The Wise Man's New Clothes

by Dan H

Dan did not find the second volume of the Kingkiller Chronicles to be worth the wait
~

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 of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe.

You may have heard of me.

Thus begins the blurb on the back of the first volume of Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles, and it's repeated on the second.

This is partly because, like many Fantasy novels, the Kingkiller Chronicles is really just one massive, massive novel chopped roughly into three parts. I suspect, however, that it's also partly because the blurb on the back of a book is usually a summary of what happens in the book, and despite weighing in at just shy of one thousand pages of densely printed text, the Wise Man's Fear is actually rather short on the “things happening” front.

If I had to summarize the entire book in twenty-five words or less I would do it like this:

Kvothe is awesome. He meets people who tell him how awesome he is, and they teach him to be even more awesome. The end.

As I so often say at the start of these articles: I am almost tempted to leave it there.

I'm not going to break down the sequence of events in the book, explain how Kvothe goes from the University to Vintas to Faerie to Ademre back to Vintas and back to the University – it's not really what happens in the book (insofar as anything happens) that I'm concerned about, it's the way in which the whole book collapses into a godawful mess of juvenile wish-fulfilment which undermines any hope I might have had for the series.

Oh, I should also add that this wound up getting far longer and far angrier than I intended. Sorry.

A Little Context

The Name of the Wind was spectacularly well received. Like spectacularly well. It won awards, it was praised by the likes of Orson Scott Card and Ursula le Guinn, it was one of those books people admitted to disliking only with a note of shame in their voices.

The book has become something of a poster child for what is best in the Fantasy genre – rich worldbuilding, clever storytelling, intricate plotting and a knowing deconstruction of the tropes and assumptions on which it is based (although to be honest, even in 2007 I was a little bored of deconstruction – it's still worth doing, but people really need to stop pretending that it's a new idea, I mean hell Elric was a deconstruction of the tropes of the fantasy genre).

I was sceptical but ultimately positive about the first volume, ultimately concluding that it was doing a lot of interesting things with the medium, and cleverly analysing the intersection between reality and myth, people and legends.

I was disappointed, therefore, to find myself reading a book which, amongst other things, devotes eleven out of its hundred and fifty two chapters to describing how its sixteen year old protagonist spent three days having sex with a hot faery woman who by the way thought he was totally awesome at sex.

The Double Standard

This bit is going to be a bit high-horsey, for which I apologise in advance.

Ages ago I read Trudi Canavan's Age of the Five trilogy and concluded that when you put all of the protagonist's skills end to end they made her look like a godawful Mary-Sue. But ultimately this was forgiveable because when you get right down to it The Age of the Five was mostly an enjoyable bit of girly fluff which wasn't trying to do anything serious.

For the record, at the start of the book Kvothe is one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen, fluent in several languages, a precocious magician, able to call upon magic of a kind few even believe exists, able to climb walls and pick locks, a master artificer, skilled in both arts and sciences, endlessly resourceful and never ever meets a woman who doesn't fancy him. By the end of the book he's all of that, plus he's even better at magic, has learned secret martial arts techniques that make him better at fighting than anybody he will ever meet except for the people who taught him, has gained the ear of several powerful people, and has been taught secret sex skills by a hot older woman who never the less thought that he was pretty amazing at doing sex even before she taught him to be more amazing at doing sex (I will come back to this a lot because I think it's probably the most stupid and juvenile part of what I now am convinced is a fundamentally stupid and juvenile text).

What annoys me about Kvothe is not so much that he's a gratuitous Mary-Sue, but that despite this fact he is taken incredibly seriously by critics. People bitch about how unrealistic it is that everybody fancies Bella Swan, about how stupid it is for teenage girls to indulge in a fantasy where powerful supernatural beings are sexually attracted to them. People laugh at characters like Sonea and Auraya because they're just magic sparkly princesses with super-speshul magic sparkle powers. But take all of those qualities – hidden magic power, ludicrously expanding skillset, effortless ability to attract the opposite sex despite specifically self-describing as being bad at dealing with them, and slap it on a male character, and suddenly we get the protagonist of one of the most serious, most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the last decade.

Of course you can't ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she's seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.

Imre

I know I said I wasn't going to go through the events of the book in detail, but I am going to discuss my irritation with the book in a broadly chronological sequence. This is simply because the book is so huge and so lacking in structure (beyond the obvious detail that some events happen after some other events) that it's far easier to think of it in terms of “The Imre Bit”, “The Vintas Bit”, “The Felurian Bit” and “The Ademre Bit”.

So the book starts off with Kvothe in Imre, where it's a straight continuation of Imre sections of the first volume. Kvothe is unable to pay his tuition again, which I wouldn't object to if it weren't for the fact that I've already read that plotline in book one (about the first quarter of the book, indeed, could be seen as the end of the first volume as much as the beginning of the second). We're thrown pretty much headfirst back into the setting, which was kind of jarring because dude, I read the original two years ago and I sure as hell won't be going back and rereading it to remind myself who Simmon and Kilvin and Exa Dal are (I did eventually remember, but I spent quite a while choking on name soup).

I'm afraid this article is going to be something of a list of Things That Annoyed Me. There were two Things That Annoyed Me about Imre.

The first was an issue that I remember having trouble with in the first book, which I have taken to referring to as the “poverty wanking”. Kvothe spends a lot of time being poor. He spends even more time telling the reader that if they have never been truly poor, they cannot understand what it is like to be poor. This is true, and I could almost accept this as a brave attempt to challenge the class privilege of his readership (and Lord knows I've got plenty of that – I've never had to deal with real shortage of money in my entire life, and I do absolutely take for granted the fact that food and housing and hot water and broadband internet access will be easily within my reach from now until the day I die) but there's just something about the whole thing that rings hollow.

I think mostly it's the fact that while Kvothe only has two shirts, and has to worry about finding the money to pay for his University tuition (something which, in his world, is itself a massive privilege, and one which Kvothe barely even needs given his precocious talent and secret route into the Archives) but he has several easy sources of income which, by the standards of his world, are very lucrative (he makes and sells magic artefacts for pity's sake; a profession for which only a handful of people in the world are qualified, and which he does better than pretty much anybody else out there), and he gets free room and board from a local tavern in return for his services as a musician (he also makes money performing at a local music venue, and while it's not much by the standards of the nobility it's certainly enough to live on). I'm annoyed by enforced poverty as a fictional trope at the best of times (why hello Season Six Buffy, fancy seeing you here) but Kvothe's constantly reminding us that “if you have never been truly poor, you will not understand” makes me want to throw something.

I know I'm on thin ice here, because frankly I'm as middle class as they come. I've never slept a night without a roof except that one time I went camping, I've never missed a meal except through laziness, I spent a year unemployed but I was well supported by my friends and relatives and live in a country with an adequate (if not generous) benefits system. I have, however, read a great many first-hand descriptions of real poverty from people who really haven't know where their next meal is coming from. Kvothe's life is nothing like the lives of those people, and barring the (extremely forced) homeless sequence in book one, it never has been. Kvothe does not read like a poor man who is forced to scrabble for every penny just to pay for life's necessities, he reads like a middle class kid who is jealous of the fact that his rich friends have better toys than he does. It wouldn't be a problem on its own, but the smug, sanctimonious insistence that I “cannot understand” his plight because I have “never known poverty” made me want to scream. No, I haven't known poverty, but Kvothe isn't poor, he's just not rich.

Sorry, that rant's been waiting for two years.

The second thing that annoyed me about the Imre sections was – well it wasn't really a feature of the Imre sections themselves, so much as the way they were resolved and led into the next bit of the plot. Kvothe's university shenanigans go on for a long time. Like I say, this is a long book. A long, long book. Again (I have mentioned this before, I will mention this again) the book spends eleven chapters describing how Kvothe totally got to score with a hot chick. It's long. It's wordy. The author bio on the inside back cover describes Patrick Rothfuss as somebody who “loves words, laughs often, and refuses to dance” and he seems to have chosen to demonstrate his love of words by including a great many superfluous ones.

The Imre section ends with Kvothe being put on trial for malfeasance (using magic for harm), and Kvothe pointedly refuses to discuss it despite the fact that (according to the Chronicler) it's a major part of his legend. This didn't bother me so much since I was pretty sure a long courtroom sequence would be deathly dull. Then, however, he gets an offer of patronage from the Maer of Vint, which requires him to take leave of the University and undergo a hazardous journey to a foreign kingdom. Here is how this journey is handled in the book:

Several unfortunate complications arose during the trip.

In brief there was a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order. It also goes without saying that I did a great many things, some heroic, some ill-advised, some clever and audacious.

Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man's shoes and recited poetry. The last should demonstrate more than all the rest how truly desperate my situation became.

However, as these events have little to with the heart of the story, I must pass them over in favour of more important things. Simply said, it took me sixteen days to reach Severen. A bit longer than I had planned, but at no point during my journey was I ever bored.

Now okay, I get it. I really do. Because this is a serious fantasy novel which deconstructs genre conventions and plays with your expectations Rothfuss is deliberately glossing over a segment in Kvothe's life which, in a lesser novel, would be highlighted. I get it. I even get that because Kvothe is narrating the whole novel in first person, his choice to skip over this section reveals something about his character, both his jaded unwillingness to revel in tales of adventure and his almost childlike delight in subverting the expectations of Bast and the Chronicler (which parallel Rothfus' delight in subverting the expectations of his intended audience oh do you see how many levels this works on).

But.

This section appears on page three hundred and sixty five. It comes at the end of three hundred and sixty four pages which have been taken up with scenes where Kvothe converses with infuriatingly quirky girls (all of whom are hot), or infuriatingly eccentric old men (none of whom are hot), or with sequences which rehash plot threads which were already covered in the first book, or with endless conversations in which Kvothe engages in self-indulgent wordplay with either a hot quirky girl or an eccentric old man. I'm sorry but you do not get to bore my tits off with trivialities for three hundred and sixty pages (for those of you keeping score at home that's twenty pages more than the entirety of The God of Small Things) and then score points by not describing a sequence of events that might have actually included some incident.

Also: funnily enough, I have no idea why a sequence in which Kvothe escapes from pirates has “nothing to do with the heart of the story” when a sequence in which he talks to an annoying quirky girl, or one in which he wanders around the Archives for ages finding no interesting or useful information, or one in which invents a new machine for catching arrows, or a scene where a hot woman offers him sex and a fortune in return for access to the Archives and he refuses, or a scene where he shows how totally awesome at playing music he is, or yet more of his pointless back-and-forthing with Ambrose, or any of the other things which take up the first third of the book are somehow totally vital to it.

This is because I have no idea what the heart of the story is or is supposed to be, and I am pretty sure I will have no way of knowing what the heart of the story was supposed to be until the last page of the last volume. I mean as I understood it the story was supposed to be about Kvothe's pursuit of the Chandrian, and how his chasing legends ultimately led him to become a legend, but all I got in the first three hundred and sixty four pages of The Wise Man's Fear was minutiae and pointless worldbuilding. If Kvothe wanted to focus on the heart of the story, he could have summed up half of the first book and a third of the second as “I went to the University looking for information about the Chandrian, but I didn't find any.”

Vintas

After Kvothe arrives in Vintas, things actually get a lot better (at least for a while) and I found myself getting back into the swing of things. I could have done without his having arrived penniless, necessitating yet another sequence in which Kvothe tricks his way into the towers of the great with nothing but the clothes on his back and his native wit but it's all dealt with fairly quickly and Kvothe's interactions with the court of the Maer of Vint are relatively well done (although once again, it basically consists of Kvothe being amazing at everything, and all the people who matter deciding that they will immediately like, trust, and respect him because of his obvious natural superiority – sorry this was in fact the section I liked, I just really think it's important to remember that Kvothe's social interactions make Bella Swan look well articulated).

