Normally, on this blog, I review things that I like a great deal, because those are the sorts of things I enjoy talking about, but this time I want to take a stab at a book that, for me, moved from good to okay to “whatever, I don’t care anymore” in short order. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m about 1/3 of the way through (on which grounds I’ll assume that nothing I say counts as a spoiler). Jordan loves this book; I don’t understand what everyone likes so much.
First, the positives. The writing is a cut above most fantasy; it’s fluent and sometimes even lyrical in a genre where even excellent books, like A Song of Ice and Fire, have only serviceable writing. The beginning is tremendous, providing enough momentum to carry the reader through…maybe 100 or 200 pages. Too bad it’s a 700-page doorstopper.
On to the problems.
“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak during the day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”
This, I have the misfortune of telling you, is not only the opening of the main part of the story, but also the blurb on the back. Why would anyone read a story whose narrator describes himself like this? I react the same way I do to people like this in real life: “You don’t need me to like you. You already like yourself enough for both of us.”
In fiction-writing circles, we call this character type a “Mary Sue” (the male variant is a Marty or Gary Stu). The author thinks Kvothe is the awesomest thing ever and loads him up with awesome traits so you’ll think he’s awesome. There is nothing awesome that he doesn’t do, and nothing awesome is done except by him. He’s so awesome that all the other characters willingly acknowledge it and accept secondary places revolving around his awesomeness. The plot, and indeed practically the entire world, also revolves around him.
Mary Sue is a bit of a catch-all term, but there are some common traits that Kvothe (the narrator) demonstrates:
- Dead parents. Mary Sues often have tragic backstories to give them apparent depth.
- Exceptionally good at everything. A Mary Sue is virtually always either far and away the best at one thing, or exceptionally good at everything, or both, and usually also picks up new abilities unusually fast and without much effort:
“[Y]our young Kvothe is rather bright…As a matter of fact, ‘bright’ doesn’t begin to cover it, not by half…He does everything that way, quick as a whip, hardly ever makes mistakes…It’s not just memorization though. He understands. Half the things I’ve been meaning to show him he’s already figured out for himself…Have you ever known a boy his age who talks the way he does?…I’ve had older students that would have loved to do half as well…If I had his hands, and one quarter his wit, I’d be eating off silver plates inside a year.” (pp. 86-88)
This is often a shorthand way to give the character abilities, so that after one training montage they’ll be ready to face the big bad, but that explanation doesn’t work in a book this long. Instead, it’s the classic mistake of loading characters with talent to make them interesting. This doesn’t work, of course: Characters without flaws or weaknesses are not interesting at all, and the reader can’t empathize with someone who accomplishes everything effortlessly*.
- Liked, praised, and followed by everyone, except obvious villains. Also notice how willingly other legitimately powerful and interesting characters, like Bast and especially Chronicler, accept their place in orbit around him. It’s as if they know that they’re in his story, he’s important, and they’re not.
- Is responsible for every important event in the plot. This one is sketchy since Kvothe’s childhood backstory isn’t of great worldwide import, but consider the fight with the spiders where Chronicler is injured. Why does the powerful magic worker who’s a match for Bast suddenly become useless? Because if he did anything, he’d be diminishing Kvothe’s awesomeness.
The biggest weakness of all is the pacing. The Name of the Wind is proverbial for not advancing the overarching plot…at all…in 700 pages; the mysterious demonic creatures who killed his parents and hinted at devious overarching purposes quickly go from compelling to peripheral to forgotten, as do a number of other characters and details that seem like they might be of importance but are mentioned so offhandly and in such isolation as to be pointless (such as specifically mentioning that Lady Lackless is a real person, p. 78).
