Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Name of the Wind, chapter one, in which Will is charmed by a Science Hero

Howdy folks.  Sunday updates are back!  The long drought is once again over and we have a new project, decided by my need to resolve an apparent contradiction.  On the one hand, I have heard that The Name of the Wind is the most archetypal of male wish-fulfillment fantasy; on the other hand, I've seen women recently talking about how much they love Rothfuss, in the comments of a video of him talking at a con about proper diversity of representation in fiction.

He also posted this, presumably on July 5th:

Pictured: a status update about letting his young son wear eyeshadow and lipstick on a night out, because, quote, "Fuck it" and "Freedom".

So already I feel like I'm dealing with a much higher calibre of human being than the aw-shucks misogynist Butcher or the frothing hatemonger Card.  Male wish fulfillment and a philosophy of inclusion and free expression--these things don't have to conflict, but they are definitely an unusual combination.  Let's see if we can figure out what's going on.

No further delays.  Are you excited?  I'm excited.

(Content: referenced animal death. Fun content: chimney history, Viola Davis' poker face.)

The Name of the Wind: p. 1--
Prologue: A Silence of Three Parts

The title page informs me that this book is "The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One", which is even more amazing than your typical 'Book One of the Interminability Cycle'.  A single day.  I assume this due to flashbacks, but suddenly I wonder why no one's tried to do the dragons-and-wizards version of 24 yet.

There is of course a map, labelled "The Four Corners of Civilization" which conveniently ends all along the right edge of the page with the practically-vertical Stormwall Mountains.  Nothing civilised anywhere else, I guess?  These people are terrible explorers or huge narcissists, but--to be clear--I am fully expecting this book to be unabashedly pretentious stereotypical fantasy, and I will not hold that against it any more than I condemned Wheel of Time for being a by-the-numbers Tolkien ripoff.  (Bad example?)  Until and unless Rothfuss earns my ire with offensive handling of actual characters, my exclamations will probably all translate to 'that is terrible I love it'.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

The first part of the silence is absence: no wind, no drinking crowd, no music.  There are a couple of guys drinking intently, whose lack of conversation "added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one".  The third silence is an excuse to describe the scenery:
If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar [....] in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire [....] in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.
He has "true-red" hair, so I assume he's a main character.  He owns the bar, and the poetic third silence: "It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."  That's the entire prologue.  I have no idea what it means but, again, it is shamelessly over-the-top and I love it.

Chapter One: A Place for Demons

Same inn, different night?  A stock character named Old Cob is telling a quartet of young men a story of wandering hero Taborlin the Great, disarmed and imprisoned in a tower where the flames had turned blue, which the smith's apprentice correctly identifies as a sign of the Chandrian (bad guys of some type, clearly).  They pause for Medieval Fantasy Dinner, "five bowls of stew and two warm, round loaves of bread", which is some nice baking service--and then back to the story, where Taborlin turns out to be Superman levels of overpowered, because he "knew the names of all things, and so all things were to his command".  He commands the stone wall of his cell to fall apart, jumps out the hole, and "he knew the name of the wind" [DRINK!] so it caught him on his way down.  He doesn't even have the stab wound from his captors, thanks to his new magic amulet that they somehow failed to take from him.

The men start arguing over the precise rhyming scheme about being kind to tinkers (such as the one who gifted Taborlin this Amulet of Gamebreaking), and the innkeeper, Kote, interrupts for basically the first time since he moved to town a year ago:
A tinker's debt is always paid:/Once for any simple trade./Twice for freely given aid./Thrice for any insult made.
I had been thinking that the innkeeper was the protagonist, but he's got a name now, whereas the narrative has paused twice now to tell us that the smith's teenage apprentice is still always called "boy", which I find Suspicious.  Old Cob specifies that the amulet would protect Taborlin from evil, "demons and such", causing Shep to grumble about needing it himself.  Implications follow that Shep's farm may have been hit by demons last week and everyone is too polite to ask about it while sober.  I hope it was demons.  I would give a lot to see a fantasy novel written from the perspective of ordinary villagers just trying to get on with life in a world where apocalyptic devil-gods and prophesied heroes and monster hordes are as common as rainy days.

Another disagreement arises about whether the Chandrian are demons or, as Jake insists, "They were the first six people to refuse Tehlu's choice of the path", et cetera.  On the plus side, rather than everyone having a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of their mytho-history, they seem to have various competing stories and can't agree what's what.  Already we're doing better than Wheel of Time.