In Vintas, Kvothe does many great things for the Maer, including helping him win the heart of his intended bride, which he manages to do perfectly despite the fact that at this stage in his life one of Kvothe's vanishingly small number of weaknesses is a complete unfamiliarity with romance and an inability to deal with women.

Kvothe's final service for the Maer of Vint is to go north with a motley band of mercenaries and sort out some bandits. This they do, chiefly because Kvothe is able to call down lightning from the sky and kill a whole bunch of them. Now in the previous book Kvothe is remembered as calling down lightning from the sky, when what he really does is throw some flashpowder at some people. This provided a nice illustration of the book's central ideas about the difference between myth and reality and the way tales grow in the telling. In the bandit encounter in book two, Kvothe really does just blow them all up with a lightning bolt. Now yes, it takes a lot out of him and yes, he actually does it using “sympathy” not what Kvothe thinks of as “real” magic but since to a real-world reader as well as to pretty much everybody in the actual setting, sympathy is real magic anyway, the distinction is somewhat lost.

On the way back from his victory over the bandits, Kvothe encounters Felurian.

Felurian

Oh Felurian. Where to begin.

Felurian is that staple of fantasy novels, the deadly naked sex monster. She's the most beautiful, most alluring, most sexually attractive woman you'll ever see, and she will totally kill you with sex.

Felurian is the sirens, and Artemis and pretty much every other sex-death-nudity chick from mythology or fiction rolled into one. Kvothe catches her, bones her, breaks free of her sex-death-nudity mind control, completely whips her ass in a straight fight, then bones her again, then plays music that makes her think he's awesome, then writes half a song about her that is so awesome that she agrees to let him go so that he can finish it, then disses her sexual prowess, which prompts her to get really insecure and tell him what an amazing lover he is, then they have sex some more, then she sews him a magic cloak, while he goes away and talks to a prophetic tree which turns out to be evil.

Then they have sex some more, then he comes back to the real world and is all “bros, I totally did it with Felurian” and everybody is all like “no way, you'd be mad or dead” and he's like “no I totally did it with Felurian” and then the hot barmaid from earlier is all like “no he's definitely telling the truth because I am a woman and I can see that he has got totally sexed up since we last met, because I tried to sex him and it freaked him out, but now it looks like he wouldn't be freaked out and also he would be totally awesome at sexing.” Then Kvothe does sex with the hot barmaid and he is totally awesome at it, and he explains how doing sex with the hot barmaid is totally as good as doing sex with Felurian, because women are like music and sometimes you want to listen to a beautiful symphony and sometimes you just want a nice simple jig, and by the way this definitely isn't sexist, and if you think it is then you know nothing about music or love or him.

This last line, apart from being switched from the first to the third person, is a direct quote from the book.

So yeah, Felurian.

I should repeat that apart from a few misgivings, the Vintas segments of The Wise Man's Fear did actually convince me that I'd misjudged the book, that pacing issues aside it was going to turn out okay. The Felurian section convinced me that what I was dealing with was the worst kind of third-rate wish-fulfilment crap.

Here is the exchange between Kvothe and Felurian after he finishes his half-finished song (a song, I should add, which is included in full in the text, and which both Kvothe and Felurian describe as having beautiful words – a claim I would hesitate to make about anything I had written myself, particularly if it was incidental music for my fantasy novel):
Some of the fire left her, but when she found her voice it was tight and dangerous. “my skills 'suffice'?” She hardly seemed able to force out the last word. Her mouth formed a thin, outraged line.

I exploded, my voice a roll of thunder. “How the hell am I supposed to know? It's not like I've ever done this sort of thing before!”

She reeled back at the vehemence of my words, some of the anger draining out of her. “what is it you mean?” she trailed off, confused.

“This!” I gestured awkwardly at myself, at her, at the cushions and the pavilion around us, as if that explained everything.

The last of the anger left her as I saw realization begin to dawn, “you...”

“No,” I looked down, my face growing hot. “I have never been with a woman.” Then I straightened and looked her in the eye as if challenging her to make an issue of it.”

Felurian was still for a moment, then let her mouth turn up into a wry smile. “you tell me a faerie story, my kvothe.”

I felt my face go grim. I don't mind being called a liar. I am. I am a marvellous liar. But I hate being called a liar when I'm telling the perfect truth.

Regardless of my motivation, my expression seemed to convince her. “but you were like a gentle summer storm.” She made a fluttering gesture with a hand. “you were a dancer fresh upon the field.” Her eyes glittered wickedly.


That's right, Kvothe was so amazing at doing sex that the ancient sex goddess of sex and death was actually unable to believe that he was a virgin because he was so amazing at doing sex.

Once again, I say this. The next time you hear anybody complain about the fact that – in certain popular novels targeted at young women – hundred year old vampires fall for sixteen year old schoolgirls, point out to them that in one of the most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the twenty-first century a faery creature of unbridled sexual potency, as ancient as time itself, who lures men to their deaths with her irresistible beauty and insatiable lovemaking has her mind blown by the sexual prowess of a sixteen year old virgin.

There is a part of me, a tiny part, which respects the sheer brass bollocks of this. Not only does Kvothe get to live out the adolescent fantasy of being taught how to be amazing at sex by a fantastically hot older woman (and I understand and appreciate this fantasy, and don't think there's anything wrong with it – adolescent fantasies are important, even for grownups, hell that's why I play RPGs and read genre fiction) but said hot older woman takes the time out at the start of the whole sequence to make it very clear both to him and to the reader that he was already amazing at sex and that all her tuition will be doing is making him even more amazing at sex.

Also what is up with her not using capitalization. What does that even sound like?

As part of the Felurian interlude Kvothe encounters a prophetic tree, which Bast interrupts the story to tell us is the most dangerous thing ever because it has absolute knowledge of the future and is utterly malicious, and therefore if you encounter it your every action will bring nothing but destruction (this is clearly a nonsensical idea, and is dropped into the middle of the text without ceremony or foreshadowing and I have no idea if we're even supposed to take it seriously). The whole faery interlude just came so totally out of left field and turned the story on its head in ways that felt annoying and unsatisfying. It introduced a whole bunch of concepts that didn't really have any buildup, and it transformed Kvothe's story from a story about a clever, resourceful man whose reputation grew far beyond the reality to the story of a man who really was just all that and a bag of chips. Suddenly he went from being somebody who did great things, and to whom legendary powers were attributed, to somebody who really did just have access to ancient powerful magic for no clear reason.

To put it another way, at the start of this review, I quoted the “I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings...” section from the first book. In The Name of the Wind we see that when Kvothe “burned down the town of Trebon” what really happened was that the town was burned down by a rampaging Draccus (a creature which itself was the mundane source of a fantastical rumour) while Kvothe was in the area for other reasons. This engaged cleverly with the novel's central themes.

In The Wise Man's Fear we deal with the “I have spent the night with Felurian” section of the speech. Unlike the town of Trebon, where the truth behind the story is both more mundane and more interesting than the version that is repeated in legend, the story of Kvothe's night with Felurian is just – well – exactly what it says on the tin. There's no clever twist or double meaning, no unexpected subversion of our expectations. He just really did do something which he totally shouldn't have been able to do, and looked awesome while doing it, and got to have loads of sex with a really really hot woman who by the way thought he was awesome at sex. It's not clever, it's not illuminating, it's just pathetic.

Ademre

I really do think that the Felurian sequence broke the book for me. Part of this is that my perception of Kvothe and the text in general shifted so fundamentally after the utterly facepalm-worthy faery sequence. Part of it is that once he's been initiated into the mysteries of womanhood by Felurian, Kvothe suddenly starts to have a whole lot of sex.

Once Kvothe has been taught to be awesome at sex by Felurian (but just so it's clear, he was already awesome at sex, this is very important) he then gets taught to be awesome at fighting. Thus becoming the best man ever.

In the world of the Kingkiller Chronicles there exists a kingdom (or an area of land at least) called Ademre. Ademre is one of those spurious fantasy cultures that seems to have a totally martial-arts based economy. They follow a philosophical thingy called “the Lethani” and study awesome martial arts that, of course, make them better at fighting than everybody else in the world. They then go into the world as mercenaries where they make a fortune being awesome at fighting, most of which they send back to their homeland, where it goes to support their otherwise extremely poor countrymen.

Kvothe travels with an Adem mercenary as part of his work for the Maer of Vint and, because everybody who meets Kvothe either takes an instant irrational dislike to him or treats him like he's the most important person in the universe, this mercenary initiates Kvothe into the secrets of the Lethani, and begins to instruct him in Adem martial techniques. It is worth pointing out at this point that doing either of these things is about the most horrific cultural taboo his society has, and is punishable by death or excommunication from the Adem (which the Adem, being the Noble Warrior Culture naturally consider to be a fate far worse than death).

The Adem discover that Kvothe has been taught their secrets, and he and his mercenary friend are summoned to Ademre to face judgement. They talk to Kvothe and he impresses them with how completely awesome he is and how he totally groks the Lethani even though he was only introduced to the concept about three weeks ago.

So because it's totally forbidden to share the secrets of the Lethani with people outside the Adem, but because Kvothe is apparently totally “of the Lethani” because he totally understands what this complicated philosophical concept is all about because of how awesome he is the only option that the Adem have open to them is to teach Kvothe to be totally awesome at fighting.

Of course.

The Adem, as it turns out, have a matriarchal society, for which Rothfuss scores precisely one point (he did not, at least, assume that it was impossible for women to have a prominent role in a warrior culture). He promptly loses that point for explaining that the reason the Adem have a matriarchal society is that their martial art is all about control and women are so much calmer and more sensible than men, because men are just so aggressive.

It also turns out that the Adem have no cultural taboos about nudity or sex. This of course leads to an intricate and profoundly well realised exploration of the ways in which our cultural notions of … oh who am I kidding. This is an excuse for Kvothe to have sex with a bunch of hot women who want to have sex with him because he is so awesome. Also there are no STDs in their culture because they all have sex with each other all the time, and obviously if your culture is based on rampant unprotected sex, it must be impossible for anybody in your culture to get an STD, because then STDs would spread around your population really fast, and obviously that couldn't happen, so they must all just be totally disease free. QED. Just to be clear, I'm not extrapolating here, this is exactly how it is explained as working in the book. At no point does Kvothe ever receive a sexual proposition from anybody he does not find attractive, and there is no engagement at all with the question of homosexuality.

So Kvothe gets taught to be awesome at fighting. To be fair, he does very clearly wind up being much less good at fighting than any of the actual Adem, there's a comedy sequence in which he gets his ass handed to him by a ten year old girl (although I kind of felt that this undermined the earlier point about how women in Ademre are better fighters than men – because we're clearly supposed to find the fact that Kvothe is beaten up by a girl funny and faintly emasculating, which makes the Adem's supposed respect for women warriors ring rather hollow). At the same time it's very clear that his two months of training in Ademre are going to make him better at fighting than anybody he is ever actually likely to get into a fight with, except for supernatural beings.

