Friday, March 25, 2011

Wandering through Fantasy Worlds with Kvothe and Harry Potter (Part I)

If I were to describe Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles series in one sentence it would be that it is Harry Potter's more mature and sophisticated sibling, who, instead of going to grade school to study magic, went to college. In a similar vein, my reaction to watching the first season of Heroes (the only one worth watching) was that it was the younger smarter sibling of the X-Men, who went of to university and got into heroin. (In the case of Heroes there actually is a character whose superpower is to be able to see and paint the future while high.) As with Harry Potter, Kingkiller is about a teenage orphan, Kvothe, whose parents were murdered off by dark powers, studying magic. As with J. K. Rowling, Rothfuss' chief strengths as a writer are his ability to create interesting characters, backed by witty dialogue and a world for us to explore through the eyes of these characters.

What Rothfuss has over Rowling is that, like Tolkien, he offers the impression of depth to his world; that it is not just a prop that will collapse if touched. Rowling's wizarding world, in contrast, while utterly fascinating as a concept striking deep into the collective subconsciousness of readers (I cannot think of another fantasy world that I so desperately wanted to be real), remains an immensely clever joke. Even by the end of the series one does not get the sense that Rowling ever bothered to work out the mechanics and limitations of her magical system and the inner workings of her wizarding society. Particularly the question of why wizards, even muggle loving ones like Arthur Weasley, live in secret outside of general society and in ignorance of it. (See "Yeshiva Hogwarts.") One suspects that this is the reason why Rowling kept her story so narrowly focused on Harry, only allowing us to experience the wizarding world from Harry's limited perspective and kept Harry's own experience of the wizarding world to specific set pieces, like the Weasley home, Diagon Alley, and Hogwarts. Allowing Harry broader range would have forced her to take her own wizarding world seriously and not just as a prop.  Rothfuss, in contrast, treats his magic with a level of sophistication surpassing the "science" of most science fiction. As Tolkien managed to invent several fully functional languages for Lord of the Rings that people can study today, one suspects that Rothfuss would, if pressed, be able to present a plausibly sounding "scientific" lecture on his magic. The same goes for his world's various races, religions, countries, and politics.

Rothfuss' other major advantage over Rowling is in creating, in Kvothe, a fully flesh and blood lead character the likes of which exist in few other works of fantasy. With Harry Potter the interest is always the world and characters around him. Harry serves as a means to explore Hogwarts and characters like Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sirius, and Lupin, all of whom are far more interesting than Harry in of himself. Harry starts off the series as a star struck modern day version of T. H. White's young King Arthur, Wart, before evolving into a moody teenager. It is only in Deathly Hallows, as Harry contemplates the necessity of his death to defeat Voldemort, that Harry steps in as a worthy protagonist in his own right. (It is for this reason that, whether or not Deathly Hallows is the best book in the series, it is certainly the best written of the series and the one in which Rowling stepped into her own as a mature writer.) One suspects that this is why Rowling never allowed Harry to exist on his own, but always has him interacting with other characters, even going so far as to make Harry's chief strength his connection to his friends as opposed to Voldemort who is completely self-contained. (See "Adolescent Military Genius.") Kvothe, in contrast, is the star attraction, not just a cipher through which to tell a story. Rothfuss does not just focus his narrative on Kvothe, he tells almost his entire story from inside Kvothe's head. One almost gets the sense that Rothfuss could have eliminated his entire world, leaving Kvothe floating in ether, and still hold on to the reader's attention.

This places Kingkiller as one of those rare fantasy series that is only incidentally about fantasy. In much the same way that Orson Scott Card novels are about characters and relationships and only incidentally take place in a science-fiction universe, Rothfuss has one utterly compelling character, Kvothe, and a world for Kvothe to operate in. The fact that this world is a beautifully rendered fantasy world only serves to establish Rothfuss as one of the greatest writers of this generation of any genre. 

(To be continued ...)                

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