No dark night in a tavern is complete without someone stumbling in on death's door, so here comes Carter, smeared with blood.  (Aside: the surname 'Walker' and the locative name 'Rannish' suggest to me that we're in an era in which surnames are relatively new, but apparently the occupational name 'Carter' has already made the jump to forename.  Reminds me of a couple of weeks ago when I asked my GM about an NPC named Christopher in a fantasy setting without Christianity.  He politely ignored my musings, which is probably for the best.  This is why I have trouble connecting with people.)  Carter is clutching a blanket that looks "as if it were wrapped around a tangle of kindling sticks" and, a paragraph later, clunks onto a table "as if it were full of stones".  I'm sure it's nothing creepy like a bunch of bones.  Carter is "crisscrossed with long, straight cuts" but insists that he's fine, although his horse didn't make it.  He is reprimanded for travelling alone when there are brigands around, until he dramatically tugs open the blanket roll to reveal a giant dead spider.

Kote casually identifies it as a scrael, then quickly insists he's never seen one before but only heard about them from travelling merchants.  He quickly sets to sciencing it as best he can--its body is stone, feet razor-sharp, no eyes, no mouth, and when he finally manages to snap it open, it's full of homogenous grey sponge "like a mushroom".  Kote is terrible at being an undercover hero, but after Dresden's tremendous disinterest in learning anything more about anything than he has to, I am all over a character whose response to monsters is to start making notes and running tests.

Everyone is deeply upset and confused by the prospect of an actual demon corpse in the bar--they don't doubt demons exist, but they're supposed to be far-off mythical things, like kings and gods.  Kote just shrugs and says they can test with iron or fire.  Graham, in the audience, helpfully specifies that demons "fear three things: cold iron, clean fire, and the holy name of God."

Kote gives him this face...

Pictured: Viola Davis, unimpressed.

...and moves on to finding iron--pure iron, not alloyed steel.  He eventually locates an appropriately pure penny (a shim--we get names for all the coin types, which is pretty good flavour without breaking our stride too much) and presses it to the scrael's stone body.  A moment later, it burns through to the table underneath.  Kote wipes his hands on his apron and asks what they should do now.  SCIENCE HERO!

Another silent scene, this time of Kote alone in his bar, cleaning everything.  It's super clean.  So clean to begin with that even after cleaning for an hour, his cleaning bucket water is still clean enough "for a lady to wash her hands".  I'm not sure if this is characterisation or what.  Is Kote obsessive or does he not sleep ever?  The narrative notes that 'Kote' is a chosen name for him, one of many (his student calls him Reshi), and implies that he's actually much older than the twentysomething he looks.  When he finally does return to his room, he's greeted by a new character, Bast, who makes me vaguely uncomfortable given that he's the first dark-skinned person we've met and is seemingly a servant, bringing food.  At least, he's described as "dark and charming, with a quick smile and cunning eyes".  'Dark' in these cases sometimes just means hair, but overall it sounds to me like a stock description of a Mildly Foreign Person whom we're meant to like but also not be sure whether to trust.  We're also in Jacob-and-Carter country, so Bast is probably meant to sound exotic (though it's a decent abbreviation of Sebastian, and apparently also a German surname).  I'm going to go ahead and picture him as mixed north African/west Asian.

But he's not just a servant, at least.  He's Kote's apprentice, by the sound of it studying magic or alchemy.  Buuuut he's also super promiscuous, as they banter and Bast admits that he didn't get any reading done today because he took his book outside and immediately got entangled with a pretty girl.  Again.  He's a big fan of all the women under thirty in this place, apparently.  So, our first POC is vaguely subservient, scholastically under-motivated, and extra sexual.  This is all discussed jovially and without any chastising from Kote, so we're probably not supposed to think less of him for this, but I become immediately suspicious when these sorts of traits line up.  (Also, we've had half a dozen named men and one Significantly Unnamed boy and the only named female character thus far is the dead horse.  Don't think I'm not noticing these things just because I am pleased with Kote's I-wonder-what-happens-if-I-do-this curiosity.)

