The Burning Glass
THE FISHERY WAS WHERE most of the University’s works of hands were made.
“Works of hands”?
What he means is glass-blowing, pottery and other craft-workers who serve wizard school’s needs. Kvothe is there to learn artificing from Kilvin the artificing Master, who if you recall offered to give him advanced lessons last time they met.
He looked me over critically. “Are you well, E’lir Kvothe?”
I’d gone wandering earlier and found some willow bark to chew. My back still burned and itched, but it was bearable. “Well enough, Master Kilvin.”
He nodded. “Good. Boys your age shouldn’t worry over such small things. Soon again you will be as sound as stone.”
I don’t know whether we’re supposed to interpret it as such, but this statement makes Kilvin seem like one of those people who appear to believe that young people are invincible golems insensitive to feeling pain or emotional distress or capable of shrugging it off with ease. That attitude crops up disturbingly often in real life.
High among the high rafters of the workshop a half hundred glass spheres hung from chains. They were of varying sizes, though none were much larger than a man’s head.
Unlike the rest of wizard school this location is described pretty evocatively. I approve.
“Among the Cealdar there are legends of ever-burning lamps. I believe that such a thing was once within the scope of our craft. Ten years I have been looking. I have made many lamps, some of them very good, very long burning.” He looked at me. “But none of them ever-burning.”
If Kvothe makes an ever-burning lamp I swear to God.
“Do you know this one, E’lir Kvothe?” It held nothing but a knob of greenish-greyish wax that was burning with a greenish-greyish tongue of flame. I shook my head.
Greenish-greyish fire. I guess orangish-redish-blueish flame isn’t fantasy enough any more.
It turns out the wax stuff is one of Kilvin’s closest attempt at making something that burns forever, white lithium salt, which Kvothe had suggested when Kilvin asked him how he’d make an ever-burning lamp during his admission. Kilvin is mightily impressed that Kvothe thought of this since it took him ten years to come up with it.
The closest thing I could find to this stuff in real life is lithium sulfate, which is produced from sulfuric acid, a bog-standard chemical. You’d think someone would have come up with the idea before now. Also it apparently burns bright crimson or silver, not green.
He moved all the way to the end of the row, pointing at the empty sphere with the motionless white flame. “Seventy days,” he said proudly. “I do not hope that this will be the one, for hoping is a foolish game. But if it burns six more days it will be my best lamp in these ten years.”
The way this one is described makes it sound like magnesium, which burns extremely brightly but doesn’t last very long. Maybe it’s fantasy-magnesium and the elements have different properties in this world.
Kilvin claims that Kvothe has “Cealdar hands” which means he’ll be naturally talented at artificing. Somehow. I wonder if you can also be born with special hands for other skills, like wood-carving or pogo-stick manufacturing.
“You need to figure out who you’re going to suck up to,” Simmon said. “A master has to sponsor you to Re’lar. So you should pick one and stick to him like shit on his shoe.”
Apparently Masters can pass students over for advancement to the next fantasy-rank, which seems like a hilariously broken system but whatever. There’s some inane banter for a while about which Master Kvothe is going to go for. I would have thought Kilvin would be the obvious choice considering he practically offered to adopt Kvothe last time they spoke.
“What about Mandrag? I’ve got a lot of experience with chemistry. It’d be a small step into alchemy.”
Simmon laughed. “Everyone thinks chemistry and alchemy are so similar, but they’re really not. They’re not even related. They just happen to live in the same house.”
The history of science in your fantasy world doesn’t have to mirror the history of real world science, but if you’re going to insist on using real terms I will insist on finding it weird and annoying. Even the fact that they have both chemistry and alchemy makes no sense, as it relies on the assumption that elements in this world behave in one way under certain conditions and in another, entirely different way under different conditions that completely contradicts the first set of rules.
After yet more inane banter one of Kvothe’s bunk buddies (I’m seriously having trouble telling them apart or remembering how many there are) reveals that one of the Masters, Elodin, used to be Chancellor before some sort of mysterious event occurred.
“Even so,” I said. “You have to admit he’s a little odd to be Chancellor.”
“Not back then,” Simmon said soberly. “That was before it happened.”
When nothing more was forthcoming I prompted, “It?”
Finally something interesting!
Wil shrugged. “Something. They do not speak on it.
They stuck Elodin in “the Crockery”, a building designed to be a prison for Arcanists, until he recovered from whatever happened. Apparently several students go crazy every term.
