Blog Archives

The Perfect Wholeness of the Vignette (Redux)

Okay, let’s try this again…

I just finished Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

It is not a normal novel (or novella) by any means. I’ve been trying to pin down, exactly, what to say about it or how to think of it. I think, in the end, it is this inability to articulate its wonder that makes me love it.

And I really do. It’s wonderful.

11663548As we follow Auri through her lonely world, a lot of conventions get thrown out the back door. There is no dialogue. There is only one character, essentially. There is relatively little conflict. All of these things, or any of the individually, would be enough to get an author laughed out of a publishing house or roundly panned. And yet, through his beautiful prose and just a little sparkle of magic, Rothfuss makes this story riveting.

Much of the magic at work here is the mysteries that wrap around little Auri and her home. Secret books, hidden passages, a cistern with no bottom, a door never opened. Auri is a shattered creature – like many of Rothfuss’s characters – but the tool that did the shattering is hidden from us and her scars deeper. We pity her, but also do not.  Auri fits here, just so. Nestled.

I think, as readers and as writers, we get stuck in a prison of our own making. This prison is called “stuff we like” and we all too frequently are confined there without parole. The Science Fiction reader scoffs at the Literary Mainstream. Mystery fans turn their noses up at Romance readers. The Lit Mainstream sneers at everybody. And yet there is so much more. We don’t see it. Reading A Slow Regard of Silent Things reawoke that part of me that appreciates modernist literature and experimental story structure. It made me realize how blind I am (and how blind we are) by our own conventions. If all you read are thrillers, you don’t see the conventions as conventions, but as truths. As Gardner says in Grendel:

That is their happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it, like crabs in mud.

Now, Gardner is talking about dumb animals here, but the humans hardly make out any better. They construct for themselves myth and theory to make their blindness acceptable and rational. It has always been thus, and, thusly, shall it remain.

Rothfuss, though, doesn’t tell us the story of the Day Auri Was Broken or the Day Auri Got Fixed. No. He breaks the cycle. He tells us about Auri’s life and nothing more. A slice of it, one week long. We spend a substantial number of pages making soap. And yet…wow. It’s beautiful. It works. It is incredibly difficult to tell a slice of life story and make it interesting. This one, though, is the proof of concept. This is as much epic prose poem as story, as much painting as wordplay. Like that big brass gear Auri lugs around, it is a cycle with a missing tooth, but perfect for all that. A sign of how, even if we are no longer what we were meant to be, we are still what we are meant to be. No beautiful story can be so broken that it does not sing.

I highly recommend you read it.

The Perfect Wholeness of the Vignette

EDIT: So WordPress, in its infinite wisdom, ate this post. I will need to rewrite it later. Sorry!

I just finished Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things.




That is their happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it, like crabs in mud.






By the way…

The Iron Ring is still on sale for a mere 0.99 on Amazon! Go and buy it now while the sale lasts! When you’ve finished, leave a review (and remember the story is completed in Blood and Iron, also on sale now! Don’t want halves? Buy them both as The Oldest Trick!)

We, the World Weavers

In the Gospel of Saint John, it begins:

In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.

When I studied scripture (yes, I have studied scripture – both in high school and in college. Go Jesuits!), recall spending a fair amount of time discussing this line. John’s gospel is significantly different than the other three. In it, John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and, as a consequence, it’s a trifle more abstract in places. It works with certain metaphors the other gospels don’t (as those gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a human being and how he relates to humanity). In the original Ancient Greek, the word we translate as “Word” is logos.

Logos means “word,” but not in the conventional sense (that is lexis). Logos, rather, means something along the lines of “rational basis” or “premise”. In the theological sense, among the ancient Hebrews it indicated “that through which everything was made.” It makes sense, in this context, that Saint John would relate God to logos, as that is literally what God is – the thing through which everything is made. I also think it is profound to think of the metaphor being constructed here, irrespective of your religious beliefs: Word as God.

Neil Postman, the media theorist and cultural critic (and professor of communications and culture at NYU), goes on at some length about the power of words. In his essay “The Word Weavers/The World Makers,” he says:

For whatever we believe in, or don’t believe in, is to a considerable extent a function of how our language addresses the world.

