Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Books by the pound

I thought I had been doing myself a favor at the beginning of this year by limiting my books-related resolution to a simple plan to read twelve books. Granted, they were going to be twelve literary classics and thus not necessarily gripping, page-turning yarns, but after reading fifty-odd books last year, twelve seemed almost too easy (arrival of newborn in the spring notwithstanding).

In practice, though, it’s certainly doesn’t seem too easy anymore. I’m already off the pace, having only read one classic so far this year. In hindsight, maybe a 900-page behemoth like Don Quixote wasn’t the best place to start this year’s quest. But that’s what I did, although no matter what classic I had started with I almost certainly would have dived immediately into more of my bread-and-butter genre stock before returning to another classic. That was part of the entire strategy of resolving only to read a dozen classics, knowing that I could pace myself and break up the musty-and-dusty with flashy trash.

As it happened, after Don Quixote I immediately turned to genre entertainment but nothing light and frothy, rather a 780-page sci-fi paperback – although, to be fair, that constituted partial fulfillment of my unofficial secondary resolution, which was to whittle down the total number of book series I am eternally working my way through. Some of those series haven’t even finished being written yet, but Blue Mars, the finale of a trilogy, came out in the late 90’s and I can now tuck that entire series on the done shelf. After that I read a much shorter non-fiction book about religious traditions in modern India, partly as mental palate cleanser and partly because the subject fascinated me. And then, as I recently noted, I started Stephen King’s most recent novella compilation but only to fill some time until I received my long-awaited copy of The Wise Man’s Fear.

The Wise Man’s Fear clocks in at 997 pages, which flew by but still managed to take me a couple of weeks (I just finished it yesterday). I’ll come back to the book itself in a bit but here we are now, mid-March, and I’ll probably start my second overlooked classic, Madame Bovary, tomorrow. And on the one hand I tell myself that there’s still plenty of time to catch up: by the end of March I’ll have two classics down, and even with some (judiciously chosen) intermezzo fluff it’s not at all out of the question for me to read two (also selected with certain parameters in mind) classics in any given month down the line and be sitting pretty to keep a leisurely pace for the rest of the year. But on the other hand, it looks like this is going to be an embarrassment-of-riches kind of year for me as an avid book devourer. A posthumous novel by David Foster Wallace? Out next month. The egregiously long-delayed fifth volume of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series? Out this summer. The third volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series finally available in paperback? Later this year, I believe. Another Stephen King novel? November, yessirree. These are not books which seem moderately appealing to someone who’s always on the lookout for reading material to pass the time on the commute. These are MUST-READS, and due to the limitations of the blog format I must ask you to imagine those capital letters as being three stories high and on fire. And they are all going to be fairly hefty, too. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest will probably be the most reasonable, and that one’s over 500 pages. Martin’s novels are never short and A Dance with Dragons will probably follow that rule. DFW is not exactly known for brevity, either. The Stephen King novel, which is supposed to be about time travel and the JFK assassination, is rumored to be over 1,000 pages. (Though hopefully, by November, I’ll be riding the VRE every day and my overall reading pace will be significantly higher.)

I fully expect this to be very painful to read.  But ina  good way.
It’s a sick, sick compulsion, but I reckon it’s more or less mine by choice. I just like holding it up to the light and examining it every now and then, and laughing at myself. Of those four mandatory slots on my yearly reading list mentioned above, exactly one of them would allow me to cross yet another series (Millennium) off my running list. A Song of Ice and Fire has a couple more volumes to go after this year’s, and with DFW and SK I’m not so much following a series as a seriously devoted completist. Though sometimes that can overlap, as when King was writing his Dark Tower epic (which I also recently heard is going to get a new eighth volume telling untold tales from the middle of the story’s chronology, come ON Steve-O you are KILLING me!) but by and large … I guess that’s why I end up with so many series that I’m somewhere in the middle of meandering through, because there are always all these other books automatically bumped to the top of the reading pile and various semi-ambitious attempts at self-improvement and so on. Tracking down the next Adele Aguilar mystery in the series just doesn’t light a fire under me.

On the other hand The Wise Man’s Fear totally lit a fire under me, although … it’s a strange kind of fire, too. After years of waiting between The Name of the Wind and its sequel, I had a lot of time to mentally prepare for the book and in my anticipation I made a lot of assumptions about what it would be, which were of course all predicated on what I wanted. And which in turn was not exactly what I got.