Kote explains about the scrael, to Bast's immediate concern, but Kote reassures him that it was properly dead and he subtly made sure they disposed of it properly, with a rowan wood fire and a sufficiently deep hole and such arcane precautions.  He also mentions giving Carter about fifty stitches, and instructs Bast to tell anyone gossipy a specific backstory about learning from his father the a caravan guard.  They have further Significant Conversation that we don't fully understand, about how "they thought it was a demon" that that was probably for the best (but nothing about what it really is, ominous chord), and everyone's going to be stocking up on pure iron to fight demons and Kote wouldn't blame Bast if he wanted to leave now.  Is this implying that Bast is also not human?  I have a suspicious eye on you, Rothfuss.  (Bast says he would never leave, since Kote's his only possible teacher.)  The Bast-is-a-demon-or-something theory intensifies when the banter proceeds to Kote jokingly trying to banish him with various incantations in ancient language, to which Bast laughs through fake scowls.

Kote is left to eat in silence, and I contemplate why I enjoy the return to pretentious pseudo-poetry in the narrative here, even as it tries to quietly inform me of how special Kote is.  He reflects on his slight pride in engineering a fireplace into the middle of the room--

(I did some quick research here to try to figure out if/when this was a new creation, and discovered a book that argues that the invention of the chimney was the single greatest factor in the development of class segregation in Europe.  The world is a font of endless wonders and this sustains me through times of trouble.)

--and then spends a lot of time looking everywhere in the room except towards a particular wooden chest, "the same way you avoid meeting the eye of an old lover at a formal dinner, or that of an old enemy sitting across the room in a crowded alehouse late at night".  (I note that Rothfuss is pretty good about not gendering his hypotheticals; I feel confident Dresden would have made it very clear that the 'old lover' was a white woman as beautiful as she was cold, et cetera.)

The chest is made of roah, fantasy wood worth its weight in gold: "a chest made of it went far beyond extravagance".  I had enough of this with Trillionaire Ender Wiggin to last me a lifetime, thanks.  The chest has three locks: one iron, one copper, "and a lock that could not be seen".  DO YOU REALISE YET HOW IMPORTANT THIS BOX IS?  I'm mostly expecting it to have a weapon inside, e.g., the sword that he Swore He Would Never Wield Again, but I'm hopeful that I'll be wrong there.  He eventually locks eyes with the box, looks all weary again, and goes to bed.

Next day, the bar crowd is nervous, although not too nervous to throw us some more worldbuilding tidbits: the Penitent King is trying to suppress a rebellion in far-off Resavek, and everyone's expecting a third round of taxes this year, which will be bearable for most of the farmers except those already struggling, and "Crazy Martin", who planted barley instead of the beans that armies live on.  Travelling merchants have fewer and fewer luxuries as well.  I actually kinda like this sequence, far more than a Wheel-of-Time-y scenario where everyone's chipper but there are Grim Rumours in The East that they Foolishly Dismiss.  Not least because it only takes a couple of paragraphs for Rothfuss to sketch us a sense of village life and how they adapt to the times and economics of their world, and we aren't subject to a deluge of vaguely-rustic down-home slang.  The village is also full of gossip, since Carter is half made of stitches now, although no one really takes the claims of demonic invasion seriously.
Trying to convince folk would only make them a laughingstock, like Crazy Martin, who had been trying to dig a well inside his own house for years now.
A brief investigation has not provided me with any insight as to why people wouldn't want an indoor well.  I mean, I know wells run dry, but if you're building a house and you have a private well, is there any particular reason not to build the house around the well?  (These are the questions I ask that, four years later, cause someone to look at me bug-eyed and say 'Why do you know that?'  Funsies, my friends.  Funsies.)  Still, as Kote predicted, everyone in town finds time to drop by the blacksmith and buy a length of iron, just in case some hellspawn needs smiting.

By the end of the chapter, it has begun to drag a bit, particularly once it gets around to how "they reminisced that three years ago no one would have even thought of locking their doors at night, let alone barring them".  Pepperridge Farm remembers.  The evening's drinking stumbles to end at a slow and low point, ending the chapter, which if nothing else tells us how confident Rothfuss is that we are firmly in the grip of his narrative tension.

Still not one named human woman, but also a lack of outright misogyny or even 'benign' sexism, so this is one of those times where a score of zero is actually an improvement over most of the books you've had the joy to experience with me.  I confess I hold actual hope for this story yet.  (I can't tell if Kote and Bast are close enough in age for me to ship them yet, but I assume you're all prepared for that to start happening soon.)

Next week: a secondary protagonist named Chronicler (amazing) gets politely robbed and Kote starts to reveal his Seeeeecret Paaaast!

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