I think what bugged me most about the Ademre section was that it felt like this entire culture existed purely to provide an excuse for Kvothe to get good at fighting. These people who are utterly mistrustful of outsiders, incredibly paranoid about their secrets, and grounded in a social and philosophical ideals that Kvothe clearly finds completely alien never the less happily teach him their greatest secrets and formally initiate him into their society, and they do all of this despite the fact that he never shows even the slightest sign of having internalized (or even of remotely respecting) the ideals of the Adem. He never, for example, seems to get over his habit of assuming that women are inherently less capable fighters than men (he feels particularly embarrassed at being beaten up by a young girl and later on he massacres a group of bandits and feels particularly guilty about the fact that they had two women with them).

To put it another way, the overwhelming impression I got from The Name of the Wind was that while over the course of the novel, Kvothe acquired a great many skills, he didn't actually learn anything. He acquires awesome sex skills from Felurian, but doesn't learn anything about interacting with women except how to get what he wants out of them. He acquires awesome martial-arts skills from the Adem, but doesn't learn to really appreciate or understand their culture (except insofar as he comes to appreciate the benefits of being surrounded by hot women who treat sex as little more than a handshake). He doesn't really grow or change or develop in any meaningful way, he just gets more powerful – he's like the protagonist in a CRPG: he wanders around doing arbitrary-seeming quests and unlocking more powers. In every meaningful sense, the Kvothe who returns from Ademre at the end of The Wise Man's Fear is exactly the same as the Kvothe who was homeless on the streets of Tarbean in The Name of the Wind.

Denna

Something I've avoided talking about thus far is Denna. Denna is Kvothe's love interest.

I'm really not sure what to say about Denna. Kvothe meets her early in the first book, and then she's in and out of his life like the wind (oh do you see). Kvothe's love for Denna is pretty much his biggest drive in the book – even more so than his pursuit of the Chandrian, which is frankly lacklustre at times. Basically it's your traditional Nice Guy Protagonist in love with Mysterious High Class Prostitute story – it's sort of like Moulin Rouge or Mal/Inara in Firefly. They have lots of conversations in which she tells him how much she values him and how brilliant it is that he isn't like other guys who just want to control her and tie her down, and Kvothe spends a lot of time narrating to himself how brilliant it is that he isn't like other guys who just want to control Denna and tie her down. Meanwhile he spends the majority of his free time fantasising about how great it could be if he could control her and tie her down.

Okay, that's slightly unfair, but only slightly. In this type of narrative in general, the mistake writers wind up making is always in presenting the problem as strategic in nature. Try to tie the girl down, and she'll run away, so it's more practical to take a softly-softly approach so that you can get what you want. The notion that what the girl herself wants might enter into the equation is always rather a side issue. It is taken for granted that Kvothe will only be able to truly “be with” Denna if he can get her to stop running and stay with him – he never even considers the possibility that they could have a relationship in which she simply retains the independence she seems to value so highly.

I don't think the Denna thing would bother me if it weren't for the fact that Rothfuss' women are so uniformly … fneh. Pre-Felurian, they're basically all desexualised and childlike (like Auri, the quirky pixie girl who lives in the Underthing) or else Mysterious Gatekeepers Of The Mystic Lands of The Sex (like Fela, Devi, and all of the other hot women who fancy Kvothe without him realizing). Post-Felurian, the Mystery has gone out of the non-childlike women, but the Gatekeepers of the Lands of The Sex they remain.

I don't want to make too big a thing out of this (particularly since if I did this would apparently be evidence that I knew nothing about music, or love, or Patrick Rothfuss) The Kingkiller Chronicles is just generally not great for women. It has a fair few female characters in it who are interesting, but their interestingness is somewhat undermined by their total obsession with (which always includes sexual interest in) Kvothe.

In Conclusion: Follow Through

The Kingkiller Chronicles is a serious Fantasy series for serious Fantasy readers. I know it is, because it keeps telling me it is.

Each volume opens and closes with a section called A Silence of Three Parts, this chapter is always slightly different, but it always ends with the following line:
It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

It's this line that sets my expectations for the series. It will be serious, it will be melancholy, it will chart the tragedy of a man who did great and terrible things.

But it has no follow through.

So he gets expelled from the university, but it in no way stops him accessing the university. He's poor, but never so poor that he can't afford everything he could possibly need. He's of low birth, but nobody who isn't clearly evil reacts badly to him because of it. He wanders blithely into faerie and is none the worse for wear. He encounters a society in which everybody has casual, unprotected sex with everybody else, and this apparently creates a society completely free of sexually transmitted diseases. He rescues two girls from a gang of rapists, and briefly muses that they will now be unable to find husbands, but when he returns them to their home village virtually everybody expresses a twenty-first century, non-victim-blaming attitude.

The Wise Man's Fear is nine hundred and ninety four pages of setup, foreshadowing and copout. Kvothe wanders a world which exists only as a backdrop for him, and interacts with people who exist only to flatter him (either with their irrational hatred or their equally irrational adoration). It is a shallow, superficial text pandering to shallow, superficial fantasies. If it was three hundred pages shorter, and less portentously written, I'd recommend it unreservedly as a way to indulge your inner fourteen-year-old.

I have no doubt that The Wise Man's Fear will take its place alongside The Name of the Wind in the canon of modern Fantasy. I'll just sit here with my palm over my face.
~

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~
Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 19:27 on 2011-04-13
I, wow, fail.
Melissa G. at 20:25 on 2011-04-13
*facepalm*

No, really, that's kind of all I've got. I'm just sort of sitting here going, "I-what-but-it..." *throws up hands and walks away*
Orion at 20:48 on 2011-04-13
My first reaction was to smugly proclaim that I've already written the story Name of the Wind evidently pretended to be--which is true. I was 14, so it was terrible for other reasons, but I like to think I stuck to the "myth is less than reality" thing pretty effectively.

My second was to realize, to my shame, that I also wrote most of the story Wise Man's Fear apparently is. This has me wondering: is the "wish-fulfillment" angle separable from the "sexism" one? If you've committed yourself to a hypertalented male protagonist whose powerset explicitly includes charisma, do you just stop pretending to care about authentic depictions of women, or what?
http://winterfox.livejournal.com/ at 20:52 on 2011-04-13
Why does the cover appear to feature a Jedi?

I'm sorry but you do not get to bore my tits off with trivialities for three hundred and sixty pages (for those of you keeping score at home that's twenty pages more than the entirety of The God of Small Things)

Oh my god The God of Small Things. A viable die-able age. HOW EVERYONE SHOULD BE LOVED AND HOW MUCH. Fffffffuuuu that book.

See, I never read the first Kingkiller book because it sounded precisely like the stuff I'd hate, but people keep raving on and on about it and I don't get it. Even the backcover bit sounds incredibly obnoxious: "oho look how clever I am by LAMPSHADING my GARY STU qualities. SEE? SEEEEE."

Jesus that post-coital exchange. No one can convince me to read Rothfuss. Ever. Ever. This, this right here? This is shit writing. This is stupid writing. Anyone who praises Rothfuss as whatever can go take a leap.
Dan H at 22:20 on 2011-04-13
Oh my god The God of Small Things. A viable die-able age. HOW EVERYONE SHOULD BE LOVED AND HOW MUCH. Fffffffuuuu that book.


Is that a "I hated God of Small Things" or an "I really liked God of Small Things"? I kind of can't tell.


See, I never read the first Kingkiller book because it sounded precisely like the stuff I'd hate, but people keep raving on and on about it and I don't get it. Even the backcover bit sounds incredibly obnoxious: "oho look how clever I am by LAMPSHADING my GARY STU qualities. SEE? SEEEEE."


It's very clever-clever, I thought that the first book just about got away with it, but the second just spiralled into a pit of stupid.
Dan H at 23:47 on 2011-04-13
This has me wondering: is the "wish-fulfillment" angle separable from the "sexism" one? If you've committed yourself to a hypertalented male protagonist whose powerset explicitly includes charisma, do you just stop pretending to care about authentic depictions of women, or what?


The glib answer to "is wish fulfillment separable from sexism" is "only if you have sexist wishes."

To be more specific and hopefully more helpful, I think it depends on how your handle your character's charisma. Just because somebody is charismatic, that doesn't mean that women have to throw themselves at him (any more than it means men have to throw themselves at him - assuming your character isn't so supernaturally gorgeous that they overcome people's sexuality, it seems reasonable that they wouldn't overcome people's general preferences either). Writing charismatic characters in *general* is really hard, because they can easily come across as somebody people like for no particular reason (like John Sheridan or for that matter Kvothe).
Uhg, this sounds horrible. And surprise, surprise, the guys at Penny-Arcade loved it.
http://winterfox.livejournal.com/ at 07:10 on 2011-04-14
I hated The God of Small Things like burning, random incest and all.

koboldwhisperer: hurrgh Gabe and Tycho. What a pair of toxic wads.
Arthur B at 10:02 on 2011-04-14
Now yes, it takes a lot out of him and yes, he actually does it using “sympathy” not what Kvothe thinks of as “real” magic but since to a real-world reader as well as to pretty much everybody in the actual setting, sympathy is real magic anyway, the distinction is somewhat lost.

Wait, is Rothfuss seriously suggesting that there's nothing magical about sympathetic magic? Or is sympathy something different from that?

Either way: wow, this sounds shit. At least Moorcock (on his better days) had the decency to give his wish-fulfilment figures a hard time. Yes, Elric is teh sex and is good at fighting and magic and is really smart, but early on in his career he's really kind of a terrible person, later on he wants to change but is already too dependent on Stormbringer to rid himself of it, and eventually he's completely unable to protect anyone or anything he loves when it really counts. Is there any sign or hint that Kvothe is ever going to fail at something in a manner which he can't recover from within a hundred pages or so?
Dan H at 10:24 on 2011-04-14

Wait, is Rothfuss seriously suggesting that there's nothing magical about sympathetic magic? Or is sympathy something different from that?


There's a little bit more to it than that - Rothfuss' "sympathy" is quasi-scientific in a way that's actually quite interesting (it obeys conservation of energy, involves calculus and is treated by the people who study it as a form of engineering which it sort of is). "Real" magic is Naming, which is the proper "do anything and blow anything up" type of magic.

Uhg, this sounds horrible. And surprise, surprise, the guys at Penny-Arcade loved it.


To be fair, the actual cartoon looks more like it's mocking the book than praising it. I mean the title is "when Larry met Mary" which I sort of assume is implying that Kvothe comes out as a Mary Sue version of Leisure Suit Larry.

They might have *also* really liked it, but the cartoon is actually pretty spot on.
Wardog at 10:28 on 2011-04-14
If you have sex with two ninjas have you come before you even knew they were there...*boom-tish*

Generally very much NOT a fan of PA but I did like the cartoon - even if they liked the book, at least they were vaguely aware of its absurdity.
Dan H at 10:37 on 2011-04-14
Actually what I find really weird about the reaction on Penny Arcade is that Gabe at least seems to have been unremittingly positive about the book despite not actually liking anything about it.
Arthur B at 10:41 on 2011-04-14
>Actually what I find really weird about the reaction on Penny Arcade is that Gabe at least seems to have been unremittingly positive about the book despite not actually liking anything about it.

Sort of justifies the title of this article, doesn't it?
Dan H at 11:00 on 2011-04-14
Sort of justifies the title of this article, doesn't it?


One might almost have suspected it of being deliberate...

I'm rather pleased that Thomas Wagner over at SFReviews.net shares many of my misgivings - he also opens with a particularly cringeworthy list of quotes from other reviewers which would have been hilarious if it wasn't so indicative.
Ash at 11:09 on 2011-04-14
I'm really, really glad I decided to not read these books after I learned they involved 'demons' called skraelings.

