Tag Archives: fantasy

Guest Review – The Wise Man’s Fear

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Reviewed by Pili Pili

The Wise Man's Fear book coverI have a game a play with myself that I call the ‘Certainty Game’. I invent an iteration of trade off scenarios involving uncertainty and certainty and see where the break-even line is. For instance: if I could live to be 75 for sure today, would I accept that? Probably not. 100? No doubt. In this case, the iteration continues until I land somewhere around the early 90s. Anyway, when I ask myself ‘would I accept Rothfuss’ gift for prose in exchange for never being able to develop my own superior style?’ I don’t even have to play the game. It is assuredly, ‘yes’. (And I am a confident whelp, so that is real praise.) There are only a handful of author’s for whom I would accept that. J.R.R. Tolkien and Wallace Stegner come to mind, possibly G.R.R. Martin.

Onto the review: the book’s greatest attribute is undoubtedly the prose. Rothfuss is an outstanding writer. Outstanding. He could turn a trip to CVS because you ran out of milk into a captivating story. Like a page-turning, barn-busting, must-read hexalogy. His talent for writing is so obvious from the first pages of the book (and the predecessor, the Name of the Wind).

Alas, my gushing praise for the book stops there. You see, I struggle with his misuse of his own gift. It gnaws at me, perniciously, as I read. I should just be thankful. But all I can think of is Phil Collins choosing pop music over the masterpieces wrought from his rhythmic genius on early Genesis albums. I know the world craves/needs pop music. And I know that the world craves/needs a beautifully-written, teenaged-boy’s wet dream – which is precisely what Rothfuss delivers.

For alongside his talent for prose, he is equally adept at another skill vital to his book: recycling our culture’s most beloved storytelling tropes gimmicks.

**yes, there are spoilers below**

First, let me set the stage. Yes, the protagonist, Kvothe, is an orphan — a real up-by-my-bootstraps scrapper. Everything he’s even gotten he’s had to work for (well, not really; more on that later). But wait, that’s not all. He is also from a race/class of people called the Edema Ruh who are known principally for being itinerant and mistrusted. Poor lil guy. Not feeling smitten with sympathy toward him just yet? What if I told you his family was murdered before his own eyes as a youngster forcing him from pittance to destitution?

Now, indulge me as I catalog some of the tropes and gimmicks Rothfuss employs (some of this refers back to the first book, the Name of the Wind):

(1) Test of Wits: Engaging in intellectual gauntlets with the professors is routine for Kvothe. Reliably, this reveals his natural brilliance, in spite of not having had a formal education when younger.

(2) Prank wars!: The protagonist, Kvothe, spars with his schoolyard arch-nemesis, Ambrose, and comes away victorious most of the time. Now it wouldn’t be half as satisfying unless you realize that Ambrose is the triple-collared polo mallet who had every advantage growing up in life.

(3) Girls are for crushing: Kvothe has crushes all over the place. This is a substantive gripe (unlike most of the others, which are largely endearing!). Rothfuss introduces women almost exclusively as potential for romantic interest. I can’t think of a single female character of note that wasn’t at one or many points valued for physical/romantic traits.

(4) Nerds need more sex: Kvothe is in a cohort whose academic interests are belittled in fine self-hating form by the teacher who jokes about the student’s sexual inadequecy. The teacher, Elodin, tells another student, Uresh, to go have sex instead of learning about mathematics. Pretty silly, huh?

(5) Innate gifts: Kvothe is brimming with talent. In this important regard, Kvothe didn’t work for everything he’s got. He is special. And I mean really special. He is witty, profoundly intelligent, and overachieves at every turn (in spite his modest beginnings as Edema Ruh). What youngster doesn’t lose themselves imagining that they are in fact more special than those around them?

(6) Saving the girl (substantive gripe #2): He tries to save this one girl, Denna, who clearly needs rescuing. She is physically abused and Kvothe thinks he can make it right. Anecdote time! When I was around 14 or 15 I’d catch myself hoping the school would catch fire so I  could save some good-looking girl (the specific girl was irrelevant and based directly on proximity to my seat, inversely on , and then on an error term for that’s day’s unobservables). Naturally, upon being saved, she’d be indebted to me and fawn over me like a nymph with dangling grapes. Reading A Wise Man’s Fear brings back this lovely/humiliating memory every handful of chapters.