There was a moment of silence as the two of them sipped their drinks, not looking at anything in particular. I wanted to ask for specifics, but I could tell that it was a touchy subject.
Kvothe stop being stupid. Real people want to know about things, this is just dragging the story out more.
Kvothe decides he’s going to be best buds with Elodin because he wants to learn the Name of All Things and crap. At some point are we going to get an explanation of what an Arcanist actually is so I can figure out what he’s talking about?
Interlude—Some Tavern Tale
I’ve noticed these flashes back to the framing story are where Rothfuss tries to paper over holes in the plot. Sometimes, as with Kvothe’s various options for getting out of Tarbean, he addresses (badly) questions I had been asking myself but other times he brings up problems I wouldn’t actually have noticed, such as when Bast asks Kvothe why he didn’t try to rescue Skarpi after he was taken by the priests of Tehlu.
“But the simplest reason is the least satisfying one, I suppose. The truth is this: I wasn’t living in a story.”
Right, Kvothe. Keep telling yourself that.
“Think of all the stories you’ve heard, Bast. You have a young boy, the hero. His parents are killed. He sets out for vengeance. What happens next?”
Bast hesitated, his expression puzzled. Chronicler answered the question instead. “He finds help. A clever talking squirrel. An old drunken swordsman. A mad hermit in the woods. That sort of thing.”
Kvothe nodded. “Exactly! He finds the mad hermit in the woods, proves himself worthy, and learns the names of all things, just like Taborlin the Great. Then with these powerful magics at his beck and call, what does he do?”
Chronicler shrugged. “He finds the villains and kills them.”
“Of course,” Kvothe said grandly. “Clean, quick, and easy as lying. We know how it ends practically before it starts. That’s why stories appeal to us. They give us the clarity and simplicity our real lives lack.”
Hey Rothfuss, you know this whole deconstruction of fantasy tropes you’re trying to pull here? I’ve got some news for you. Stand back from easily breakable objects because this is going to blow your mind:
It’s been done.
Fantasy novels do not follow the simplistic rules you have your super-special-snowflake author’s darling expounding on above. Deconstructions of the fantasy genre now outnumber stories that cling rigidly to genre archetypes, assuming stories like that ever existed outside of works aimed at children. This feels like you just watched Star Wars and assumed anything that doesn’t regurgitate its plot progression is breaking the mould and defying generations of literary tradition.
“But while that might make for an entertaining story, it would not be the truth.
Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Good authors lie to their readers in every page while simultaneously revealing things that are true. If you can’t do that it isn’t because you’re on a bold narrative odyssey to break the barriers of the genre, it’s because you’re not a good writer. And if you’re not a good writer it’s probably because you’ve spent all of your time not telling a story and calling it a “deconstruction”.
Stop masturbating and tell us a story.
“There were times when I would see a mother holding her child, or a father laughing with his son, and anger would flare up in me, hot and furious with the memory of blood and the smell of burning hair.”
So fucking show us that instead of showing us Kvothe telling Devan about it.
The Ever-Changing Wind
Kvothe goes to find Elodin but can’t.
ELODIN PROVED A DIFFICULT man to find. He had an office in Hollows, but never seemed to use it. When I visited Ledgers and Lists, I discovered he only taught one class: Unlikely Maths. However, this was less than helpful in tracking him down, as according to the ledger, the time of the class was “now” and the location was “everywhere.”
I see this is fantasy-insanity, the only symptom of which is that the afflicted person acts extra quirky.
Kvothe manages to track him down but Elodin initially refuses to teach him. Never seen this before in a fantasy novel no sir. Elodin tells Kvothe to find three pine cones then wanders off, indicating that he wants to be left alone.
That is the way it usually goes in stories: the young man has to prove his dedication to the old hermit in the woods before he’s taken under his wing.
Can you guess what’s going to happen here? Oh my. Be still, my heart.
Kvothe asks why Elodin doesn’t want to teach him and Elodin claims that Edema Ruh don’t make good students
I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry that your experience with the Ruh has left something to be desired,” I said carefully. “Let me assure you that—”
“Ye Gods,” Elodin sighed, disgusted. “A bootlicker too. You lack the requisite spine and testicular fortitude to study under me.”
Elodin is quickly becoming my favourite character.
Kvothe keeps badgering him to explain why he doesn’t teach people and Elodin leads him through some woods to the Crockery. I’m really having trouble picturing where the University is, how large it is or what the area surrounding it is like.
