So I’ve been thinking a lot about the books I’m reading right now. In particular the critically acclaimed second volume of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man’s Fear. The novel is enormous, weighing in just a few pages shy of 1,000. I’ve slowly picked my way through 700 of those pages over the past few months. WMF is kind of my ‘guilty pleasure’ read, mostly because it is epic fantasy and jesus I can’t even type that genre distinction out without pausing to push an invisible pair of coke-bottle glasses up the bridge of my nose. It’s hard to imagine but once upon a time Tolkien and his crew were the provenance of shut-ins and egg-heads. Yet with the ascension of Nerd Culture (whatever that is) to the fore of Popular Culture (whatever that is), epic fantasy shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure, especially if it is done well.
Rothfuss’s first book, The Name of the Wind, was just such a story, a very well written bildungsroman of a young arcanist named Kvothe. The story is told after the fact, by the protagonist to his chronicler, as the former has retired in disguise into a life of tending bar (sort of). The discrete episodes of NotW vary in their compellingness, but quite a few are damn successful. Imagine Harry Potter without the Dursley safety net growing up as a Dickensian street urchin in a world where magic exists. Like Harry, Kvothe is destined for greatness, we know this because in the framed narration all of the folks in the bar talk him as a contemporary legend. NotW is fascinating because we get the kid before the invincible wizard, the boy whose very life is hanging by a thread. True, he does make it to adolescence and the relative safety of a University, but the resourcefulness Kvothe develops on the streets is never lost. It’s easy to believe Kovthe’s rapid ascent through the arcanum’s hierarchy because we all saw what he had to go through just to stay alive and no student would have that same kind of drive.
Yet many of things that make Harry Potter an interesting study for me, are his many faults. I don’t need to tell readers of the Potter books just how deeply unlikable Harry can be. Much of this isn’t his fault. Harry is thrust into the role of Destined Hero, physically marked as such, this despite the fact that we are continually reminded that he just isn’t that talented at magic. So he can be whiny and arrogant at the same time. Harry is also unlucky in love (for the most part), unpopular to a great many, not particularly fit or good looking, in short, an amazingly ideal everyman, one a reader can easily relate to. In many instances it is Harry’s friends, teachers, enemies and loved ones who are more talented, more interesting, and just plain more moving. And I’d argue that is a good thing, for them, for Harry, for the reader.
But what happens when you take this same orphaned hero-of-destiny archetype and infuse him with an insufferable amount of skill?
Well, for one thing you get Kvothe.
Before the reader even gets to WMF, Kvothe is already one of the best musicians in the world. This is due to his gypsy-like heritage. So even though as a student he’s poor as shit, he scrapes by and makes tuition playing his lute at bars. Rothfuss then transposes this finger-plucking talent to skill in magic. It’s a relatively easy jump. Magic in this world is wonderfully scientific. To his credit, the author goes into great deal on how it works, and there are several different kinds, I won’t go into too much detail here, suffice to say it’s pretty neat-o. But a consequence of this is that Kvothe also becomes an incredibly talented arcanist, as well as the magical equivalent of a blacksmith, and on and on. There is literally nothing the kid isn’t good at.
Which brings us to women. The. Single. Biggest. Problem I have with these books is the depiction of women. While at the University Kvothe acquires a kind of harem. Quite literally, all of the women who play any significant part in his life while there are attractive and in some way attracted to him. They are also very clearly the same person, poorly divided into 6 or whatever.
There’s the hot friend and fellow student Fela, who would be like Hermione if Hermione was written to be beautiful (she’s clearly not, Emma Watson was a poor choice and has done a lot to transform a buck-toothed and bushy haired brainiac into a sex symbol) and not noticeably more talented than Harry. Kvothe doesn’t start anything with Fela because he’s ‘saving her’ for his smart aleck friend Simmon who has some kind of weird dibs on her or something.
There’s Devi, a former student turned loan-shark, a girl with a darkside who throws herself at Kvothe on several occasions as a way of repaying his debt. She’s tiny and evil and believably sexy, but of course, finds Kvothe irresistible as all of these women unfailingly do.
There’s Auri, a beautiful blond specter and emotionally damaged quasi-mystical Luna-like character who lives under the University. She’s all purity and innocence and a living symbol of what power does to such things. There is no explicit attraction here, the girl is skittish as hell and won’t interact with anyone–except, of course, our hero who is hot girl catnip.
There’s some hot medic whose name I can’t remember.
Then there’s Denna, Kvothe’s True Love. Denna is prostitute, though she is described in much nicer words. She has patrons who buy her things for the pleasure of her company, men who eventually treat her poorly and then she runs off whenever the plot has no use for her at the moment. She’s stunningly beautiful, and flirts with Kvothe, but only because Kvothe “doesn’t behave like other men,” he’s just so cool that he don’t give a fuck if she’s around or not. When he very clearly is in love with the girl.
Kvothe is also very fond of stating just how little experience he has with women, this despite the fact that he is constantly hanging out with pretty girls.
Okay, so enter WMF where about 600 pages in Kvothe wanders through the forest, slips out of time and encounters a mystical being by the name of Felorian. She’s fae, this world’s version of fairy-folk or nymphs or whatever. We are told again and again that she is the most beautiful girl in the history of the world. That she is so beautiful that the mere sight of her causes men’s minds to break. That’s she’s a kind of succubus who eats up a man’s sexual energies and then when she’s done they return to the real world as shattered shambling broken things, or more often, sex with her literally kills them.
So of course not only does Kvothe LOSE HIS VIRGINITY to THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN HISTORY, but his prowess is so damn good that they spend months banging. In the end he winds up conning her, telling her he needs to go back and write a song of tribute, that he can’t compose yet because he hasn’t experienced boring sex with regular broads.
YES THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS.
Rothfuss is at his most cloying when trying to describe a pretty girl, he trots out nature metaphor after nature metaphor, her body is like this, she moves like that, etc. But the kicker is when at the close of the Felorian section he actually writes that women are like instruments and nobody plays them better than Kvothe. And that sex with the Felorian was an epic symphony, but don’t worry fat girl, or plain girl, sometimes a Kvothe just wants a quick jig. Hey girl, don’t worry, Kvothe knows how to play you just right. VOMIT.
So yeah, that’s where I’m at. Amazing how fast a series I started off loving has turned into one where I’m in serious danger of losing my ability to see what with my eyes rolling after every other sentence. But hey, there’s still 300 more pages–of this book, before the 1,000 page conclusion.