(7) Win a princess’s heart through romantic gestures: Little screams teenage boy like the idea that effort and merit can give you a shot at any girl you want (wow, my friends and I would have been so much more successful if this were true). Plus, it doesn’t get much more Grimm’s than a secret courtship of a princess.

Wait, I lied, it can be more Grimm.

(8) Going on a fool’s errand and succeeding: Kvothe is sent on an impossible mission by a king. He successfully tracks down some bandits and adds to his fame.

(9) Sex unattached from feelings: Kvothe travels to a faraway land where people have sex often and simply for pleasure (no strings attached, baby! Shout out to my boys N*SYNC). Rothfuss even appeals to the inner tween’s sense that it is silly to think of it any other way. The woman mocks Kvothe’s ‘barbarian ways’ of viewing love sentimentally.

(10) Spoofy premises: Kvothe eats nuts laced with an agent to temporarily remove one’s social filters. Hilarity ensues. Ambrose did this to him (part of the prank wars!) before he went to ‘defend his tuition’. He, of course, made lewd comments to a girl that were supposed to be okay because he was under the influence of inhibition-repressing drugs. Favorably, it reminds me of Liar, Liar, and unfavorably of What Women Want with Mel Gibson (how and why did I see that?!)

(11) Creating instantly familiar characters: Take Elodin – the schoolteacher that is eccentric, doesn’t get along with the other faculty, but who is the one who ultimately has the most to teach. Hi Mr. Miyagi or Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society or Lisa Simpson’s substitute voiced by Dustin Hoffman. I believe we’ve met.

(12) Orphaning the lead: I wrote about this, but it has been used. A lot. Harry Potter and Vin come to mind from recent memory, but there is a long list of orphan protagonists as orphans. Hey, it is a lot easier to craft from a blank slate than introduce family dynamics. Furthermore…

(13) Whodunnits!?: Easy way to attract attention to a story is to introduce some mystery, like trying to find out who was using voodoo against Kvothe. Was it Ambrose? Nah. Was it Devi? I guess not. Omg, it was Ambrose! but not how you’d expect.

(14) Sting operations: Gotta set one up and see if it goes to plan. Using a beautiful woman as bait – that’s just gravy. Kvothe & Co. do this to lure Ambrose away from his room (did I mention his schoolyard nemesis mistreats women, so you know he really is the bad guy). Kvothe uses the diversion to burn down Ambrose’s room, while seemingly innocent. Enjoy the arson, sucka.

(15) Unlawful Detention: Always nice to see how the lead escapes from the unjust authorities who have detained them. The Imre folks took Kvothe away and he learned some language and got himself out of it or something. +5 to reputation.

(16) Currying favor with a lord because they are…drum roll… being poisoned: That’s right, the Maer was poisoned and Kvothe got into his good graces by exposing who did it. From Kvothe’s point of view, it was pretty lucky he did. How else could an orphaned Edema Ruh, raised on the tough streets of Tarbean, who barely got into university, and then happened to get kicked out at the same moment a random benefactor offered to send him to one of the most powerful men in the territory as an assistant, /takebreath, supposed to improve his lot?

(17) Sleuthing: Another sure-fire way to get the heart racing is a clandestine tracking of another character. Will he get discovered? Won’t he? What’ll they do?! What’ll they think!? Kvothe follows Denna to find her talking about whoring – more gravy.

(18) Bar fights. Can’t go wrong with a good bar fight. The best bar fight I can remember was in the old western Shane, but I know there are plenty of others.

(19) Training montages to round out with time Kvothe is learning the ‘Lethani’ philosophy. K, go watch the Montage song in South Park. I’ll wait.