Long story short, the Crocker is a big fancy house full of Arcanists who went mad because of magic, one of whom used to be Elodin’s pupil. Elodin used to be locked up there in a room made of copper that blocks all magic and has unbreakable windows, somehow. But Elodin “knew the name of all things” and commanded the walls to break, which he demonstrates when he brings Kvothe to show him his old room.
“Oh,” Elodin said suddenly, laughing. “That was half-clever of them.” He took two steps back from the wall. “CYAERBASALIEN. “
Cybers Alien? Is that some sort of video game?
I simply stood, stunned by what I’d just seen. This wasn’t sympathy. This wasn’t anything I’d ever seen before.
So do people know about this skill? Why hasn’t Kvothe heard of it?
I went to stand beside him on the edge of the roof. I knew what my third question had to be. “What do I have to do,” I asked, “to study naming under you?”
He met my eye calmly, appraising me. “Jump,” he said. “Jump off this roof.”
Kvothe guesses that this is a test and Elodin will save him by calling the wind. He turns out to be wrong about this and injures himself rather severely hitting the ground.
And that is when I decided to pursue the noble art of artificing. Not that I had a lot of other options. Before helping me limp to the Medica, Elodin made it clear that anyone stupid enough to jump off a roof was too reckless to be allowed to hold a spoon in his presence, let alone study something as “profound and volatile” as naming.
Oh do you see how much of a deconstruction this is is your tiny mind just blown yet
Four problem with this:
1. The chapter was completely pointless
2. “Wise old mentor turns out to be a crackpot” has been done before
3. This entire scenario was set up solely to pull the rug out from under the reader. You can almost see Rothfuss taking a bow and waiting for the applause at how clever he’s been
4. I wanted Kvothe to study naming. Partially because it’s clear he’s going to anyway so we might as well just get to it but also because that would be interesting. That’s the problem with doing the bait-and-switch subversion thing- the story you actually give the reader has to be at least as interesting as the story they thought they were going to get.
I once read a book called In The Woods that annoyed me so much I spent the next five years composing a long rant about it, which you will now get to experience. The book has an absolutely killer premise- in the 1980s three kids went missing in a patch of woodland. One of them was found alive that night with three scratches on his back and amnesia. The other two vanished without a trace. Twenty-odd years later the survivor is now a detective called in to investigate the murder of a young girl in the same woods. It’s naturally assumed that the two events are related. The surrounding area turns out to be rife with conspiracy and mystery. Several residents recount hearing and seeing strange things in the woods when they were younger. It’s heavily implied that there might be something supernatural living in there.
And then it turns out that the murder is completely unrelated to any of that, all of the other mysteries are dead ends or having nothing to do with anything and we never find out what happened to the main character or his friends. The problem isn’t that the story didn’t proceed exactly as I thought it would or that the author left things ambiguous. I like both of those approaches. The problem is that the story we actually got wasn’t nearly as interesting as the story we had been promised. The actual murder mystery the book ends up being concerned with is extremely predictable and mundane, the sort of thing you’d see on any trashy police procedural. I guess our minds were supposed to be so blown by the novelty of the book not solving the central mystery that we don’t notice.
Into The Woods subverts reader expectations quite well, but that’s all it does. So much time is spent setting up false leads and red herrings that there’s no time left to tell a compelling story.
(The author has tried to claim that the novel is actually a psychological character study pretending to be a murder mystery, but the characters are all annoying and act like illogical robots)
Another example of this would be Lev Grossman’s The Magicians which sets itself up as the “adult” version of Harry Potter and also does the whole ah-ha-do-you-see subversion thing. Ironically the only time the novel is actually entertaining is when it’s just a straight-up magic university story and not pulling any deconstruction bollocks on the reader.
To go back to The Name of The Wind, Rothfuss decided not to give us the old chestnut about a student proving himself to a reclusive mentor, but instead of giving us something more interesting he’s just going to give us more of nothing fucking happening.
The point here is that deconstructing and subverting reader expectations are additions to a book that can make an otherwise entertaining story even better; they can’t replace the story or you end up with a shallow bag of literary magic tricks lacking any real substance.
A good story, well told, should be at the heart of your novel. It can be a daring edgy subversion of genre expectations or just another retread of familiar plot points but if it doesn’t have that then it doesn’t have anything.