We cannot conceive of things we have no words for. Our words and our language dictates how we interact and understand the world around us and it is very difficult to escape. Even if you learn several languages, our frames of meaning and understanding are still hung upon a framework of words. Now, there is some argument among linguists and biologists and so on regarding how language came about (are we born with it hardwired in or do we learn it/not learn it according to environment), but regardless of that, the simple fact remains that words are the very stuff of creation. What’s more, language is basically just a metaphor – it exists at what Postman says is “at considerable remove from the reality of the world itself.”

Words are magic, but not how you think they are.

Words are magic, but not how you think they are.

Consider any object. Can you see the back of it? Obviously not unless you turn it around, but then, of course, you can’t see the front anymore. Indeed, you cannot ever see all of an object at once without using a series of mirrors, and even then you are only seeing reflections and images of that object’s full self. Nevertheless, if you look at the coffee mug on your desk , you know its shape and its function and its color and, despite no current sensory evidence, you are able to conceive of it without needing to see it. This, Postman insists, is the function words serve. They are metaphors and metaphors, he says, are “organs of perception.”

This brings me, as it always seems to, back to fantasy literature. Magic, as it is commonly portrayed, is almost always somehow verbal in nature: speak the magic words, know the magic incantations, write the magic runes, speak a thing’s True Name, etc.. Tolkien has Middle Earth sung into existence, Le Guin has Ged the Wizard work his magic by speaking the names of things, and Rothfuss’s Kvothe wishes for nothing more than to Speak the Name of the Wind. Historically, this is an ancient belief and custom – we can see it in the Gospel of Saint John just as we can see it in the beliefs of the ancient Hebrew Kabbalists and even the ancient Sumerians who saw names and writing and speech as somehow magical in nature.

What’s interesting about this is that those ancient cultures were right! Words are magical, and not in some mealy-mouthed “inspire you to write and love books” way, either. They are actually magical in the sense that they are what gives the world shape or, rather, enable us to shape the world around us into something understandable. One cannot stare into a void without having a word for void or, rather, if you were to stare into the void (or anything else for that matter) without words, you would have no way to think about the experience outside of dull, animal impressions. Words – how we use them, where we use them, when we use them – have real, actual power over the world around us and the people we meet.

To study words, to understand them, and to wield them is to hold real power. No magic wands required.

The Tyranny of the Real

If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch Patrick Rothfuss Explaining Why Literary Snobs Are Wrong. I’ll wait until you’re done.


Okay, so as somebody who happens to straddle both the academic/literary world and the fantasy/spec-fic world, I’ve run into a lot of the same sentiment that the girl who came to Rothfuss’s reading did. During my MFA program, I had a couple workshops where Fantasy or Science Fiction were outright rejected as viable submissions. In one such workshop, one professor (a lit-fic short story writer) used to ask us what books we’d read recently. Each of us would have a turn. When they got to me, I said Steel Beach by John Varley – a science fiction novel (and a hell of a fun read, by the way) – and the woman reacted as if I’d belched in her face or something. She pretended I hadn’t said anything and class moved on. That stung a bit, let me tell you. I hated that snob and her sneering assumption of what qualifies as literature. Still do.

Part of the divide between the worlds of so-called “Literary Fiction” and that of “Genre Fiction” (an artificial distinction, and I whole-heartedly agree with Rothfuss that everything is a genre) has to do with the concept of “realism”. What is “real” and what is “not real” is, for some reason, important to us in our stories. There are great swathes of people out there who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believe that what is written in the Book of Genesis is factually true. These people don’t do this because they are crazy (or, well, not necessarily), but because the understanding of the “real” is of such incredible psychological importance to the human mind.

In Plato’s venerable Allegory of the Cave (which, for you spec-fic philistines, is basically the same thing as the Matrix, except without bullet-time or snazzy outfits), he depicts to us a world in which the people trapped in the cave…

…can see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave…and if they were to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them…[and so] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

Plato here is describing what philosophers refer to as the “Veil of Perception,” which was explored more fully by thinkers like Descartes and Locke, but basically involves a central problem of human experience: what we see is necessarily filtered through our various senses and our senses are not always reliable. Since we cannot always trust our senses to reveal the truth to us, we are required, therefore, to either exist in a permanent state of doubt and skepticism or, conversely, to take certain things on faith as true so that we may operate in the world without anxiety. Of those two options, most of us tend to choose the second one. We prefer to think of the real as being actually real since to do otherwise would require an awful lot of work and not a little bit of discomfort.