Rothfuss also constantly violates the cardinal rule of storytelling: that every scene should either build character or advance the plot. This book is full of bits that do neither. For instance, there’s a scene where Kvothe, living on the streets of Tarbean, tries begging in the rich part of town during the winter celebration, gets beaten up by a town guard, and gets helped by two people in costumes who give him money. We never see the guard or the costumed people again, he never goes begging in that part of town again (just as he hadn’t before), the money doesn’t get used for anything interesting, his injuries heal uneventfully, and Kvothe doesn’t act any differently than he did before. Unless something later in the book connects back brilliantly to this moment, which I doubt, this scene belongs on the metaphorical cutting room floor**.
In terms of character development, entire sections of the book fail to build on each other. “Bard/ranger/wizard: Worst multiclass ever,” I joked to Jordan, but it’s true in a way. Like a bad multiclass, one thing he learns has no influence on the next. I kept wondering why, as a street child, he doesn’t use the magic he knows to steal or keep himself safe or perform or any of its myriad possible uses; or, for that matter, why he doesn’t try being a street performer or seeking out another group of Edema Ruh actors (the answer is that the story is plot-driven: Kvothe is too awesomely awesome to be realistically victimized, but Rothfuss wants him to have his woobie moment, so he just fails to try any of the countless skills at his disposal). In fact, Kvothe the street child acts as though his early life never happened. His brief time alone in the forest is also not influenced by his earlier time learning magic, and it in turn has no influence on his actions in Tarbean (you don’t even need to ask whether it influences the overarching plot).
The last pacing issue is simply that Rothfuss seems to have no sense of what’s interesting and what isn’t. We cut from a fight between a demon and a member of the Arcanum (six pages) to riding in the caravan reiterating exposition (nine pages). The framing device is, at least theoretically, perfectly valid, but it falls apart if you’re always waiting for the main story to stop so you can get back to the framing events.
My final problem is the complete dearth of female characters. By around page 50, I’d begun wondering why there are no women in this village. The breakdown of female characters so far is:
- Page 58 (That’s longer than an entire novella): First female character introduced. There are two, but the other one doesn’t have a speaking role.
- Page 113: They both die. (That is, they have fewer pages total than preceded their introduction.)
- Page 175: A female character without a speaking role is mentioned in a story.
- Page 178: She dies.
Notice that they all die offscreen (or rather off-page). This is a phenomenon called “stuffed in the fridge:” when a female character is killed off solely to provide character development for a male character***. This virtually never happens in reverse; male characters are much more likely to die heroically, with the story still focused on them rather than on the people around them. True, Kvothe’s father and some other male characters die too, but there are still plenty of living male characters, whereas, as of page 185, literally every female character has died.
Jordan assures me that it gets better. He promises that there are not one, but multiple female characters who manage to not die (but do they talk to each other?). He tells me that the Tarbean sequence is the slowest part of the book and that it picks up once Kvothe gets to the university. I’m skeptical. After all, “adventures at a magical school” is no less cliché than dead parents and could easily be just as disconnected and poorly paced as the story so far. Rothfuss has squandered so much potential. Why use shortcuts like dead parents and preternaturally brilliant protagonists in a book long enough to develop things properly? Why introduce interesting characters like Bast and Chronicler and then consign them to sit around listening to Kvothe talk? Why even have an overarching plot if it’s just going to be forgotten by both the reader and, apparently, the author?
All that’s left is the good writing, but good writing can’t carry a weak story.
See my reaction to the remainder of the book here.
*Note that the opposite tack, which is used even more frequently–making the main character a hapless everyman with no skills or interesting traits at all–is also a mistake. A character who can’t propel the plot at all is just as uninteresting as a character who has sole control over the plot.
**Jordan has validly pointed out that the scene introduces the Midwinter Pageantry and immediately precedes the scene where we hear the story behind it, which is a nice bit of organization. Still, Kvothe didn’t need to find and lose and find money and get beat up for the umpteenth time.
***This concept was coined, originally in reference to comic books, by Gail Simone in 1999. You can learn more at her website, Women in Refrigerators. It doesn’t always require death; when women in fiction go through any sort of horrible trauma, the focus is often on the surrounding male characters and how they react, whereas with a man, it’s more logically on the man himself and how he changes and develops in response.