Seriously, how hard can it be to put your made-up and not-so-made-up names in a search engine and see what turns out?
Dan H at 16:09 on 2011-04-14
I'm really, really glad I decided to not read these books after I learned they involved 'demons' called skraelings.


Ooh dear, that isn't good at all.

Worse, I doubt that it was wholly accidental, Rothfuss is clearly interested in etymology, so it makes me think he *probably* did it at least semi-deliberately.
Ash at 18:45 on 2011-04-14
How the hell do you do something like that accidentally on purpose? WHY the hell do you do something like that?

It just baffles me that no one called him out on his shit.

He's not getting a penny from me until he apologises. And maybe not eveen then.
Dan H at 18:48 on 2011-04-14
I suspect the way you do it accidentally on purpose is you find out that there's a term that appears in Icelandic sagas which means roughly "thin, scrawny things" and is used in lines like: "After the first winter summer came, and they became aware of Skrælings, who came out of the forest in a large flock" (thanks Wiki) and you think "hey, that's a cool name for my thin, scrawny alien creatures that are going to come out of the forest in a large flock in the first book". You just forget that it's also basically a racial slur.
Ash at 19:58 on 2011-04-14
I don't think the term itself is a racial slur (although I admit I only knew of the 'written skin' etymology), it's just its use in this context that's particularly wtf.
Arthur B at 21:36 on 2011-04-14
To be fair, he could be setting up some sort of reveal that the Skraelings are totally human after all.

Though it doesn't sound like it's worth reading through thousands of pages of that stuff to find out whether that's the case.
http://winterfox.livejournal.com/ at 22:22 on 2011-04-14
To be fair, he could be setting up some sort of reveal that the Skraelings are totally human after all.

Lord, even if there weren't--I'm guessing each book averages at over 900 pages each--nearly 3,000 pages between you and that reveal, I'd still be hard-pressed to imagine anything more asinine. It's not even a major part of the plot after all, is it?

Ash: heh, pennies. I've torrented books by terrible writers before for lulz, but when I actually loaded up the files to read, I discovered I had no interest in going past page two. There is such a thing as authors so off-putting that they aren't even worth reading for free. Also considering Rothfuss is currently a genre darling, the chances of anyone calling him out on either this thing or his female characters is slim to none. But hell, the latter happened to Joe Abercrombie, so maybe there's hope (and he even wrote slightly better female characters after the fact, though that's not saying much).
Dan H at 22:59 on 2011-04-14


To be fair, he could be setting up some sort of reveal that the Skraelings are totally human after all.


Since the Skraelings are eight-legged and crablike, that would be quite the twist, particularly since they're a throwaway in book one.
http://kellicat.livejournal.com/ at 01:05 on 2011-04-15
I've always wondered about all the praise people heap on this series because to me it sounds just like another example of male wish-fulfillment in epic fantasy and epic fantasy suffers from no lack of it.

What gets me is when people rush to squeal and drool over male epic fantasy authors like Rothfuss for their originality and bravery and marginalize the women who write epic fantasy and dark medieval fantasy by refusing to discuss their books or dismissing them as "women's stories" which is so ignorant it makes me want to scream.

Carol Berg has three complete epic fantasy series to her name, but how many people have heard of her? K.J. Taylor has written a dark fantasy trilogy with a villain protagonist, a unique medieval setting, and successful deconstruction of the special animal companion/chosen human relationship so prevalent in fantasy (It benefits the griffins as much is does the humans, politics and class play an important role in who a griffin chooses as their human companion, they don't adore human beings unconditionally, etc.), but how many people even know that it exists? What about Michelle West and her Sun Sword series? I only found out about it by reading a blog post by the author herself linked by Carol Berg to her own blog.

All the series above have their flaws, but while most critics either play up the flaws and ignore the things that the author does right (Michelle West) or ignore them altogether (K.J. Taylor, Carol Berg for a long time), they rush to gloss over the flaws of male authors like Rothfuss and Martin and I'm just sick of it.

Of course you can't ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she's seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.

Sarah Micklem's books Firethorn and Widlfire are books about a red-headed peasant girl who manages to have a knight fall in love with her, has fire magic gifted to her by the gods and has an extensive knowledge of herbs and healing. It's also a dark medieval fantasy that isn't afraid to hurt its protagonist and make her and everyone around her suffer. it's well-regarded critically, but it's not nearly praised as Martin or Rothfuss's fantasy series. Just a warning, there is a rape early on the first book, but I thought that the author handled it well. It's one the few fantasy series that manages to tackle medieval misogyny without making me want to throw a cluebat at the author. YMMV though.
http://cofax7.livejournal.com/ at 05:54 on 2011-04-15
What gets me is when people rush to squeal and drool over male epic fantasy authors like Rothfuss for their originality and bravery and marginalize the women who write epic fantasy and dark medieval fantasy by refusing to discuss their books or dismissing them as "women's stories" which is so ignorant it makes me want to scream.

Or like Sherwood Smith and Kate Elliott, both of whom are writing the kind of complex, meaty, plot-heavy stories with strong world-building that the fans and critics purport to love. Except neither of them get anywhere near the kind of press that people like Rothfuss and Martin do.
http://winterfox.livejournal.com/ at 10:47 on 2011-04-15
Since we're going there, what about NK Jemisin's 100K Kingdoms? Yeine doesn't tick all the boxes: she only gets the "hot sex with creator god," "chosen for special destiny before she was born" and "chieftain of her tribe despite exhibiting no leadership skills whatsoever" down (can't recall her age but I think he's in her early twenties, tops? Nineteen maybe?), but by the end of her story she turns into an honest-to-goodness creator deity. Jemisin is taken pretty seriously by critics as well as sf/f fans, and was nominated for the Nebula. Popular opinion of her writing is overwhelmingly, absolutely positive; she's praised for amazing world-building and characterization and super-duper-clever framing narrative.
Dan H at 11:06 on 2011-04-15
So we're rapidly coming to the conclusion that, in fact, the SF/F community will embrace silly Mary-Sue characters regardless of gender?

That's fairly positive, I suppose.
http://winterfox.livejournal.com/ at 11:37 on 2011-04-15
It's more progressive than "the SF/F community will embrace silly Sues when they're male but decry their female counterparts," I guess? Yeine's even black!

(Despite my low, low opinion of Jemisin's novels I didn't actually think Yeine was a Sue--my problems with those books lay elsewhere--but when you sit down and list all her characteristics...)
Ash at 12:57 on 2011-04-15
I was under the impression that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was successful because it was a novel with a PoC protagonist written by a PoC author that came out just after RaceFail09.
http://gareth-rees.livejournal.com/ at 13:45 on 2011-04-15
An alternative theory. The fan fiction community skews female, and it's the fan writers and critics who put the spotlight on Mary Sue. So it should not surprise us that Meyer's audience were quicker to identify and comment on the wish-fulfilment aspects of her work than Rothfuss's audience.
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 16:09 on 2011-04-15
Yeine definitely is not black, but she is a person of color, so the point still stands. (I'm linking to the article that underlines why I felt the need to point that out.)
Dan H at 17:10 on 2011-04-15
Yeine definitely is not black, but she is a person of color, so the point still stands. (I'm linking to the article that underlines why I felt the need to point that out.)


I really can't get my head around the idea of an African-American fiction section *at all*. I mean maybe I'm hopelessly naive but I'm pretty sure we don't have anything like that in this country (although to be fair and less laurel-resty that might be because of a tendency to leave black writers and characters out of bookstores entirely, rather than as a result of a more enlightened view of race politics).
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 17:18 on 2011-04-15
Once upon a time it was useful. Now it's just an excellent way to make sure that black writers only get read by black readers -- less than 12 percent of the U.S popluation -- and therefore have a drastically reduced shelf like, reinforcing the idea that "black books don't sell." It is THE main reason I'm not weeping over the closure of Borders here -- they seem to be the last bastion of such a section, where I live.

Barnes and Noble have an "African-American Interest" section, but it's in with all the other sociology and anthroplogy sections, like Native American History and Judaica. Their fiction is categorized by, y'know, category, not race of author.

At one point, my local Borders was lumping Zane's erotica and "urban fiction," James Baldwin's novels AND essays, Octavia Butler, and Barack Obama's memoir together on the same shelf. (One shelf that was very close to the register to keep Us Folk from stealin'. Sigh.)

I went to a manager about it, and she gave me the most crestfallen look ever and told me that they had all tried, but it was a decision of the higher-ups.
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 17:37 on 2011-04-15
(Oh, and yeah, I never saw that kind of thing in the U.K. either, not even in Borders. Granted, I haven't made an exhaustive study of the U.K. or anything.)

The funny thing about Borders here, too? Black British authors -- and Afro Caribbean, if I remember correctly -- were shelved right in with the "normal" fiction. (As were South Asian authors, Korean authors, South American, et cetera...) I definitely found Mike Gayle and the novel "Small Island" in with the mainstream fiction.

But I'm betting the U.K. publishing industry has undergone an entirely different sort of evolution. You'll still find, here, that some of the loudest advocates of having an Af Am section are African Americans, who want to have a shelf that "our children can look at, and feel proud, and know that they can accomplish things."

Which was in fact useful when I was a kid in the '70s. But now it hits the writers in the pocket and stands in the way of some of the social advances we need -- a greater variety of people writing a greater variety of experience (rather than depending on white writers to "get it right" all the time). We touched on that in the "Demon's Covenant" discussion.
http://kellicat.livejournal.com/ at 20:56 on 2011-04-15
I remembered N.K. Jemisin after I posted my comment, but unfortunately I can't remember any other women writing epic fantasy who's been embraced by fans and critics to the same extent so for now she stands as an exception to the general rule. Whether she represents a new trend or whether the fans will just go back to praising white men epic fantasy remains to be seen.
Robinson L at 15:06 on 2011-05-25
He rescues two girls from a gang of rapists, and briefly muses that they will now be unable to find husbands, but when he returns them to their home village virtually everybody expresses a twenty-first century, non-victim-blaming attitude.

The really depressing part is that even in the twenty-first century, such an attitude is still the exception rather than the rule.
http://conquestsong.blogspot.com/ at 23:29 on 2011-07-01
Excellent rant, you summed up everything I disliked about WMF and TNotW. I think Rothfuss has that gift where his writing is easy to read / easy to get sucked into -- thus, people rarely recognize or shrug away how shopworn and/or stupid the content actually is.
Dan H at 01:11 on 2011-07-02
He's certainly very readable (he'd have to be given how *stupidly long* his work is) and I'd feel much, much more positive about his books if they weren't so critically acclaimed. Which I suppose boils down to a churlish sounding "I'd like this more if other people like it less" but - yeah, it's quite good for silly wish-fulfillment, but it's not the great work of lit-ter-at-ture that people are claiming it is.
Steve Stirling at 07:47 on 2011-07-13
Michelle West is definitely an awesome fantasy writer. Very cool person, too.

Yeah, Kvothe is a wish-fulfillment, but so what? So are Odysseus and Beowulf. The question is how well it's done.

BTW, the really creepy thing about TWILIGHT is not that the sixteen-year-old girl can totally charm the centuries-old vampire.

It's that a guy centuries old is still hanging around high school. Christ, I shook the dust of secondary education from my feet just as fast as I could.
Arthur B at 11:42 on 2011-07-13
Yeah, Kvothe is a wish-fulfillment, but so what? So are Odysseus and Beowulf. The question is how well it's done.

I think Dan has made a very coherent case here that it's not done very well at all. :)
Dan H at 15:00 on 2011-07-13
Yeah, Kvothe is a wish-fulfillment, but so what? So are Odysseus and Beowulf.