I’ll back up and give you the broad strokes. The series, The Kingkiller Chronicle, is about a legendary hero who has given up having adventures and is living the humble life of an innkeeper in a small farming village. He has changed his name from Kvothe to Kote and no one in town knows who he used to be. Then a scholar arrives, at the end of a trail of deductive reasoning, and informs the innkeeper he knows who he really I and wants to transcribe the autobiography of Kvothe the Kingkiller. First there are denials, then there are refusals to cooperate, and finally Kvothe gives in and begins to tell his story. That’s really the meat of book one, the first-person account of Kvothe’s early life. The setting of the inn and the arrival of the scholar are just part of a framing device; mainly the novel is concerned with the origins of the hero. But, around the edges of the framing device, there are very dark rumblings about everything from a king waging a self-aggrandizing war and collecting excessive taxes to evil, magical creatures stalking the roads at night.

Kvothe, as it turns out, is the result of prodigious inborn talent finding its way into the most fortuitous circumstances imaginable. If he were a D&D character he’d be a multi-class munchkin from hell. If he were an advertising mascot he’d be the pseudo-medieval version of The Most Interesting Man In The World. But rather than this being annoying or laughable, through some combination of Rothfuss’s talented way with words and rendering of Kvothe’s voice as well as some genuinely clever plot turns, it just has an organic internal logic to it. Kvothe is the child of traveling gypsy performers, from who he both learns and inherits the ability to sing, act, tell stories and just generally be quick-witted and charming. But when he is very young his entire family of troupers is murdered, which sets him down the road of being Sword-n-Sorcery Batman. As a young traumatized orphan, however, he ends up homeless and adrift and becomes a thief on city streets as a matter of pure survival. Eventually he realizes he doesn’t want to die on the streets, remembers hearing in his trouper travels about a University where he can simultaneously learn a valuable trade as an arcanist and possibly research his parents’ killers, so he sets out to gain admittance. In his own unorthodox way he does, getting in and out of scrapes along the way; he keeps his gypsy and street-urchin days fairly secret, but as a known student some of his deeds start giving him a reputation. Oh, and in an almost totally beside-the-point adventure, he literally slays a dragon.

Not a king, though, in any sense. The first book doesn’t even come close to explaining how the penniless, parentless bootstrapper who becomes an unlikely star pupil at the school of magic will go on to become a legendary “kingkiller”. (You might at this point be thinking Kvothe’s story sounds really similar to Harry Potter’s. The comparison is all but unavoidable, but trust me, it’s hugely different in feel and in execution.) But what it does convey is the fact that Kvothe setting down the official record of his life story isn’t really enough. The world is in trouble and it needs a larger-than-life protagonist; the world needs Kvothe to stop hiding and pretending to be something less than he is, no matter what happened in the past that made him give it all up for tending bar and baking pies.
Or so I thought as I awaited book two. I assumed the second volume (of three) would describe Kvothe’s meteoric rise from mere student to wunderkind master to figure at the eye of the storm, while at the same time shifting more of the narrative balance from the back story to the framing device. The situation in the present-day would worsen, applying more pressure on Kvothe to come out of hiding. And something really monumental and cliffhanger-y would happen at the end of book two to set the Grand Quest to Save the World in motion. Then book three could be almost entirely set in the present day with Kvothe rallying the troops and fighting evil, while still revealing some crucial details about his backstory in flashbacks (possibly dictated to the scholar who has reluctantly followed along on the crusade) until the grand climax where the hero is redeemed through triumph and evil is vanquished and peace and prosperity can flourish once again. Yeah, fine, all of that is word-for-word straight out of the High Fantasy Cliché Playbook, but what can I say? Genre trash is my mental comfort food and it’s comforting because of its familiar tropes and repetitions.

But then I started reading The Wise Man’s Fear. And it was just as wonderfully well-written and lovingly detailed and entertaining as its predecessor, but I couldn’t have guessed more wrongly at its structure. It actually spends more time on the backstory and less time on the framing device than the first book did. And while that backstory remains fascinating as it builds Kvothe’s resume – in addition to the bard, footpad and minor sorcerer he acted as in book one, he becomes a courtesan, a ranger, and a ninja, plus adds a few more levels of sorcery, plus spends some time in the realm of faeries to learn the arts of love and survives a shipwreck which gives him the mystique of returning from being presumed dead, all of which amazingly fails to strain the suspension of disbelief in the manner it’s presented – it doesn’t feel like a meteoric rise. It simply feels like a colorful life. One notably devoid of regicide, however.

By the time I got to the end of the book I was unsure how the third volume could contain both the conclusion of Kvothe’s backstory, which at this point will require several hundred more pages just to get him anywhere close to killing a king, and also any kind of Grand Quest to Save the World, which would have to be detailed from start to finish because Kvothe is no closer to reclaiming his “true self” at the end of book two than he was at the outset of the whole series. But long before I got to the end of The Wise Man’s Fear it began to dawn on me that maybe the whole series wasn’t going to be anything like what I expected.

Yet somehow I have rambled on for 2000 words before getting to that point and if I don’t post this right now it probably won’t go up today, and we can’t have that. Sometime over the next day or so I will pick up where I left off!

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