Enter fiction! When we read a work of fiction, we are being lied to, completely and totally. None of the things being described happened, none of the people are real people, and none of the places are real places. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to engage with fiction. We have to accept these blatant lies on faith. We do this because we are able to gain from the experience – the story, even if false, resonates with our understanding of the world.

Now, in “Literary” Fiction (which is primarily focused on the real, concrete, and even contemporary world), suspension of disbelief is easy – it’s barely even noticeable. Even those stories that involve the fantastic are very tightly bound by certain realistic expectations. From such realist fiction, though, the realm of writing travels very, very far. Fantasy fiction is the furthest of the bunch, arguably – a world that is very much not our own, adhering to its own laws, governed by its own cultures and history, and so on and so forth. The suspension of belief at that end of the scale is fairly substantial – it asks you to accept the impossible as plausible in order to engage in the story. While I can readily accept that this isn’t for everyone, the supposition that doing this automatically disqualifies you from a serious literary discussion is fatuous nonsense. As Rothfuss rightly points out, many of the great works of literature are fantastic in nature. Were they to be published today, they’d get stuffed in the Scifi/Fantasy shelf right alongside Rothfuss’s stuff (and my own, though I hesitate to put myself in the same company as Rothfuss as yet).

If it spins or if it falls, is Jack's experience any lesser for it, really? Is ours?

If it spins or if it falls, is Jack’s experience any lesser for it, really? Is ours?

The big question, though, is why does realism even matter that much? If all fiction is lies, anyway, who cares what the lies are about?

We writers, we are all liars. We lie about different things and in different ways and to different degrees, but it’s all lies anyway. We lie because we’ve found that’s an easier way to get at the truth, ironically enough. To say this writer is telling lies that are too big to believe is splitting hairs – I don’t buy Holden Caufield, nor do I accept Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as realistic, but what of it? What we’re debating here is matters of taste, not truth. We are quibbling over style without bothering to have serious discussions about content. Something “not being real” is not a criticism, because none of us have any real way of distinguishing the real in the first place.

Read what speaks to you and be willing to listen to that which at first seems strange. That’s all you need to find true literature, no matter what genre it is.

The Sword and Laser Anthology is Out!

S&;L%20ANTHOLOGY%20coverart%20(1)So, I was just puttering around the various outlets that have work of mine about to be released and lookee here! The Sword and Laser Anthology has just hit Lulu! Extra bonus: it can be purchased in both electronic and good, old fashioned paper! Getting your name in print is one thing, folks, but finding that print upon an actual physical page has just that much more of a visceral kick.

Anywho, check out the anthology. It’s got an introduction from none other than Patrick Rothfuss (which, if you haven’t read the Kingkiller Chronicles yet, you’re missing out) and a vast array of stories from relatively new and fledgling authors just like me. There are twenty stories altogether – ten fantasy stories and ten science fiction stories. It’s lots of fun and I recommend it highly! Yeah, you won’t like every single story (tastes vary, of course) but there’s a huge variety in this book. Thanks ever so much to Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt for putting it together!

Oh, and this is just by the way: my story in here, “Partly Petrified”, is a Tyvian Reldamar/Alandar adventure. So, if you’re at all curious about my fantasy world or my main protagonist, have a look.

Playing Another Tune…

Stumbled across a review of Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies the other day, written by none other than Patrick Rothfuss. In it, he attests:

…in a first book (or movie for that matter) everything has the benefit of being shiny and new. Every revelation is fresh and exciting. Every character is a mystery unfurling.

That’s not the case in a second book. In a second book, you still have that problem. PLUS you have the problem that some of your readers read the first book two days ago, and some of them read it two years ago. Some of them haven’t read it at *all.*

On top of that, a lot of people want nothing more than for you to write your first book over again… because that’s what they know and love. But you *can’t* do that, because you only get one beginning.

When you write the second book in a series, the honeymoon is over. Now you’re in a whole different type of relationship. And love is harder to maintain than infatuation.

That’s why, in my opinion, shifting gears from first book to second book is THE most difficult part of being a new writer.