That's a fine soundbite, but I strongly suspect that it's also meaningless nonsense.

How, precisely, are Odysseus and Beowulf wish-fulfillment? Unless you're defining "wish-fulfillment" as "any narrative in which the protagonist possesses admirable qualities". For that matter I'm not even sure if the Ancient Greek or Anglo-Saxon mindset could even *accommodate* the concept of "wish fulfillment" as you or I understand it.

Whose wishes is Beowulf supposed to be fulfilling? Those of the Anglo-Saxons who originally told the story? Those of the monks who transcribed it and put in all the spurious Jesus references? Those of Ray Winstone?

I'd also point out that you're not really presenting an argument here. My complaint about the book is that it is NOTHING BUT juvenile wish-fulfillment. Even if we accept for the moment your assertion that Beowulf and the Odyssey contain ELEMENTS of wish-fulfilment that doesn't address the problem. If you make me a sandwich with no filling, and I complain that it contains nothing but bread, saying "all sandwiches contain bread" doesn't really address my complaint.
Orion at 18:21 on 2011-07-13
Yeah, I can't get behind Odysseus as a wish fulfillment character either. He gets very little of what he wants over the course of his life, he solves only a handful of crises with his own talents, and frequently has to give up appealing things in the name of duty.

Okay, he does get to sex up a few supernatural women, but even those sex scenes are framed as disturbing and unpleasant experiences.
Steve Stirling at 19:00 on 2011-07-13
I think Dan has made a very coherent case here that it's not done very well at
all. :)


-- sure. Actually I agree with that; my point was that a Mary Sue isn't a bad thing -as such-.
Steve Stirling at 19:04 on 2011-07-13
How, precisely, are Odysseus and Beowulf wish-fulfillment?


-- "Me, but much better". Odysseus is the "man of cunning mind", the omnicompetent all-rounder who can do everything pretty well, even if not as well as the specialists.

Of course, Achilles is wish-fulfillment too (Alexander the Great consciously modeled his life on him) but in a rather different sense. You might say that between them they encompassed different aspects of the Greek ideal man.

Beowulf is what a noble Anglo-Saxon of the warrior class wanted to be -- lucky, strong enough to rip a troll's arm off, fearless, honored by all men, faithful to his oaths...
Cammalot at 19:32 on 2011-07-13
Isn't the Mary Sue phenomenon a function of bad writing by definition? Competence or even superness isn't Sueness by default. The plot warping its way around the character in defiance of logic, believeability, and reasonable genre conventions makes a Sue. If it's well done, it's not a Sue situation anymore.
Wardog at 19:58 on 2011-07-13
"Me, but much better". Odysseus is the "man of cunning mind", the omnicompetent all-rounder who can do everything pretty well, even if not as well as the specialists.


You seem to be looking at fictional constructs, who perform symbolic and cultural functions as well as literal ones, as RPG characters. I'm not sure you can look at characters from other times through a modern day lens - although you might argue that there's century-spanning human trait, which involves looking at imaginary people and wishing we were like them, ultimately it's neither a helpful nor a useful way to interpret ancient texts. They're not actually the superhero comics of their day.

Beowulf is what a noble Anglo-Saxon of the warrior class wanted to be -- lucky, strong enough to rip a troll's arm off, fearless, honored by all men, faithful to his oaths...

The who? The what? For what it's worth, Beowulf - in the form we have it - was archaic even its day. If it was about a warrior culture, which I think, on balance it probabably wasn't, it was about a warrior culture already long gone. And although I'm personally amused by the idea of a bunch of thanes sitting around the camp fire going "Hey, shaper, tell us the one about the guy who failed to kill a dragon like all the other mythic heroes, and who left no legacy whatsoever because in the face of time all men are futile and weak because we totally want to be that guy" I can't readily imagine it.
Orion at 20:20 on 2011-07-13
I've always thought that the important part of a wish fulfillment character wasn't that they had astounding personal qualities, but rather that they were able to use those qualities to, well, fulfill wishes. In fact I'd go so far as to say that having the positive qualities is only a means to the end, because there are wish fulfillment characters with no discernible positive qualities who get to live the dream through luck or contrivance (Bella Swan).

So show me an omnicompetent person, and I'm not going to call them a wish-fulfillment character unless they also gets to live a good life. Now, I recognize that what counts as a good life is a little complicated. Plenty of wish-fulfillment heroes spend most of their time in dire circumstances having supposedly horrible things happen to them, but because it's fantasy violence and fantasy suffering we don't care overmuch. What matters is whether the scenes where they get to live the dream are there and how those scenes are presented.

So looking at whether the Odyssey would work as a wish-fulfillment story for a modern audience (setting aside the question of how the Greeks would have read it), the evidence breaks down something like this:

Pro: Rules a kingdom, wins a war, has a beautiful and devoted wife, has the favor of the gods.
Con: Separated from his home for 20 years, rather more cursed than blessed on the whole, doomed to leave home AGAIN after returning and die in a foreign land.
Pro: Sexes up goddesses, outwits monsters, wins archery contest through special gifts.
Con: Doesn't seem to be attracted to most of the women he meets, has to give up the one potentially appealing one (Nausicaa), and genereally feels harried and put upon more than triumphant and cocky.

Ultimately it's a judgment call, but I'm swayed more by the con points.
Steve Stirling at 20:40 on 2011-07-13
The plot warping its way around the character in defiance of logic, believeability, and reasonable genre conventions makes a Sue. If it's well done, it's not a Sue situation anymore.


-- I see your point, but disagree.

What's logical or "believable" in the career of any of the epic heroes?

You're valorizing the conventions of Modernist fiction; but those are just conventions.

They're not even particularly "realistic" in any real sense; just pinched, narrow and self-obsessed in a sort of pickle-up-the-ass way.

Take a look at the careers of Genghis Khan or Tamerlane or Cortez or Pizzaro. Leaving aside the supernatural element, they're every bit as fantastic and full of outrageous coincidences and victories against incredible odds and acts of insane daring and so forth as most fantasy fiction.
Cammalot at 20:45 on 2011-07-13
What's logical or "believable" in the career of any of the epic heroes?


But you're leaving out the part where I *very deliberately* said "reasonable genre conventions." I'm not privileging anything -- Beowulf and the Odyssey very much follow the conventions of their art form/folkloric patterns, etc.
Steve Stirling at 20:50 on 2011-07-13
Kyra:
although you might argue that there's century-spanning human trait, which involves looking at imaginary people and wishing we were like them,


-- when archaelogists dug the site of Mari, a city destroyed by Hammurabi of Babylon in around 1800 BCE, they found an unopened (clay envelope around a clay tablet) letter.

Breaking the envelope, they read the words that no human eye had seen for over 3000 years.

It began: "This is the third letter I have written you about the silver you owe me for the sheep..."

Different cultures are different, but some things are eternal. Wishing you were luckier, smarter, stronger, braver and better-looking than you are is one of them.

For what it's worth, Beowulf - in the form we have it - was archaic even its day. If it was about a warrior culture, which I think, on balance it probabably wasn't, it was about a warrior culture already long gone.


-- certain -aspects- of it were archaic; it's obviously been de-paganized a bit.

(Incidentally it can be dated to the mid-sixth century by references to historical events that got written down.)

But the basic social system was that with which a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon audience would have been familiar; the lord, his sworn companions, the hall, the symbolic exchange of gifts, and so forth. The dragons and trolls were just cool exciting stuff to make it more exotic and exciting.

Yeah, it has a doom-laded ending. Well, ancient Germanic poetry, natch.
Steve Stirling at 20:57 on 2011-07-13
Life Imitates Art division: when Cortez' men came over the pass and saw the Aztec cities below them, with their pyramids and canals and palaces and hummingbird-feather cloaks, the first thing they said to each other was:

"This is just like "Amadis of Gaul"!"

"Amadis" was a late-medieval romance full of valliant knights, wicked sorcerors, heroic quests, and beautiful princesses. The sort of thing your average penniless would-be hidalgo whiled away the hours with.

These guys were living out a heroic-fantasy, sword-and-sorcery adventure in their own heads (complete with evil priests). LARPing fanboys with Toledo swords shedding real blood.

Art Imitates Life: The Kull/Conan story that Howard wrote about the assassination attempt with the mad poet and so forth is taken, almost word for word (right down to the hastily-donned armor not laced up at the side) from the death of Pizzaro.
Steve Stirling at 21:08 on 2011-07-13

Ultimately it's a judgment call, but I'm swayed more by the con points.


-- well, there's where the target audience comes in.

I found the book this all started with a little boring; not because the hero was so super, but because he wasn't -tested- enough.

(Incidentally, this is the basic reason you have to be careful in what abilities you give your protagonist -- you have to have the appropriate kryptonite waiting. It's also a drawback when you finally make him/her the ruler or whatever; after that, life is mosty meetings and reports. Not that Aragorn exits stage right after Gandalf crowns him.)

In the case of Homer, the target audience would be people who'd fought with shield and spear to the death. (An ancient Greek proverb went: "Even Hercules can't fight two.")

To be believable enough for the wish-fulfillment element to be -satisfying-, he had to put the hero through the wringer.

Also, a lot of the wish-fulfillment element was the desire to BE a hero; and a hero had to do mighty deeds and overcome terrible trials. The Greeks were just as aware as us that "adventure" was "someone else in deep shit, far away".

Because the Man from Ithaka is a mythic hero, everything he does is heightened; he doesn't just fight Illyrian pirates, he fights a Cyclops, and so forth.

Reading through the book, I did get the very strong impression that the author had never had to actually fight, for example.

Again, I'm not saying this is a good book; I'm saying it's a badly written one in some respects but that the hero's abilities aren't necessarily one of them.
Cammalot at 21:11 on 2011-07-13
Steve, I'm not following what you're actually criticizing about the original article at all anymore.

You seem to be saying that lots of literature across time and culture contained outsized exploits and larger-than-life heroes, and so the presence of these things... makes any book good? Because I do not see Dan arguing that the presence of these things automatically makes a book bad.
Wardog at 21:19 on 2011-07-13
Different cultures are different, but some things are eternal. Wishing you were luckier, smarter, stronger, braver and better-looking than you are is one of them.

You can argue this point if you like, it's neither provable nor disprovable, like most of the generic statements you have brought to this discussion. However, attempting to support it by a "one size fits all" application of historical texts strikes me as absurd.

(Incidentally it can be dated to the mid-sixth century by references to historical events that got written down.)

The story can, the manuscript is not, but ultimately we can't really make judgements about an oral tradition to which we don't have access because, um, it was oral.

Yeah, it has a doom-laded ending.

I would point out that the ending of a text has something on an impact of the general atmosphere. And actually it's doom-laden throughout. The ending is merely the culmination of all the futility that has gone before.

But the basic social system was that with which a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon audience would have been familiar; the lord, his sworn companions, the hall, the symbolic exchange of gifts, and so forth. The dragons and trolls were just cool exciting stuff to make it more exotic and exciting.

Well, yes, these are familiar tropes - but surely the way they are deployed in in the text supports my point, not yours? If you take all these elements - standard elements of heroic literature - and set about showing them to be hollow, I fail to see how this makes Beowulf the sort of dude any anglo-saxon would aspire to be? You'll be trying to tell me Brythnoth was a great king next.
Orion at 21:42 on 2011-07-13
To be believable enough for the wish-fulfillment element to be -satisfying-, he had to put the hero through the wringer.

