Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wandering Through Fantasy Worlds with Kvothe and Harry Potter (Part II)

(Part I)

This focus on character and world building leads, in the cases of both Harry Potter and Kingkiller, to something that would in most writers be considered a fatal flaw, but which J. K. Rowling and Patrick Rothfuss manage to survive even if at times by the skin of their teeth, the tendency to abandon plot in favor of character and world exploration. Both of these series do have plots centered around the defeat of antagonists, Harry Potter has Lord Voldemort and Kvothe has the Chandrian, a group so mysterious that they hardly appear even in legend and who murdered his parents just for attempting to write a song about them. That being said the reader quickly realizes that these plots are only incidental to these series, a prop to be brought out when the characters need something to react to or to offer an opportunity for further world exploration.

Harry Potter is not really about Harry's hero quest arc to defeat Lord Voldemort; it is about Harry at Hogwarts with Ron Hermione, dodging Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape, with clever back and forth dialogue and the existence of magic to provide a canvas for Rowling's vivid use of language. Now even Rowling is not talented enough to keep a book afloat with just clever writing so by the end of each book she brings out some larger element of danger and ties it to this Lord Voldemort character, who serves to explain why Harry was first placed with his relatives and why he is the continued subject of the mostly unwanted attention that keeps him interesting. Now part of Rowling's genius is that she weaves her plot throughout the rest of the book, turning much of what the reader thought was just her meandering through the story into critical plot points. This also places Harry Potter among those rare books that need to be read several times to properly be appreciated. Furthermore, starting with Goblet of Fire, Rowling abandoned the stand alone year at Hogwarts adventure format of the first three books, which had served her so well, in favor of a more focused narrative surrounding the return of Lord Voldemort to a physical body. This part of the series also marked the point in which Rowling escaped the bounds of any meaningful editorial control, causing the books to balloon in size and leading to more character meandering. Not that I ever complained about this as Rowling is one of the rare writers who can hold you just with their writing, regardless of content.

Rothfuss seems to be following a similar path. Name of the Wind was only incidentally about Kvothe's quest to learn the truth about the Chandrian and really about Kvothe the poor scholar and musician trying to keep body and soul together as well as make tuition payments to stay in school, a task made almost impossibly difficult due to the spiteful animosity of Ambrose Jakis. Reading Rothfuss, I realize that Rowling missed a valuable opportunity by simply handing Harry a massive fortune at the beginning of the series, whose origins she never bothered to explain, taking care of Harry's finances so he never had to worry about tuition. Forcing Kvothe to struggle to meet his finances allowed for plot tension, will Kvothe find the money or won't he, without having to resort to placing Kvothe in constant mortal danger, a refreshing change of pace for a fantasy novel. Kvothe needing money also makes way for my favorite character in the series, besides for Kvothe, Devi. To put it bluntly, she is a loan shark, who demands that Kvothe hand over drops of his blood as security. She is also really charming and forms a delightful friendship with Kvothe, albeit one underlined by fifty percent interest rates and threats of bodily harm if he ever reneges.

In waiting four years for the second book, Wise Man's Fear, I took it as a given that now with this book the story would begin in earnest. I expected Kvothe to be thrown out at the very beginning of the book, allowing him to finally pursue the Chandrian. The first several hundred pages are more of the first book, Kvothe trying to get money and dodging Jakis. Not a bad thing in of itself as Rothfuss, like Rowling, is fun to read just for his prose. Finally, Kvothe is forced to take time off from school and takes the opportunity to do some traveling. This leads to Kvothe being placed in a new setting, but I was almost disappointed by the fact that Rothfuss simply has Kvothe do more of being Kvothe instead of actually advancing the story.

Besides for the fact that Rothfuss is still a fun writer even when meandering, what kept me in the book was the strong suspicion that Rothfuss was weaving a giant trap for Kvothe and that things were not as pointless as they seemed. This was confirmed nearly three quarters into this thousand page novel when Kvothe meets a creature called the Cthaeh, who informs him that he had already met one of the Chandrian. Now the Cthaeh, despite his small part, has to be one of the most interesting villains conceptually. He is imprisoned in a tree due to the fact that he can perfectly foresee the future and can say the exact words to any person who visits him that will cause them to do the most harm. Furthermore, since the Cthaeh knows every future conversation that the person will ever have, he can calculate how that person's words will affect every other person he will ever talk to and so on and so forth until, in theory at least, the Cthaeh has the power to destroy the entire world with just one conversation.

It is hard to actually criticize a book that held my attention or over a thousand pages, but I must admit that I liked Name of the Wind better. Wise Man's Fear for too much of the book felt like it was wandering around when I wanted things to actually happen. I eagerly await the final book in the series to see how things will turn out. Rowling did not disappoint and I have every bit of faith in Rothfuss that he can match her.


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