many people have reacted to it with such enthusiasm. I liked it okay - it's thoroughly enjoyable. It is the fantasy version of Fritos, or something - movie theatre popcorn? Maybe, I'm not sure. Probably the best thing about it is a lightness, a playfulness that keeps the novel from getting dragged down by all the familiar ground it treads. I know SFF books have well-deserved reputations for sincerity and earnestness, but irony has also started to leak into the genre. The Name of the Wind isn't really funny, but it is self-aware (sort of) and it isn't solemn or heavy or anything. I'll probably read the next books, if the ever stay on the library shelves long enough. I suspect, like this one, they will be speedy, entertaining reads.
But. There was something idle about reading this - my enjoyment was all surface-level. I don't even like George R. R. Martin's books, and I resent that it's currently impossible to talk about the genre without mentioning them, but there is something pricking about Martin's work: it gets under your skin, even if you don't think it's that good. Rothfuss didn't get under my skin, and I don't think the world-building is particularly vivid. His dedication mentions Narnia, Pern, and Middle-Earth: three (well - two and a half) of the most vivid and fantastic universes in the ever-expanding list of fantasy worlds. I think the stumble comes - for me, obviously, so many people love this book and probably feel quite differently - in the fact that there's no place for the reader in TNOTW. We are an audience, not a participant. In tone and spirit, I think Rothfuss' book and universe are closest to Pern: there's something quotidian about them both. But you can read Pern and be like, "fuck, I want a dragon" or whatever, and I don't know that a similar reaction is possible while reading TNOTW. I mean, there are more seductive schools of magic (although I like that in this one it is an ACTUAL SCHOOl, I'M LOOKING AT YOU, HOGWARTS). Maybe Wise Man's Fear has some other asskicking organization that spawns a million RPGs, but I doubt it. So what are you supposed to latch onto when reading this? Because usually with a sff series beloved by many there is something.*
I don't think it's the main character. He's okay? He's one of those smug and unreliable narrators with ~*secret trauma.*~ Rothfuss uses a lot of tropes, and he's very skilled at handling them and keeping them from being tiresome - Kvothe is (this isn't a spoiler) the most important person to have ever lived. But now he's in hiding! I have a weakness for this trope - it is my favorite! Ever! Especially when coupled with the "old trouble is coming to find you, hobbits" trope. (Or "your ~heterosexual life partner needs you to come save the world again, Fitz.") Those are my favorite favorite things to read about. (Getting the band back together!) Except except except: that's not what happens. I might be going through a phase in my reading life where I only want forward motion, and this book moves backwards, mostly. But that backstory isn't as gripping as the hints of plot we get in the present. I mean, I like the tricks and stuff. I like meta genre fiction. But after a certain point you want the book to stop showing you how clever and cheeky it is and start actually moving. (Ideally, of course, a book would manage both feats at once.) (There is one plot tangent that GOES NOWHERE. Kvothe gets a bit of information out of it, but I'm sure there are other ways to accomplish that.)
ALSO, oh god, the female characters in this book are embarrassing. I know there is an easy defense to be made here, and that defense is, "but the book is about Kvothe, and he's utterly lacking in emotional maturity, and of course he only sees women and the rest of the world in relation to himself." To which I say: that is a ridiculous argument. There are ways of undermining your POV-character's judgment while keeping them in first-person, and I recently read a book that did this marvelously well (An Instance of the Fingerpost). Also, do you know how many books there are that are about how men see women? It is basically all of them. Good writers can make women in their books mysteries (gross) to their main characters while still making them people to readers. You can't unilaterally excuse the flaws in a novel by saying they originate with the main character. Characters originate with their author, and it's poor craftsmanship and lazy thinking to pretend otherwise.
Man, I have a lot of complaints! But actually, although TNOTW is over-rated, I still enjoyed it very much.
* This isn't the only way to write a good book obviously! But usually when people react with such enthusiasm to a novel, it has this participatory element.(less)
1. Hmm - I suppose I wasn't completely sold on this book, maybe because it can't decide if it wants to be a tightly plotted adventure story or a medit...more1. Hmm - I suppose I wasn't completely sold on this book, maybe because it can't decide if it wants to be a tightly plotted adventure story or a meditative look at art and storytelling (with family baggage). Frankly, at 250 pages, it's not long enough to do both - or, anyway, Frost is not an economical enough a writer to do both. Either of those approaches would have been fine by me, since I am perfectly capable of enjoying both kinds of books when they are done well. In this case, however, Shadowbridge pulled me in two directions without committing to one. I know that this is the first of two books, but that seems to be frankly unnecessary.
2. One really concrete structural change I can pinpoint, and I think it would have made a big difference to my appreciation of the novel: I'd rather Frost had cut the section where we learn all about Leodora's past life and growing up. The novel would have been better served if he'd eliminated the flashback all together, and let us infer the relevant information from the characters' present lives. Instead, the ~50 pages bloat the novel, condescend to the readers, and slow down the pace. This section does not cut down on portentous allusions to the characters' past lives. I assume its purpose is to give us some character development and also wold-building, but frankly the characters have fairly strong personalities and they don't belong to any particularly unusual archetype and anyone even a little bit able to think analytically will figure it out. (And frankly, figuring things out is one of the pleasures of reading!)
3. I know this was on the honors list or whatever for the Tiptree Award, but actually I don't think it does very much with the themes of gender and sexuality?
4. Sometimes this book is funny, and then I enjoyed it. Well, maybe smart-alecky is a better way of putting it - anyway, those are the good parts. And the world-building is also interesting, or would be . . . it's kind of specious. I also thought the stuff about art and music and stories was interesting but - well, not sufficient. This book needed to be more elegant or denser, but it certainly shouldn't be two books (Lord Tophet is only 240 pages). So, yeah.(less)