(20) Initiation rites with another culture involving bodily harm. In form, Kvothe aces the test and is remembered fondly by the Adem. Isn’t there some movie about a white man joining a village in eastern Africa and learning basketball about this very thing?

deep breath Phew, that was a lot of tropes and gimmicks. Oftentimes, the devices he uses come across as opportunistic, for pulp intrigue and easy ways to build sympathy for his lead. I admit that I enjoyed the passages. I think in moderation all of these devices have their places, though I feel this style would be better suited to a television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer which aired on the WB in the 90s. Of course, now that I have gone to the trouble to list them, I plan to add some of them into my own stories. Again, I fully admit their appeal and guiltily lapped it up as I read.

Characters
Enough of the devices, what of the characters?

Kvothe? I’ve still not been won over by him. His arrogant humility does not endear him to me and neither does his homicidal tribalism. And I get it – he was dealt a bad hand and yet somehow perseveres.

It rattled me when Kvothe slayed all those Edema Ruh impersonators. They did some bad stuff (some committing rape), but not enough to warrant a blanket massacre. Kvothe killing all of them was too much for me to stomach. I know he is supposed to be a flawed hero, but this went well above anything else he’d done. It also trivialized all the Ambrose gags from earlier in the book. It made the book’s constitution sag. By that I mean that when I buy into a world I get a sense of what can and can’t happen. Not just in the world, but a form of author/reader contract. When I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I know terrible things can happen, which means at the same time I don’t wanna be reading whole quarters of a book about petty pranks being played. Martin’s books overall constitution supersedes that. Rothfuss’ doesn’t. Which is fine, but I felt a breach of etiquette when he had Kvothe murder all those people.

Also, his money woes became tedious. I’m tired of him always finding just enough to barely scrape by. I’m never worried about him since he always finds what he needs. I also don’t want to hear any more accounting – how many ha’pennies he’s got and how many talents he has, etc. *On a tangent: how does his scheme with the bursar work? Apparently, for any tuition over 10 talents Kvothe gets half and the bursar pockets the rest. But that implies that tuition is always 10 talents if the bursar can get away with a scam like that, which of course negates the point of the test. Isn’t there some auditing function that sees whether Kvothe has paid his full amount? If the bursar gives him [Tuition – 10] / 2, then isn’t he responsible for the remaining money if it isn’t in the account. And if he is working all on his own without any oversight why only make the deal with Kvothe? Okay, tangent done.*

Denna? She is unbearable for the most part – a girl who just can’t make good decisions for herself and keeps telling herself that things are as they should be. She is flighty and self-centered. I’m trying to think of her redeeming qualities. Being pitiable doesn’t cut it.

Sim and Will are pretty good – Sim especially. I really liked when Kvothe defended him for seeming weak, but really he was just a good person and shouldn’t be overlooked or looked down upon (funny how those opposite actions are both applicable). I thought that was quite a good trait. I root for Sim.

Bast is intriguing. Him being of the fae and knowing things about it certainly draws me into the story. Plus, when does he meet Kvothe and why was he in league with those ruffians?

Elodin? Meh.

Fela? Meh.

Felurian the faerie-succubus? Meh.

Tempi? Decent, I liked that he was some chump with his people as it turned out.

Penthe? Meh.

Ambrose? Meh.

Devi? She has potential, but her flirting tendencies with Kvothe ruin it as they are redundant with the other women.

Plot
For a while I thought I was growing tired of Kvothe’s time at the university. Unfortunately, when he left it got worse. Him going on the inverse-Robin Hood quest I didn’t like. And it only got weirder. Him learning Capoeira from Tempi and then being trapped by Felurian and then getting with several women in a row? Help. Me…

Going forward? Kvothe’s only had two minor encounters with the Chandrian — the true villains — since his parents were murdered. Now Rothfuss is expected to tie up that loose end in one book? And furthermore, they’re not even the biggest problem, Ctaethe is? That is setting up a lot of plot to cover in the final volume. I’m in fact quite disappointed with the Chandrian. We know next to nothing about them which leaves the bandit encounter tasting funny. Why was a Chandrian running a group of bandits in the forest? I know they are mysterious and destroy records of themselves, but banditry is pretty banal for such powerful and baleful creatures. Also, I’ve read around 2000 pages and would prefer to have more to go on regarding their story. Rothfuss could have spent all those Adem pages with something substantive on the Chandrian.