Crap...I think Kvothe's gotta spend a year learning kung fu. Hmmm...

Crap…I think Kvothe’s gotta spend a year learning kung fu. Hmmm…

I found this review particularly interesting in light of the fact it involves two of my current favorite fantasy authors, both of whom wrote second books that I didn’t like as much as the first. Of the two, I would even argue that Rothfuss’s second book was the more disappointing of the two in the context of the series. I did not think either book was actively bad, mind you – they are both great reads, if not as tightly paced as their first offerings – but they don’t gleam as brightly as the initial outlay. Of course, to again quite Rothfuss’s review, “But you won’t find me bitching, because the only thing I could say was something along the lines of, “O! Woe is me! I was expecting pure untrammeled brilliance and all I got was mere shining excellence! Also, they didn’t have any loganberry cream cheese at the café this morning, so I had to have blueberry instead! Alas! I shall now weep and write poetry in my journal!”

The point Rothfuss makes, though, still stands regardless of Red Seas, Red Skies‘s relative quality and is really worth considering. Since most of your average aspiring fantasy or science fiction authors are looking to write a series, some notion of how that is going to work out is important to realize. So how do you do it well? How do you top yourself?

I’m not Rothfuss or Lynch – pretty far from it, really – and I’m not really here to offer a critique on their work. I don’t have any good answers on how to write a second book because I haven’t successfully done it yet. I’m in the process of writing two separate sequels to two separate novels, and one is going pretty well while the other is something of a disaster at the moment. The only thing I can say that is helping me in one and hurting me in the other is this: know what the series is about.

At some point in writing Red Seas, Lynch had to ask himself ‘what role does this book play in the series as a whole?’ Now, given that he hasn’t finished his series yet, one can only guess at what the answer is/will be. For Lynch, it involved pirates. Pirates, to some extent, fit thematically with some of the larger forces at play in Lynch – issues of freedom, rebellion against authority, and sneering at the rule of law – but it departed from the operative action and mood of the original book. That becomes disconcerting for some readers, not as much for others. Likewise Rothfuss has Kvothe wander off up north to learn swordsmanship and combat. Very much in keeping with the building legend of Kvothe, but it served as a major tangent from the motivating storylines of the book thus far (Denna, the University, Ambrose, the Chandarain, etc.) even if we did get some goodies in the end. Was it worth the slow down in the plot?

I don’t have the answers, as I said. I suspect that Rothfuss is very much correct about the difficulties of continuing a series, if for no other reason than (1) he’s done it and (2) the statement ‘the sequel is always worse’ is so commonly understood to be true, it is practically a truism. All I know is that I need to find a way to tell a new story at the same time as advancing an old one, and that’s a pretty unique balancing act. Maybe someday you folks will have the luxury of judging my success or failure in the endeavor.

Of course, in order to do that, I need to get the first one published first.

Of Han and Luke…

As usually happens with me, I just saw the movie Red as its sequel hit the theatres. Enjoyed the hell out of that movie, so I’ll probably go catch Red 2 by the time the third one is out or they’re releasing the 25th anniversary edition or something.


+25 Badass points, right here.

+25 Badass points, right here.

It occurred to me in watching this movie that one of the things that I loved about it is that all the heroes were old hands at their profession – they were the best of the best, with decades of history, coming out for one last hurrah. This always plays well with me and, indeed, it occurs to me that those are the kind of heroes I love. I like veterans, old pros, grizzled campaigners; I like to watch the young whipper-snappers underestimate how badass they are and get their butt handed to them. Most of my stories and novels feature such characters prominently, often in the starring role. When I play an RPG, I often play a character that once had their heyday, but now are fading with age or disillusionment or injury. I love giving them that leg-up on the opposition and I love all the trouble that having that many enemies (or friends!) brings with it.

It occurs to me that, to some extent, our heroes are often struck in one of two molds, of which the above description is one. They are either young, scrappy up-and-comers (Luke Skywalker) or older, more experienced, more cynical veterans (Han Solo). Granted there’s a lot of variation in there (more a spectrum than a dichotomy), but I do think the basic distinction has a lot of legs.