You seem to be conflating two types of story which, while often overlapping, ought to be conceptually separate.

Some stories get their punch from a structure that for lack of a better term I'll call redemption. (I don't mean that in a moral sense; I considered catharsis but that word has too much baggage.) In this kind of story, the protagonists main function is to suffer though a great deal of shit, which causes us to feel sympathetic towards them and be invested in finding out what happens to them. Only after the tension has been raised by setback after loss after betrayal are they allowed to win out, in an ending which the reader experiences as a euphoric relief/release.

Other stories are primarily about vicariously enjoying good things and experiences in the protagonist's life. They get to have and do the things the reader wants, and it's that pre-existing desire in the reader that makes the story compelling. This is what I would call a wish-fulfillment story.

Obviously it's possible to both in the same story. You can tell a story about someone suffering ignominously for 90% of the text and then getting a big house with a fast car and a hot spouse at the end. To some degree you can even mix techniques in the middle of a story, having your character take a quick break to shag a sex demon in between episodes of torture and failure. But I think to a certain degree they undermine each other because identifying with and sympathizing with a character are very different levels of distance.

Anyway, despite the frequent overlap, you can find examples of "pure" types if you look. Although I've never watched an entire James Bond film straight through, what I've seen leads to me think they are nearly pure wish-fulfillment stories. I've heard he gets captured and tortured occasionally, but whenever I've watched he's been confident and unfazed essentially the entire time, and he gets to enjoy fine drinks and casual sex throughout, not just at the end.

My example "pure redemption" story would be the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The main character is a bitter divorced leper who is thrown into a fantasy world where he spends most of his time being cursed or tortured, helplessly watching people die, or committing rape and then feeling bad about it. Watching him finally choose good, find his power, and defeat the big bad is satisfying because what went before was so horrible. But his reward for doing so is... going back to Earth to be a slightly less bitter but still ostracized leper. He never gets anything the typical reader wants.

I think the Odyssey is an almost pure redemption story with minor wish fulfillment elements.
Wardog at 22:06 on 2011-07-13
So looking at whether the Odyssey would work as a wish-fulfillment story for a modern audience (setting aside the question of how the Greeks would have read it), the evidence breaks down something like this:


I like this game! I was very amused - I come down on Team Con as well. I do not aspire to Odysseus despite his aparently decent starting stats. Let's do Jesus next!
Cammalot at 22:21 on 2011-07-13
Let's do Jesus next!

Depends on if you buy the deus ex machina ending. ;-)
Steve Stirling at 22:23 on 2011-07-13
Cammalot:
You seem to be saying that lots of literature across time and culture contained outsized exploits and larger-than-life heroes, and so the presence of these things... makes any book good? Because I do not see Dan arguing that the presence of these things automatically makes a book bad.


-- Well, I got the impression that Dan -was- saying that enough outsized exploits -did- make it automatically bad.

My slant wasn't complete disagreement; simply that the reason the book was bad was that the hero's trials and challenges weren't -in proportion- to his abilities.

Hence the wish fulfillment element failed on its own terms because (to my mind) it's the overcoming of serious obstacles which makes the hero's ultimate triumph (or heroic death) satisfying -as- wish fulfillment.

Basically, it seemed to me that Dan was criticizing the book for not being more like a Modernist (anti-heroic) text. Perhaps I was wrong about that?
Steve Stirling at 22:27 on 2011-07-13
The story can, the manuscript is not, but ultimately we can't really make judgements about an oral tradition to which we don't have access because, um, it was oral.


-- Beowulf isn't the only example of ancient Germanic heroic poetry to which we have access.

The continuity over broad areas of time and space indicates that, "originally" (say in the Migration period, which is when Beowulf is "set" to the extent that it happens in the real world at all) we're looking at a single interacting culture sphere, with stories and storytellers moving from area to area.

Eg., the very late Icelandic poems contain persons and stories dating to the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries; Ermannaric the Ostrogoth, for example, or Theodoric. Or the Niebelungen legend and the breaking of the Burgund kingdom by the Huns, which originates in the Rhineland.
Steve Stirling at 22:33 on 2011-07-13
I think the Odyssey is an almost pure redemption story with minor wish fulfillment elements.


-- I see your point, but I think you're missing the essence of the "heroic quest".

The hero doesn't just have bad shit happen to him, he has bad shit happen and deals with it -in a heroic way-.

Odysseus suffers shiprweck, etc., and meets each challenge with heroic courage, heroic cunning, etc.

That's what -makes- him a hero, and worthy of identification. That's why the audience would want to "be" him.

At the end, he gets a reward. But it isn't any the less a wish fulfillment/identification story if he dies a heroic death; because the wish is to BE a hero. And heroes die.

It is genuinely possible to ardently desire a heroic death; it just isn't as common in this culture, currently.
Steve Stirling at 22:34 on 2011-07-13
My example "pure redemption" story would be the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.


God, how I hated that book. DIE, ALREADY, YOU LOSER! was always my reaction to Covenant.
Orion at 22:45 on 2011-07-13
I thought the article criticized the way Kvothe's abilities are presented and justified more than the fact that he has extraordinary abilities. Let's look at the two big example: fighting skills and faery interludes.

Kvothe and Achilles are both young men of mysterious origin with legendary fighting skills and powerful magic. But Achilles is the iconic hero of his culture. His fighting skills are something he would reasonably have the opportunity to learn, and his use of them (his behavior in general, in fact) is constrained by the customs and standards of his culture. Kvothe, on the other hand, somehow obtains skills which properly belong to another culture and thereafter wanders the world endowed with asskicking which his rivals have no access to and which does not come with any significant obligations.

Or look at the handling of the supernatural. The Homeric heroes may be extremely good at what they do, but when there's a god or curse or prophecy in play they have to abide by it. Achilles will die if he fights in this war, just as Kvothe will supposedly die is he sleeps with Felurian. One of them escapes their fate and the other doesn't. And when Odyseeus hooks up with Calypso, she uses him until he falls into a deep sleep and he only escapes due to divine intervention.

I don't know, maybe that's what you're getting at when you say Kvothe doesn't face big enough challenges? That Calypso is obviously "more powerful" than Felurian and Paris more skilled than anyone Kvothe fights? I guess that works, but I'd rather think of it not in terms of facing bigger challenges, but rather having to follow the rules while doing it.
Wardog at 22:47 on 2011-07-13
Beowulf isn't the only example of ancient Germanic heroic poetry to which we have access.

Yes, I know, but you specifically cited Beowulf as an example of historical wish-fulfillment fantasy. I have, I hope, explained why it isn't.

Eg., the very late Icelandic poems contain persons and stories dating to the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries; Ermannaric the Ostrogoth, for example, or Theodoric. Or the Niebelungen legend and the breaking of the Burgund kingdom by the Huns, which originates in the Rhineland

Indeed, these are examples of late Icelandic poems. Congratulations.

However, this is a *different* heroic tradition - and although it is referenced pretty explicitely in Beowulf, it is only to emphasise how Beowulf himself *differs* from these heroes.

And a list of texts is not an argument as to why any of them may be interpreted as historical wish fulfillment fantasy either.
Dan H at 23:00 on 2011-07-13

Basically, it seemed to me that Dan was criticizing the book for not being more like a Modernist (anti-heroic) text. Perhaps I was wrong about that?


Ah, I think this is the heart of our disagreement. To an extet I *was* criticising the book for not being a modernist, anti-heroic text, because I felt that the book was *setting itself up* to be a modernist, anti-heroic text and was being treated by the SF/F community as if it *was* a modernist, anti-heroic text. I felt that only by *being* a modernist, anti-heroic text could the book begin to deal with the themes it so promisingly raised in book one.

I have absolutely nothing against pure wish-fulfillment (although I prefer it to come in packages rather smaller than 997 pages) but I don't personally find it terribly interesting, or worthy of attention.

I'd also suggest that we might be using "wish fulfillment" slightly differently. A lot of what you call "wish fulfillment" is what I would simply call "myth" - it is true that a great deal of mythology presented figures who the audience was expected to admire or aspire to be like (as do, for example, morality plays) but that is not the same as wish fulfillment, which is a more modern concept to do with appealing to the personal fantasies of its target market. It's not about providing you with a satisfying narrative in which a sympathetic character with whom you identify overcomes aversity, it's about provding you with an avatar who you can imagine yourself being, and having that avatar go through the motions of doing things you wish you could do.
Steve Stirling at 23:12 on 2011-07-13
Orion:
I don't know, maybe that's what you're getting at when you say Kvothe doesn't
face big enough challenges? That Calypso is obviously "more powerful" than
Felurian and Paris more skilled than anyone Kvothe fights? I guess that works,
but I'd rather think of it not in terms of facing bigger challenges, but rather
having to follow the rules while doing it.


-- I think we're saying pretty much the same thing here, just using different terminology.

Kvorthe's abilities are so out of proportion to the background that they break the narrative frame of the story.

Steve Stirling at 23:19 on 2011-07-13
However, this is a *different* heroic tradition - and although it is referenced pretty explicitely in Beowulf, it is only to emphasise how Beowulf himself *differs* from these heroes.


-- I'd say it's different flavors of the same tradition.

Obviously they're drawing on a common pool of tropes and styles and stories, with which the creator and the audience are assumed to be familiar. Beowulf is, after all, set in what's now Sweden and from the internal evidence was hundreds of years old when the manuscript was written down, whenever that was.

This necessarily implies that at the time Beowulf was circulating in Anglo-Saxon England, a lot of -other- stories deriving from the same corpus were too, versions of the Niebelungen story or the tale of Wayland, and quasi-historical stuff like "Burnt Finnsburg". Doubtless there were versions of Beowulf circulating in Scandinavia.

We have a (fairly) complete text of Beowulf essentially by accident; we don't have most of the others, also essentially by accident.

Beowulf is in a coversation with the other stories. It differs in some respects, and shares others, and obviously the audience enjoyed listening to it.

And the others as well.
Steve Stirling at 23:23 on 2011-07-13
it is true that a great deal of mythology presented figures who the audience was expected to admire or aspire to be like (as do, for example, morality plays) but that is not the same as wish fulfillment, which is a more modern concept to do with appealing to the personal fantasies of its target market. It's not about providing you with a satisfying narrative in which a sympathetic character with
whom you identify overcomes aversity, it's about provding you with an avatar who you can imagine yourself being, and having that avatar go through the motions of doing things you wish you could do.


-- I really don't see a fundamental (as opposed to flavor) difference here.

Eg., in what way is "Amadis of Gaul" fundamentally different from the books we're talking about?
Orion at 08:14 on 2011-07-14
Jesus:

Pros: foot rubs, vintage wine, and cheap seafood. Speak before adoring audiences and travel with a dozen groupies.
Cons: celibacy, poor fashion sense, and agonizing death.

I think I have to vote "con" again.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 10:52 on 2011-07-14
I think the discussion might be suffering from a confusion of terms used. Wish fulfillment as I understand it would refer to a more specific narrative ploy, which appeals directly to the reader's wish to insert themselves into the story through charecterization and titillation and whatnot. It might be a mistake to do, as Steve does to effortlessly widen wish fulfillment to mean any sense of recognition with a character in a story. Sure, if we allow this, Steve is right, because it seems clear that most(though perhaps not categorically all) stories depend on the audience's interest in the story and their recognizing the character as a person.