Pacing
It is good… so far. He effortlessly drifts between long expositions of single days and rolling past months in a breath. However, I am quite concerned that the following constraints can’t be met

(1) The series is kept to three books (of reasonable length. They are already pushing it)

(2) The pacing doesn’t fly wildly out of hand

(3) The book’s culmination is satisfying

Kvothe is still like 17 years old in his story. The innkeeper if at least a good bit older. But the story Kvothe has told Chronicler has hardly caught up with the tales we hear about him in the present day. That is cause for concern.

Rothfuss Post-Kingkiller?
Rothfuss should turn his attention to writing for a television program. Both his novels have already read with a periodic cadence. And for a long time, it was anchored to the university (and is again at the end) which lends it the stability required for television. Add in all the storytelling gimmicks I outlined above and you’ve got yourself one quality television program. The other advantage of him doing it is that it’d be done really well because of his writing prowess. Sure, he can’t resist the occasional double simile – as if he can’t possibly fit in his whole cache in the course of 1000+ pages and couldn’t bear to leave any out. (“He moved like clockwork, like a wagon rolling down the road in well-worn ruts”; “my chest working like a bellows, straining like a horse run to lather.”) I’m sure he could come up with a different plot entirely and do another fantasy series wonderfully, too. I’ll quietly advocate for high fantasy, rather than the young adult market he’s hit on the head with this series. I am a firm believer that every story can be retold if done well. The young adult market for fantasy isn’t going anywhere and Rothfuss delivers an excellent work into that tradition. I mean really excellent.

I’ll conclude by reiterating that I judge the author more critically than others because of his potential – kind of like admonishing Simone Biles for only getting a bronze on the balance beam. Rothfuss’ writing elegance sets a high bar in my mind as the reader. Add to it the legions of fans and I again redouble my critical eye. But in reality, my hat is off to him. I can’t wait for the next book. I will finish his trilogy, and recommend this for most people.

Guest Review – The First Law Trilogy

The First Law Trilogy book coversThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed by Pili Pili

I wrote two reviews for the series, after book 1 and then after book 3. As I put them together now it is interesting to see how my view on the series changed over time.

The Blade Itself  (book 1 of the First Law trilogy)

3.5 stars, out of five. The book’s writing is strong (definitely doesn’t detract). Its best qualities are its pacing and length. I didn’t get bored reading it. That said, I’ve not fallen entirely for any of the characters. They are all flawed in a way that doesn’t quite resonate with me. I can’t see their flaws in myself in a way that would make me endeared to them, but there is intriguing room for growth. The role of women is pretty bad, though.

I’d recommend it for fantasy fans. It isn’t young adult. I’m already reading the next one.

—-

Before They Are Hanged & Last Arguments of Kings (books 2 & 3 of the “First Law” trilogy)

Having trouble separating books 2 and 3 in my head as I write this review. Truth be told, they didn’t do it for me. I wasn’t drawn in by the darkness the ways others were. Especially in the characters. As I wrote in my review of book 1, no one’s struggles resonated with me. They just seemed like below average human beings. The room-for-growth thing did not materialize as hoped.

Leads include torturer, sibling abuser, serial killer, spoiled/petulant noble teenager, arrogant mage… The women were just terrible too, all portrayed in some victim light (repeatedly violated demon? self-sabotaging, beaten younger sister? lesbian prick? some dude’s daughter who is introduced as a love interest and then killed?). I just had trouble getting behind the characters.

Anyway, if others like it, great. Pace was great. Writing was strong. Action was good.