54Your Luke Skywalker types have their future ahead of them. They are often thrust into a world they barely understand, but there’s something special about them that sees them through. We identify with these characters readily – they’re the underdog, and besides they seem so nice. We struggle along with them to retain their values and their heroic nature in the face of evil. We know they have great things in store for  them, and so we want to be along for the ride. We can see this in Rothfuss’s Kvothe, in Jon Snow, in Harry Potter, and in just about every other YA Fantasy hero/heroine on the shelves.

For me, the drawback of the Skywalker approach is that one builds from the ground up. There seem to be fewer surprises hidden in the characters themselves and that makes them a little more predictable and gives them a little less depth. Of course, they trade this for clear goals and bold purposes. They are less hampered by cynicism.

Now, as somebody who struggles with cynicism myself, it is small wonder that I find the frequent optimism of the Luke character frustrating. Perhaps because I, myself, am somewhat embittered at the weight of the world, I find it easier to identify with someone who already knows this. Then again, I cheer just as hard for the Skywalkers when they do things right (Kvothe’s victories, especially, strike a chord in me that has me on my feet clapping). Still, I feel a disconnect with them. I don’t see myself as them. Oddly enough, I never did.


Look, kid, I've been from one side of this galaxy to the other and I've seen a lot of strange stuff...

Look, kid, I’ve been from one side of this galaxy to the other and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff…

The Han Solos of the world, on the other hand, are right up my alley. I love their history. I love their old friends popping up. I love it when a character says ‘I know a guy who might be able to help’, since that guy is always going to mean trouble. The Hans get the best one-liners, romance all the more interesting women, and have the coolest mystique about them. People roll their eyes at Luke – he has to prove himself. Han just jerks his head at Chewie, and people shut the hell up.

The struggle of the Han Solo hero is the struggle of redemption. It’s the story of the comeback. What they’re coming back from varies – from the loss of their conscience or from the weight of age, or the like. Still, it’s a story I love watching. Here is where you find Conan the Barbarian, James Bond, Unforgiven‘s Ed Munny, Druss the Legend, Kvothe (oddly enough – read Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and you’ll get it), Tyrion Lannister, Locke Lamora, and so on.

For whatever reason, nothing makes me smile more than the veteran proving he still has it, or the retired assassin finding something to be hopeful about, or the old soldier putting together his life after the long war. I want them to fight their way out of the pit they dug themselves. I find that fascinating.

So, where do your favorite heroes lie on the age-and-experience spectrum? Are they more a Han or more a Luke? Why?

Denna, Manic Pixie Dreamgirl of Imre

This is probably going to turn into a rant, but before it does, let me first and foremost say that I recommend Patrick Rothfuss’s novels, In the Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. The main character, Kvothe, is brilliantly drawn. It’s been a while since I’ve been so attached to a protagonist that I literally cheer on his accomplishments while reading. I still haven’t finished Wise Man’s Fear yet (life has gotten in the way, as has writing), but I expect to soon, and I am still enjoying the series a good deal.

I do, however, have one incredibly annoying problem with the book: Denna, the love interest.

Denna is not attractive to me. Denna is worse than unattractive, I find Denna actively repulsive. I would flee from this woman like she had cholera. I honestly cannot stand her; she drives me bonkers. And yet Kvothe, whom I adore, is madly in love with her. I find myself screaming at the text “Kvothe you moron! THE GIRL IS BAD NEWS! MOVE ON!” It’s like witnessing a good friend of yours going out with a complete zero and you knowing you have no real control over it (it’s their life, etc.), but it also seems to occupy your every thought during every conversation you have with them. It’s an eyelash in your eye, an eggshell in your omelette.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, Denna is, essentially, the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope from modern film. If you don’t know who I mean, think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, of even Catherine from the classic French flick, Jules et Jim. The MPDG was defined by film critic Nathan Rabin when he said:

“[The MPDG is] that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

The MPDG is flighty, free-spirited, and playful. She is in need of a man to give her stability in life, but refuses to submit to a man’s authority. The man, conversely, needs the MPDG to teach him to love and laugh and grow. They feed off one another, they banter and they play, and ultimately complete each other in a kind of perfect love.



This sounds nice on paper, I suppose, but only if you assume the MPDG is some kind of puzzle piece and not an actual human being. MPDGs would be, in reality, emotionally damaged people. They cannot trust and are afraid to love due to deep-seeded psychological issues that only they (and perhaps a licensed therapist) can repair. They are not relationship material, no matter how quirky or fun they appear. This is not to say, of course, that quirky and fun women are automatically bad news in real life (far from it!), but when that quirkiness is really just a shield for self-destructively low self-esteem and emotional unavailability, well, it’s not good.

