Fantasy Prizefight: Rowling Vs. Rothfuss

9 Jul

Been thinking a bit about fantasy writing recently. Hope you’re ready.

I hope you’ll indulge me for a few Berlin Walls of text here; I think I will actually begin to convulse if I don’t talk about Harry Potter, even though that’s not tonight’s main attraction. The final epic installment is around the corner, and its arrival – coupled with the sight of old copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban lying around the house – can’t help but stoke the fire of a raging Hogwarts fever in my brain. I’ve told myself I’m not a huge fan of the movies, but Christ I’m starting to sound like an asshole when I say things like that. It feels so good to be working on banishing that snobbishness, because it’s becoming much easier to enjoy things for what they are. Every time I listen to a new song or watch an episode of a new show I feel like a Buddhist monk.

“Dude, this Mogwai album is dope!”

And what the Harry Potter films are (besides unfailingly true to the spirit of the books – where it counts, anyway), is pure, specfuckingtacular entertainment. If your only exposure to Harry Potter is through the films, I can only imagine what totally rad fireworks must be kicking your brain’s ass when you watch them. That said, I don’t want to grope the movies too hard. I want to acknowledge their worthiness, but the books really do contain a depth of delicious detail that no two-hour movie can hope to convey, at least not without becoming intolerably complicated. And you can plunge into Rowling’s mythology like a wand-wielding conquistador into a wizarding New World. I mean, she’s woven a pretty slick geography of fiction here. Telling stories from the past that have deep ramifications in the present; following ancient bloodlines, forgotten relics, whispered prophecy, and profound bonds of friendship. Challenging death, celebrating life. If that doesn’t get your buns a-bakin’, then I doubt there’s any help for you.

But apparently the oven is on and the public has reached a tasty golden brown, because (as I’m sure none of us need reminding) the Harry Potter films have grossed over $6 billion worldwide, which is more money than Scrooge McGoddamnDuck would know what to do with. And happy as I am to support a piece of storytelling this enduringly excellent with my box office dollar, the fact remains that I’ve never been very good at liking extremely popular things. There’s that snobbishness again.

Anyway the point is I grew up with Harry Potter, and I have no doubt history will see it will snuggle up to Tolkien and join the proud ranks of our established modern mythology. And while I could literally type about Lord of the Rings without stopping until malnutrition kills me, there’s no room for it in this post, and I’ve already spent half of this one talking about Harry Potter.

It was my first tentative steps into the world of fantasy, is what I’m saying. Tolkien followed, then Pullman’s His Dark Materials (which also deserves its own post) forcefully reassembled my teenage neurons. But that was as far as I ever got into the woods. I missed out on Redwall. I missed out on Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan and R.A. Salvatore. I missed out on fantasy while I was making out with science fiction, and fantasy’s feelings were hurt. I never saw her again.

But man, I see my friends – people whose opinions I cherish – absolutely blasting through these thousand-page cinder block books, fourteen at a time, wiping out a redwood’s worth of totally made-up history, lineage, and legend, and I think: what the hell am I missing out on here? Suddenly fantasy is the hottest chick at the party! I have to find my hook; my way in. I need to explore these worlds as badly as I need oxygen. And that’s when Patrick Rothfuss came knocking.

I heard about The Name of the Wind from Gabe and Tycho, who, since I was young, have been kind to me in delivering nuggets of consumer wisdom along with thrice-weekly doses of delightful vulgarity. Their praise was the nudge in the spine I needed to get me out the door and standing at the Chapters counter, believing that I might have finally found my wingman, and that fantasy’s drinks were ripe for the buying. I was not disappointed.

The Name of the Wind is the first in a trilogy of novels about a man named Kvothe (pronounced “almost indistinguishably from ‘quothe'”) who is a boy genius, a virtuoso musician born into a traveling minstrel troupe, a silvertongued street urchin, student of arcane hoodoo magicks, dexterous love guru, and much more. A man named Chronicler stumbles across the legendary hero, in hiding deep in the countryside, posing as an innkeeper. He convinces Kvothe to tell him his story. The first book is the first day of Kvothe’s tale, told in his own voice. The second book, the second day. I mean that’s some captivating shit.

And while my mind, trained on science fiction, may have initially rankled at the actual fantasy trappings – magic, elves, etc. – I found them to enrich, rather than depend upon, the narrative. The “magic” of the books is actually totally inspired, the cool side of a well-worn pillow. And I must say that as easy as it is to laugh at the amount of apostrophes that muscle their way into fantasy words, there were blessedly few unnecessary ones here – and if I’m really claiming to be a science fiction fan then how can I possibly defend something like “Kashyyyk”? I think there’s some breathing room for creative language, and Rothfuss’s diction is never flamboyant or gaudy.

If I were a bit more “ooh ducky”, I might say that the books are written with careful, deliberate grace, and reading them is like catching the notes of a sweet song, carried on the air. But they craft a world where songs convey more than just a simple message – where someone’s entire life can hinge on the strum of a lute – and I am seduced by the romanticism of that idea. They are rich with texture: the warmth of fresh bread, or the fragrance of a girl’s hair, or the soft light of a guttering candle are played in concert with the feelings of the well-illustrated characters. And it’s exactly that gift that Rothfuss seems to have for communicating the truth of common things – art, grief, love, potential, and failure – that make the books so totally badical.

And the fan art is bangin’ too.

It reminds me of Harry Potter actually – it takes the magical academic setting and places the weight of adulthood on its shoulders. Rowling’s bubbly sense of humour is replaced with a grim and chiseled wit. And instead of Chocolate Frogs, we get racial disharmony, politics, and full-flavoured sexuality. And Kvothe himself is an incredible creation, one of the rare fictional characters who manage to make me want to be more like him. Harry never quite dug that deep into my psyche. I mean, Harry was a very effective blank slate for us to slide into. But every time Kvothe scrapes through a harrowing situation I think, could I have done better than that? And the answer is almost always no, no he’s awesome, and you are a palsied gibbon.

So, my first two dates with fantasy went really well. She was everything I hoped she’d be. I even got a little kiss action on the doorstep. Now to finish the third date, and seal the deal. I just hope her sisters put out too.

I may have taken that metaphor a bit too far there. Sorry.

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One Response to “Fantasy Prizefight: Rowling Vs. Rothfuss”

  1. Sonia July 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Ha. Of course fantasy put out for you. You totally nerdgasmed all over her, and if you’re going to do that regardless, she may as well get some action too, right?

    More like fanTASTY, am I right?

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