The Waterfall Traveler Blog Tour

The Waterfall Traveler book coverThe Waterfall Traveler by S.J. Lem

When Ri ventures out into the forest to find some food for her adoptive father, she never imagines that she will be saved by a charming boy and swept up in a battle against an evil that threatens humanity. Filled with adventure, drama, provocative characters and fantasy lore, The Waterfall Traveler is the tale of a girl willing to risk it all to save those she cares about. This novel is a good fantasy read. It moves along at an expeditious pace with an original story and satisfying ending. The writing is above average with descriptive scenery and good word selection. If anything was lacking, I wanted more character growth from the main protagonist, Ri. At times, she felt a little wishy-washy and I think she should have been learning more from the admittedly extraordinary situations she into which she was continually thrust.

*Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this novel with a request for an honest review.*

You can enter to win a signed copy of this book here or purchase a copy here.

Book Review – The Girl from Everywhere

The Girl from Everywhere book coverThe Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

Nix has spent her sixteen years sailing with her father on his ship, The Temptation. She has been across the globe and through the centuries. Her father can sail to any time and place if he has a map from that period. But he has spent Nix’s lifetime looking for one specific map. One that will take him back to Honolulu in 1868; back to before Nix’s mother died in childbirth. Nix has been helping her father obtain various versions of the map even though it could erase her entire existence as she knows it. The premise of The Girl from Everywhere intrigued me right from the start. This book is incredibly creative mixing the time travel with adventure, a modern sensibility with fantasy, and nineteenth-century Hawaiian politics with mythological stories. I found Heidi Heilig’s ability to blend many different themes from addiction to fate to the inevitable love triangle of a YA novel into a cohesive story to be impressive. Her character development is also top-notch. Overall, this novel was refreshing.

Book Review – Crooked Kingdom

Crooked Kingdom book coverCrooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom is the sequel to last year’s novel, Six of Crows. Again, Leigh Bardugo comes through with an engaging, character-driven action story. The story picks up right after the events of Six of Crows with Kaz Brekker and his gang having narrowly escaped their first mission. Now, double-crossed and still dealing with the effects of nearly dying, Kaz must use his mastermind skills to get his friends out of the city. Told in alternating point of view chapters from each of the six characters, Crooked Kingdom takes readers on the same roller coaster ride as its predecessor. And that’s not a bad thing. Having been absolutely taken in by the characters after Six of Crows, I found this novel to be even richer and more captivating. But, beware. Leigh Bardugo is a master of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger! This book is incredibly hard to put down after you get into the heart of the action.

Book Review – A Torch Against the Night

a-torch-against-the-nightA Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

The sequel to her bestselling debut, An Ember in the Ashes, A Torch Against the Night continues the story of the former slave Laia and the former elite soldier of the Empire, Elias, as they flee the wrath of the new Emperor. Laia and Elias head north to the infamous Kauf prison where Laia’s brother has been taken. Amidst a rebellion, ramblings of civil war and being hunted by Elias’ former best friend Helene, Laia and Elias must break into and out of the Empire’s most secure prison. While it was the world-building that drew me into the previous story, in this entry it was the characters, particularly Elias. Ms. Tahir has crafted a truly complex, flawed and yet absolutely sympathetic character. I found myself caring deeply for what happened to Elias and interested in his relationship with Laia. It is going to be a long wait to books three and four!

Book Review – Kings or Pawns

Kings or Pawns Book Tour banner

Kings or PawnsKings or Pawns by J.J. Sherwood

The elven city of Elvorium is rife with corruption. The young prince Hairem ascends to the throne and refuses to allow the political machinations of his council deter him from undoing their corrupt power. But Hairem’s task is difficult with an assassin loose inside the city and the traitorous warlord Saebellus threatening to overcome the elven world’s army. Kings or Pawns is a high fantasy political thriller with the essence of A Game of Thrones. While well-written, I feel that the plot of Kings or Pawns sags under the weight of unnecessarily wordy descriptions. Also, I’m very much in favor of good world-building, but the world of Sevrigel still feels slightly too foreign to be relatable. I could not find much empathy in the world nor most of the characters. This series will certainly find its place amongst the trend of stories about anti-heroes and political intrigue novels in the vein of A Game of Thrones, but it’s not my favorite genre.

*Disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this novel with a request for an honest review.*

Win a signed copy of Kings or Pawns or other swag! Enter the giveaway here.