Denna fulfills this trope well – she is mistrustful, flighty, and the rest of it. Rothfuss (through Kvothe’s narration) portrays this as wonderful and enchanting and intoxicating, which drives me bonkers. No, Kvothe, it is not charming when Denna gives you a little wink while on the arm of another man. It is hurtful to you, to her, and dishonest to everyone (especially the guy whose arm she is on). It’s emotionally destructive behavior. Denna keeps secrets and dislikes inquiry into her past (WARNING FLAG, Kvothe!), she refuses to pursue Kvothe or be pursued by him for fear of being hurt. She can’t take criticism. She is unreliable.

As if this wasn’t aggravating enough, Rothfuss parades a variety of far more attractive women (at least to me) under Kvothe’s nose. There is Fela, the intelligent, well-spoken, honest, courageous, generous classmate at the University. There is Devi, the confident, talented, street-smart, and curious loan-shark. Hell, there’s even Felurian, a faerie princess and the most beautiful woman in the world. Granted, she isn’t human and would eventually devour Kvothe with her affections, but at least the woman would supply some degree of emotional satisfaction to the poor man before his heart gave out.

Now, it may well be that Rothfuss is perfectly aware of what bad news this Denna girl is. He is making the series out to be somehow tragic, anyway – maybe Denna is part of it. All I know is that it’s been two books now of Kvothe mooning over a girl who, were he a real guy and my friend, I would do my best to dissuade his interest. Denna is bad news, man. For Tehlu’s sake, ASK OUT FELA!

Money and Make-Believe

Call this 'a lot' and we're satisfied. Nobody's breaking out the old abacus, are they?

Call this ‘a lot’ and we’re satisfied. Nobody’s breaking out the old abacus, are they?

I’m currently reading Wise Man’s Fear, second book in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and the ups and downs of Kvothe’s meager finances has gotten me thinking about the presence (or absence) of financial concerns in scifi/fantasy stories. More often than not, it is left out – characters are poor, but we don’t spend a lot of time counting the contents of their purses, or they’re rich, but we don’t spend a lot of time considering the state of their investments or where, precisely, they keep all that money, anyway. Readers of scifi/fantasy aren’t really in it for the in-depth analysis of microeconomics in some made up non-realm, anyway – they want adventure. So, sure, there might be a treasure at the end of the quest and there might be some social or societal pressures making this or that object more valuable, but how much time do we really want to spend counting coins and handling living expenses?

Maybe, though, we’re missing something.

Now, Rothfuss goes into exhaustive detail involving how much money Kvothe has and what he spends it on. His work serves as a pretty good example of what is both good and bad about involving money in a fantasy story on an intimate level. On the one hand, money (or the lack thereof) is a fantastic motivator for characters to do things – often desperate things – and the prospect of Kvothe being kicked out of the University for failure to pay tuition creates some real tension in the story. This makes for good storytelling. Furthermore, the details of expenses makes the world more immersive, more real – also a bonus for our fantasy world.

But then there are the drawbacks: it gets old, all this money grubbing. As I am now in the second book of Kvothe having no money and facing the same tuition problems, I’m getting less interested in them. From a meta-plot standpoint, Kvothe has weaseled his way out of poverty enough times now for me to be less invested in his continued struggles. I figure he’ll find a way or, if he doesn’t, I’m growing less invested in the constant updates on the contents of Kvothe’s purse. So he gets an extra talent here and an extra bob there – so? I’m not really keeping a logbook, so I gather it would suffice for Rothfuss to simply have Kvothe say “I didn’t have enough money for x and still be able to eat, so I didn’t buy it” or “I earned a little cash from playing corners that night, but was still far short of tuition.” The numbers are getting stripped of their meaning; they’re boring. Additionally, the ‘does Kvothe have enough money’ conflict has faded from a primary concern to a secondary one. He’s poor – we get it.