I don't think that such a wide use of the term is very useful or a strong argument though. If, for example we discuss the Odyssey, as somewhere above, it is surely a heroic epic where the hero is very resourceful and strong, but the very point of the story is its tragic tone in Aristotelian terms, that is a great person who is unable to escape their fate as gods or the worlds plaything. While the intended audience of Odysseia(or Ilium) are no doubt meant to be impressed by the hero and his prowess, it is very doubtful whether any one would wish to be like him. He tries to reac home after a ten year war which he was tricked into going to and because he manages to anger a godd takes ten years to reach it, while suffering horrible hardships and losing all his men and possessions besides, spending years on end as a plaything to one immortal or another. Meanwhile his son grows into a man and his wife is sieged in by suitors. Sure it has a happy ending, but the focus is not on how Odysseus is great, but rather on see how even the greatest of heroes is tossed around by the whims of powers beyond him.

And anyways as said, even if we allow that wish fulfillment is present in all stories, this just proves that it is a useless term to describe how some stories are more appealing than others. Because really if it is present in all stories, its presence is important like the words themselves, it has to be there, but it does not tell anything about the story.

I wouldn't treat the term with such a wide applicability though. Its use is more specific, as I said. In other news, the few extant germanic tales which differ from each other is hardly enough to claim such sweeping generalizations on what the audience though or expected from the stories.
Wardog at 10:57 on 2011-07-14
I'd say it's different flavors of the same tradition

But "tradition" in this context is so broad as to be meaningless. Do you mean texts written in Anglo Saxon? Texts from an oral tradition? You might as well say Pride and Prejudice and The Blade Itself are from the same tradition because they're written in English and printed on paper. And, yes, it's arguably true but I don't see the value in asserting it? You can find superficial similarities between any texts you like but this doesn’t make Beowulf any more historical wish-fulfilment fantasy than it was previously. Which is not at all.

Obviously they're drawing on a common pool of tropes and styles and stories, with which the creator and the audience are assumed to be familiar

See above.

Beowulf is in a coversation with the other stories. It differs in some respects, and shares others, and obviously the audience enjoyed listening to it.

See above.

Eg., in what way is "Amadis of Gaul" fundamentally different from the books we're talking about?

You seem pretty desperate to talk about Amandis of Gaul so here we go. The same argument applies here. I’ve already tried to explain why I think arbitrarily assigning 21st century perspectives to historical contexts is reductive and foolish. I mean, as Dan has stated, the very idea of wish-fulfilment, in the terms we understand it, is quite a modern idea. Not to get all philosophy of language about it but when you read historical texts – especially those written in other languages – we have accept a degree of distance between those texts and ideas of selfhood, self-expression and society that are so embedded in our thinking we take them for granted.
The thing is, as far as I’m concerned you can interpret texts however you like, and if you want to look at these a collection of complex historical texts in a reductive and tedious way ... well ... feel free.

In short: what Ruderetum said :)
Dan H at 15:13 on 2011-07-14
-- I really don't see a fundamental (as opposed to flavor) difference
here.

Eg., in what way is "Amadis of Gaul" fundamentally different from
the books we're talking about?


I haven't actually read Amadis of Gaul (were I feeling glib, I might suggest that I see no evidence that you have either) so I can't comment on the content but I can certainly comment on the context.

Amadis of Gaul, Wikipedia informs me, is an Iberian Knight-errantry tale of uncertain authorship and has its origins in the traditions of chivalric romance. It is not actually a novel *at all*.

The Wise Man's fear, by contrast is a work of twenty-first century genre fiction. It was written by a single author, and published for the mass market and targeted at a clearly defined demographic whose preferences and habits its publishers will have invested both time and money in researching.

They are fundamentally different *sorts* of text and people read them for fundamentally different reasons.

I'd also point out that I see no reason for the burden of proof to be on me to demonstrate that Amadis of Gaul *is* different to the Wise Man's Fear when you have made no effort to demonstrate that it *isn't*.

That said the other important difference between Amadis and Kvothe is this.

Yes, both Amadis and Kvothe are highly skilled at what they do, but the crucial difference is how the two characters are supposed to relate to their *target audience*.

Amadis the Gaul was a chivalric romance. Its target audience would have been very broad, since it was almost certainly based on an existing popular narrative, and while there may be a narrow section of people who heard or read the story who really were, or really aspired to be, knights, the vast marjority would not have been, and would not have ever thought they could be (the fourteenth century was not, after all, known for its vast social mobility). He may have had individual virtues which individual readers might have recognised in themselves, but I see no evidence at all that he was supposed to be a stand-in for the reader.

Kvothe, by contrast, has a variety of qualities which his target audience (teenage geeks) are *extremley* likely to possess, and which grant him amazing abilities with little or no effort on his part. For example:

* He is extremely clever and this makes him excellent at schoolwork
* He is particularly skilled at technical subjects
* His supernatural powers come largely from understanding concrete technical laws (many of which are specifically derived from real-world physics and engineering)
* He is awkward around women
* He has had a very small amount of martial arts training
* He was picked on as a child but came into his own at university

All of these are qualities which the book's target audience are *extremely likely* to identify with *specifically*. You don't look at Kvothe and admire him for his cleverness, you look at him and you recognise in him your *own* cleverness, all of his skills parallel skills which geeks have in the *real world*. He's not somebody to look up to, he's *you*. Even his flaws are really virtues (his awkwardness with women, for example, actually makes him *more* attractive to the opposite sex).

That's the difference between a mythic or an inspirational story and wish fulfilment. A mythic hero embodies virtues to which you aspire, but which you know that you do not truly possess. A wish-fulfillment character has all of the same qualities you already have, but they work the way you *want* them to work instead of the way they really work. So your creepy inability to speak to women is transformed into an endearing shyness, your six months of kendo really does make you brilliant at fighting, and your nerdboy hobbies are the secret to saving the universe.

It is, in fact, an important and fundamental difference.
Steve Stirling at 18:01 on 2011-07-15
A wish-fulfillment character has all of the same qualities you already have, but
they work the way you *want* them to work instead of the way they really work.
So your creepy inability to speak to women is transformed into an endearing
shyness, your six months of kendo really does make you brilliant at fighting,
and your nerdboy hobbies are the secret to saving the universe.


-- well, you have a point there.
Steve Stirling at 18:05 on 2011-07-15
He may have had individual virtues which individual readers might have
recognised in themselves, but I see no evidence at all that he was supposed to
be a stand-in for the reader.



-- well, no, but that's not quite the point of wish-fulfillment. You don't think you're Superman, you -wish- you're Superman, and for the duration of the story you -imagine- you're Superman, able to do these amazing things.
Dan H at 10:27 on 2011-07-19
On Superman: The really, really important thing about Superman is Clark Kent. Superman works as wish-fulfilment because Superman actually *isn't* Superman most of the time, he's this mild-mannered nebbishy guy with glasses (again, much like the intended target audience).

And of course the other thing to remember is that wish-fulfilment isn't a binary - as Orion and others have pointed out above, a lot of stories have wish-fulfilment *elements*, whereas Kvothe comes across to me as *pure* wish-fulfilment.

(Sorry I know Steve's been banned, but I thought this discussion might have been getting somewhere)
Orion at 06:18 on 2011-07-20
Dan,

I never really read/watched Superman, but I'm interested by your comment, because it doesn't really match up with my experience of other secret identity setups. As a child, anyway, I never demanded that my protagonists have a "normal" life for me to identify with them; I had no trouble projecting myself onto the superhuman character directly.

I always assumed that the primary function of Clark Kent was as a narrative device. Superheroes generally and Superman in particular are just too effective when on stage in costume, so you have to give them human lives and duties to stretch out the plot and prevent them from solving everything immediately. Secondarily, I would imagine that Clark kent would actually pull the story toward the "redemption" end of my "redemption/wish fulfillment" spectrum by making the protagonist suffer.
Dan H at 12:13 on 2011-07-20
As a child, anyway, I never demanded that my protagonists have a "normal" life
for me to identify with them; I had no trouble projecting myself onto the
superhuman character directly.


I don't think I made my point clearly enough. It's not the fact that Superman has a secret identity that's the issue, it's the fact that despite his superpowers (and superpowers are really a red herring here) Superman is basically an ordinary guy with parents and a hometown and a job. (It is, I believe, often said in DC comics fandom that the difference between Batman and Superman is that Superman is really Clark Kent, whereas Bruce Wayne is really Batman).

Without Clark Kent, Superman would basically be Dr Manhattan, and while you can certainly imagine that it would be *cool* to be the Big Blue Guy, you aren't really invited to imagine that he *is* you, which I would argue is a necessary part of wish-fulfilment.
Orion at 15:40 on 2011-07-20
That makes a lot of sense. In the general case, we could say that wish-fulfillment only works when the character basically thinks like the reader, so that they tend to do with their opportunities the kinds of things the reader would want to imagine doing.



http://sprizouse.blogspot.com/ at 07:37 on 2011-08-21
There was a long comment thread running over at Crooked Timber and I ended up bringing up this critique. Anyway, the post was about NPR's list of Top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels and I thought you should take a look at both the CT post (and comments thread) and the NPR list. Your input would probably be appreciated.
I had some fun running the Wikipedia entries for both books through Regender.com.

http://regender.com/swap/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Name_of_the_Wind

http://regender.com/swap/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wise_Man%27s_Fear

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to handle compound words well, so it didn't manage to rename the series The Queenkiller Chronicles, but otherwise... very interesting!
Is there any sign or hint that Kvothe is ever going to fail at something in a manner which he can't recover from within a hundred pages or so?

You mean, aside from the fact that his sympathy no longer works, he's lost his ability to fight, he no longer plays music at all.......?

Yes, there is a sign. Perhaps you could call it a hint. Or perhaps the biggest unanswered question in the entire story.
Shimmin at 08:13 on 2012-06-15
Is there any sign or hint that Kvothe is ever going to fail at something in a manner which he can't recover from within a hundred pages or so?

You mean, aside from the fact that his sympathy no longer works, he's lost his ability to fight, he no longer plays music at all.......?

I haven't read the book, but those sound like pretty general, narrative losses rather than actual failures, if you see what I mean.
James D at 18:01 on 2012-06-15
Some of the fire left her, but when she found her voice it was tight and dangerous. “my skills 'suffice'?” She hardly seemed able to force out the last word. Her mouth formed a thin, outraged line.

I exploded, my voice a roll of thunder. “How the hell am I supposed
to know? It's not like I've ever done this sort of thing before!”

She reeled back at the vehemence of my words, some of the anger draining out of her. “what is it you mean?” she trailed off, confused.

“This!” I gestured awkwardly at myself, at her, at the cushions and the pavilion around us, as if that explained everything.

The last of the anger left her as I saw realization begin to dawn, “you...”

“No,” I looked down, my face growing hot. “I have never been with a woman.” Then I straightened and looked her in the eye as if challenging her to make an issue of it.”

Felurian was still for a moment, then let her mouth turn up into a wry smile. “you tell me a faerie story, my kvothe.”

I felt my face go grim. I don't mind being called a liar. I am. I am a marvellous liar. But I hate being called a liar when I'm telling the perfect truth.

Regardless of my motivation, my expression seemed to convince her. “but you were like a gentle summer storm.” She made a fluttering gesture with a hand. “you were a dancer fresh upon the field.” Her eyes glittered wickedly.


