Monday, October 03, 2011

Some competition for Harry

kw: book reviews, fantasy, magic

It is a very good thing there is no genuine magic. Human nature being what it is, there are rogues aplenty who would prey upon the "less magical" around them, and destroy any who complained. In the real world there are many "he who shall not be named" for every Harry Potter. The human race would soon be reduced to a handful of the luckiest and most powerful mages. With this in mind, I have yet to read a convincing story based on wizardry whatever it may be called. The continued survival of the majority of humanity, in all magical fantasy, is always based on an unusual level of altruism among the major characters.

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, well-written as it is, and well packed with clever ideas, is a case in point. Kvothe is a student of sundry magical arts at a University that bears a glancing reference to Hogwart's, but is run along different lines. This volume is subtitled "The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two", and the reader gradually understands that the book is presented as a transcription of a single day's narration by the aging Kvothe to a Chronicler (really, an amanuensis). That's a point to which I'll return anon.

The events cover about a year in the life of young Kvothe, as recalled in his late middle age: young enough that his hair remains red, old enough to have slowed down a bit. But Kvothe is the subject of stories and songs aplenty, and is now known by the name Kote, living among people who know little of the legend from which he has distanced himself.

For Rothfuss, magic is somewhat differently divided than the way other writers present it. Kvothe is a master of sympathetic magic, based on the similarity of things, but we also read of sygaldry, the embodiment of spells in runes inscribed on objects, and naming, whereby the greatest powers are unleashed by those who learn the true names of things. The "Day One" book, The Name of the Wind, is based largely on naming magic. Alchemy and magical medicine make their own showing in this book.

What do wise men fear? The sea in a storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man. The way I learned the proverb, it ended "the wrath of a patient man." I like that version better. Young Kvothe is hardly a man, being sixteen years of age throughout, perhaps attaining seventeen by the book's end. So the story is a coming of age tale, and interesting in its details, for the author has a good way of writing the feelings of an adolescent who hardly knows his own mind. The boy is a skilled musician, and for this I felt greater empathy, having been through it myself. But it's been decades since the last paying gig for me, and, it seems, for Kvothe/Kote the narrator.

Thus, unrealistic as it is (I really did have it hard suspending disbelief), I found the story charming, which made the reading a pleasure. I'd soon have lost patience with a 990-page book written with less skill. But here I couldn't help thinking about the "Day Two" matter. The book has half a million words, and we are to believe it was dictated to and handwritten by Chronicler in a single day, from breakfast-time to late evening, perhaps twelve hours. That comes to about seven hundred words per minute, and I don't know anybody who can write longhand faster than 25 wpm. Poor analytical mind that I have. The thought kept intruding and spoiled some of my enjoyment.

But do not take me wrong. It is an enjoyable book for all that. Considering that Kvothe is yet to be evicted from the University, though that was mentioned several times in the narrative, and a number of other amazing events were mentioned, but are pending, there is lots of room for the author to bring us book after book, presumably dictated day after day.

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