One of the best examples of taking bean-counting too far in literature is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in which Flanders gives us an exhaustively detailed account of exactly how much money she has and when, what she spends it on, how much it costs, and the profits she expects from the exchanges. It’s as dry as reading expense reports, except with a madam involved. Of course, Defoe was trying to pass off his novel as non-fiction, ostensibly, and the details served as a sort of con-job for the reader – why would somebody making up a story spend so much time quibbling over shillings?

I think, on the whole, I prefer how JK Rowling handled it best. Despite the wildly improbable economic model of the wizarding world (another post for another time), the fact that Ron was poor and Harry wasn’t played as important character traits without us having to spend time worrying about where, exactly, the money was coming from and/or going. Then again, Rothfuss and Defoe are telling different kinds of stories, I guess – stories that hold realism up as a guidepost, and play it accordingly. One has to ask, though, are we reading fantasy for utter realism? Shouldn’t there be a middle ground?

Now, I’m not here to bash Rothfuss, precisely (I’m enjoying the books very much so far), but I’m worried we’re about to take a turn from ‘high adventure and melodrama’ into ‘Upton Sinclair would be proud of this book’, which I really don’t want to happen. I’ve read The Jungle and Sister Carrie and Moll Flanders already; I don’t need to do it again, particularly not in a fanciful world.

The Music in the Words

Recently finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (loved it, by the way – highly recommended). In it, music and, in particular, songs play an important thematic and stylistic role in the tale. Among his many other achievements, Kvothe is a musician second to none and the Four Corners of the World are awash in stories and ballads, many of which are set to music.

You've got no idea what this sounds like.

You’ve got no idea what this sounds like.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a contemporary fantasy novel incorporate the lyrics of songs into the text, and I enjoyed it, in general. Rothfuss is far from the first to do this and will not be the last, but the inclusion of the song lyrics in the tale reminded me of an old frustration I had with this technique: I wish I could hear the music. To Rothfuss’ credit, he frequently describes songs rather than simply transcribe them and, when he does include the lyrics, it is usually because the lyrics are important in and of themselves – they illuminate aspects of the world, give us hints into Kvothe’s next move, and so on. It is, however, very difficult to hear the music, since music is not easily described. At best, what we can get is a sense of rhythm and, perhaps, be treated to particularly evocative poetry (though few fantasy authors are also fine poets). Music is, of course, something far, far beyond that. There’s nothing Rothfuss (or anyone else) can really do about that.

Take this classic example from Tolkien:

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,

By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us!

Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

This song, taken from the chapter “Fog on the Barrow Downs” in The Fellowship of the Ring, has rhythm, has a degree of vivid imagery, but can you actually make a tune? Maybe, yes, but it’s a tenuous thing. You’re grasping at straws. You have no idea of key, tempo, or how the melodies and harmonies interact. It’s interesting, yes, but it’s also frustrating to me. I feel like I’m not in on the joke.

Now, I’m not proposing that authors need to provide sheet music or anything like that. I honestly like songs when they show up in fantasy – they give the world a life and vibrancy beyond the characters’ immediate experiences. I’m just saying that there’s an extra mile that can’t be traveled in text. This is why I’m unreasonably pleased that the upcoming Hobbit movie is going to include the dwarves singing “Far Over Misty Mountains Cold” and they appear to have given it the feeling of a dirge, which it is. Love it. I only wish all the music of those fantastic worlds could be given the same treatment!

In closing, and for no reason whatsoever than I find myself humming this song on occasion, is a song I wrote for my own fantasy setting, Alandar. It is a march, and is intended to be rhythmic and loud. Imagine a column of a thousand men braying it at the top of their lungs as they march in time down a long, dusty Illini road, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner at their head, their pikes set on their shoulders as they head towards the distant deserts of Kalsaar and, likewise, march to their glory.

Oh well, oh well,
It’s off we march to hell,
As war, they say,
ain’t never the way
Old Timer’s tell!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

Oh my, oh my,
We’re marching off to die,
And none of us
will curse or ‘cuss
when in the dirt we lie!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

Oh no, oh no,
It’s to our ends we go,
By bow or spear,
or a mage’s sear,
we all will be laid low!

But when arm in arm
with our brothers (HEAR HEAR!),
And fightning ‘neath the Elk and Star,
We know that we are
the finest near or far,
Make Way for the Army of Galaspin!

-Traditional Galaspiner Marching Song