I haven't read the book, but this dialog is waayyyyy too over-narrated for my tastes. I was rather surprised, given the author apparently has a sterling reputation. Seriously, there is more description of the characters' expressions than actual dialog there, and a lot of the expressions would be evident from the dialog alone. Do we really have to be told he's exploding when the next words out of his mouth are "how the hell am I supposed to know?" That whole scene just seems to fall into the same "more is more" trap a lot of modern fantasy authors are in. More description, more worldbuilding, more detail, less left up to the imagination, less engagement of the reader in the storytelling process.
It doesn't help that the narrator sounds like a complete tool.
valse de la lune at 08:34 on 2012-06-17
His voice a roll of thunder, no less. This is the brilliant writing all the fanboys praised?
Dan H at 14:29 on 2012-06-17
Seriously, there is more description of the characters' expressions than actual dialog there, and a lot of the expressions would be evident from the dialog alone.


There does seem to be a peculiar bit of received wisdom amongst a certain type of reader (and therefore a certain type of writer) that "just" dialogue isn't proper writing. I'm largely making this up, but I think it's born out of a prejudice against things which seem "simple" or possibly a desire to seem intellectual. It might also be a misplaced reaction against books which fail by trying to emulate films (or conversely, it may be that it appeals specifically to an audience accustomed to visual media, who expect every line of dialogue to be accompanied by some visual cue). It might also (I really am just guessing here) overlap with that nonsensical "use all the senses" advice you get in mediocre writing guides.

I don't like to be too smug about this sort of thing, but I do sometimes feel that a lot of Rothfuss' reputation for great writing stems from his adopting a style which overlaps with his audience's preconceptions about what good writing ought to look like. It's the kind of writing which makes you feel clever, and I suspect that his audience are particularly fond of feeling clever. Of course *criticizing* this sort of writing also makes you feel clever, so the audience kind of wins either way on this one.

I actually don't think Rothfuss' writing is that bad - The Wise Man's Fear wasn't hard to read because it was badly written, it was hard to read because it was nearly a thousand fucking pages and nothing fucking happens in it.
Michal at 18:20 on 2012-06-17
Hmm, I'm not sure if it's fair to base your opinion of whether it's well-written or not on a single passage, since just about every book has its awkward bits. I agree that what's there isn't all that impressive and painfully overwritten, but I think the situation described would've made me throw the book against the wall, not the writing-style.

From what I've read of The Name of the Wind (which admittedly isn't that much) I also didn't quite understand the praise Rothfuss's prose; I mean, there were some nice passages but there's quite a lot of space between them filled with not-so-great stuff. It's better than Paolini or Brooks or Goodkind but that's setting the bar really fucking low. I didn't quit reading because of the prose. I quit because I found Kvothe insufferable.
Arthur B at 18:29 on 2012-06-17
Hmm, I'm not sure if it's fair to base your opinion of whether it's well-written or not on a single passage, since just about every book has its awkward bits. I agree that what's there isn't all that impressive and painfully overwritten, but I think the situation described would've made me throw the book against the wall, not the writing-style.

This. There's a world of stuff to howl at in that extract before you even begin to consider the prose.
James D at 20:05 on 2012-06-17
I actually don't think Rothfuss' writing is that bad - The Wise Man's Fear wasn't hard to read because it was badly written, it was hard to read because it was nearly a thousand fucking pages and nothing fucking happens in it.

As a reader, I tend to value a writer's style pretty highly, and given that his style is so often praised, I was just rather surprised at how overwrought the snippets you quoted were. If they're not representative of the whole book, well, you should've picked better ones!

Honestly I'm not sure there's anything tremendously wrong with the plot of the sex goddess bit though - isn't the book presented as basically an egotistical liar's autobiography? Couldn't he just be making it up to make himself look good? It's just too absurd for me to believe that Rothfuss expected people to take it seriously. Not to say that simply using an unreliable narrator is an instant ticket to literary quality, but maybe the problem isn't so much that the stories are filled unbelievable self-aggrandizement, but that Rothfuss failed at making Kvothe egotistical and charming, so he ended up insufferable instead. I imagine the book might be pretty fun if it were clear that Kvothe was just a loser who made up absurdly flattering, highly improbable stories about himself. And if it were maybe 300 pages long.

Just as an aside, The Wise Man's Fear recently won the David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2011.
Arthur B at 20:41 on 2012-06-17
Honestly I'm not sure there's anything tremendously wrong with the plot of the sex goddess bit though - isn't the book presented as basically an egotistical liar's autobiography? Couldn't he just be making it up to make himself look good?

I dunno about other people here, but my usual response to egotistical tossers bragging about their unlikely sexual exploits is to disengage from the conversation ASAP, by whatever means necessary. Smarmy bullshit is smarmy bullshit, regardless of whether you're intended to believe it or not.
Michal at 20:52 on 2012-06-17
isn't the book presented as basically an egotistical liar's autobiography?

Well, The Name of the Wind certainly wasn't, since the frame story made it clear Kvothe really was just that awesome. Any cracks in the narrative this time around, Dan?
I dunno about other people here, but my usual response to egotistical tossers bragging about their unlikely sexual exploits is to disengage from the conversation ASAP, by whatever means necessary.

Yeah, I don't really see what other response there is. The kind of wish-fulfillment this book seems intended to provide seems like it would be better delivered through, say, a video game. Hearing some douchebag talk about fucking hot chicks doesn't quite make me feel like I'm in his place.
James D at 21:32 on 2012-06-17
Maybe I am being too generous then. I'm just trying really hard to understand what people see in the books beyond typical fantasy wish-fulfillment+adventure, but maybe that's all it is, minus the benefit of a tight plot books in that style need.
Dan H at 23:21 on 2012-06-17
As a reader, I tend to value a writer's style pretty highly, and given that his style is so often praised, I was just rather surprised at how overwrought the snippets you quoted were. If they're not representative of the whole book, well, you should've picked better ones!


They're fairly representative (although Felurian speaks in a *particularly* flowery way) - it's just that I don't think the writing is particularly *bad*, just not especially *good*. Or perhaps to put it another way, what flaws there are in the writing are just a specific instance of the far more general problem of the book being smug, up itself, and nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. I might also suggest that amongst fantasy readers "well written" is code for "overwritten" four times out of five.

Honestly I'm not sure there's anything tremendously wrong with the plot of the sex goddess bit though - isn't the book presented as basically an egotistical liar's autobiography?


Very much not. It's the autobiography of somebody *extremely self-deprecating*. As evidenced by the awful bits where Kvothe point blank refuses to narrate all of the bits where he actually does interesting stuff. Framing-story Kvothe is a broken man, and he is extremely reluctant to acknowledge his own triumphs - Bast actually has to explicitly instruct the Chronicler to encourage him to focus on them, because Kvothe's own sense of guilt over the Terrible Things That Happen In Book Three is such that he no longer trusts himself.

Effectively it's *exactly the opposite* of the Baron Munchausen story - Kvothe isn't a fantasist or a teller of tall tales, he's a genuine hero who is uncomfortable with his own heroism.
James D at 00:04 on 2012-06-18
Effectively it's *exactly the opposite* of the Baron Munchausen story - Kvothe isn't a fantasist or a teller of tall tales, he's a genuine hero who is uncomfortable with his own heroism.

Yech. Why the fuck do so many people like this book again?
Because nothing tops off a douche sandwich like a nice juicy glob of emo.
http://omarsakr.wordpress.com/ at 08:23 on 2012-08-22
Hey Dan,

I've recently stumbled across a few of your articles and I'm currently experiencing the giddy highs of a high-school girl's crush, or what I imagine that would feel like anyway. Still, I'll refrain from allowing that to develop further just yet because a) it's creepy as balls and b) the interwebs are full of disappointing traps and a few well written articles that espouse similar ideas and opinions to my own doesn't preclude you from being say, I don't know, a rabid Tea Partier (no matter how many times I write that or look it, it just seems wrong).

Anyway, I just wanted to comment to say thank you! I've felt like, for the longest time, I've been alone in my dismissal of Rothfuss and my dismay at the critical acclaim he's received. Don't get me wrong, he seems like a great guy and he's a passable writer, but he in no way deserves the absurd praise that's been heaped on him. I remember writing an article years ago about how overrated he and GRRM are as authors today (although the latter is certainly more deserving). So, it's been great to read your articles (albeit belatedly) and the comments that so accurately carve these books up.

In WMF you correctly pointed out a passage that utterly ruined the book for me. I was willing to overlook a lot of what you pointed out, due to its light entertainment factor, until I read the 'I was on my way to X when this and this and this happened to me but I don't have time to tell you about any of those exciting things because the story must go on'. What thoroughly pissed me off about the ensuing billion-page section was that NOTHING HAPPENED. There's a stupidly long section where Kyvothe and his band are sitting around the woods telling each other stories just so Rothfuss could indulge in meta-wankery, his constant wink-wink nudge-nude can you see that I'm telling a story about a guy telling a story about how he and some other guys told stories once and the way stories within stories are blah blah blah.

That section of the book filled me with rage. Goddamn.

Okay, just had to get that off my chest. He writes easy, simple prose that's really engaging and this could have been a much better series but for all the reasons you pointed out, he, the series itself, and his fans need to get over themselves and be a little less pretentious about the whole shebang. Serious fantasy my ass.
Arthur B at 10:03 on 2012-08-22
a few well written articles that espouse similar ideas and opinions to my own doesn't preclude you from being say, I don't know, a rabid Tea Partier

If it's any reassurance, Dan's preferred coffee for about as long as I've known him.
his fans need to get over themselves and be a little less pretentious about the whole shebang

Well, the rabid Nice Guy geek contingent has tried every other personality flaw, so it's about time they tried pretentious literary snobbery.
http://everstar3.livejournal.com/ at 03:17 on 2013-06-12
I realize I am quite late to this discussion, but I write now to thank you for saving my Kindle, because if I'd read that speech of Felurian's on it, I most likely would have thrown it across the room.
Robinson L at 10:36 on 2013-07-19
Found this via a friend of mine, who's a major fan of the books: looks like the Kingkiller Chronicles is being adapted into a TV series.
Dan H at 22:47 on 2013-07-19
What is it with people making TV shows of interminable fantasy series that the authors have shown no signs of actually being able to finish?
Arthur B at 22:54 on 2013-07-19
What is it with people making TV shows of interminable fantasy series that the authors have shown no signs of actually being able to finish?

Because brick-sized open-ended novels with silly numbers of characters and no end in sight make for great soap operas?
Melanie at 06:37 on 2013-07-20
What is it with people making TV shows of interminable fantasy series that the authors have shown no signs of actually being able to finish?


The more books the author writes without finishing it, the more the tv show can be dragged out?
Jules V.O. at 13:30 on 2013-07-20
There's a bit in the last Twilight movie where things go completely off-the-rails awesome because the director decided to be all sarcastic and show the threatened climactic showdown action scene, before revealing it to be a dream or something; 'you could have been watching a story where things happen,' is the none-too-subtle subtext. It is by far the best part of the entire series, and includes more decapitations than the entirety of Master of the Flying Guillotine.

In that vein, I suspect the best part of the KC show would be the 'storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck' segment, where the lack of specificity would give them the freedom to fill in some conventional(ly satisfying) content.
Arthur B at 14:01 on 2013-07-20
There's a bit in the last Twilight movie where things go completely off-the-rails awesome because the director decided to be all sarcastic and show the threatened climactic showdown action scene, before revealing it to be a dream or something; 'you could have been watching a story where things happen,' is the none-too-subtle subtext. It is by far the best part of the entire series, and includes more decapitations than the entirety of Master of the Flying Guillotine.

I do love the fact that the Breaking Dawn director was like "Fuck it, I'm just going to do exactly what the text says rather than presenting whatever it is people think they see in the text", so lo and behold an adult werewolf falls in love with a baby.
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