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Monday, 31 October 2016

The Name of the Wind - The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One - Patrick Rothfuss (2007)



Rothfuss attempts to stop stroking his beard


The Name of the Wind is the very first fantasy novel I have ever read. I thought that I would never actually read fantasy until a good friend recommended the novel to me just as I was desiring something different to read. During my childhood and teenage years I tried to read some fantasy novels (only getting a few pages in...), but they just never appealed as much as science fiction, and lets face it, the Stainless Steel Rat is hard to beat right?  As with many novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres it is merely the first part of a trilogy, the second being The Wise Man’s Fear (2011). The third part is yet to be published and from what I can gather fans of these books are getting a little impatient with Mr Rothfuss. On Goodreads there is an entry for the third book, Doors of Stone, and somehow there are five star ratings, one star ratings coupled with complaints and also some entries professing disappointment in Rothfuss for taking so long and wasting everyone’s time. There are even some pretend reviews of the novel and Rothfuss himself makes an entry and hilariously concludes that it all must mean that “Time travelers love my books.” Passions, high expectations and narrative greed seem to run very high regarding this series, but after reading The Name of the Wind I can understand just why.

Perhaps the principle reason why The Name of the Wind is such a brilliant novel is that it is character driven, rather than relying on regular action scenes or a tense narrative pace, although the narrative certainly does have its moments. Essentially the novel is a coming of age story and the protagonist, Kvothe, is an engaging character who both possesses great talents and personality flaws such as hubris and impulsiveness, both of which cause him many problems. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe tends to his tavern somewhere in the backwoods of the lands that are mapped out in the front of the book (yes, of course there’s a map!), which immediately hooks the reader into wondering just how such a set of circumstances came about. Subsequently the arrival of a legendary scribe called ‘Chronicler’ ultimately causes Kvothe to agree to narrate his life story, recounting his experiences from childhood through to his attendance at a place known simply as ‘The University’, all of which takes one day. Kvothe’s storytelling is certainly engaging, but more importantly it raises many more questions than answers, which entices the reader ever onward through the narrative, which is never in a particular hurry. Fortunately Rothfuss possesses an admirably disciplined, yet poetic writing style and his descriptive powers are something to be admired. The Name of the Wind is a fine example of genre writing that is literary in both style and quality.

The Name of the Wind is infused with both magic and myth, but is also recognizably very human. This realism brings an added depth to the fantasy elements, creating a believable world, which makes for a powerful and intriguing narrative. Magic, which has its roots in physics, is taught at the University Kvothe attends, however any similarities to Hogwarts and Harry Potter end there. The long University section is brilliantly realized, filled with scenes rich with the adventure and drama of youth. Kvothe’s search for information and the whereabouts of mythical characters called 'The Chandrian' drives his studies and also provides a narrative arc that will no doubt cover all three books. Rothfuss is undoubtedly an author in love with storytelling, resulting in a novel that is richly layered with narratives. The sections in which Kvothe is telling his story, set in the present and told in the third person, act as a counterpoint to the main narrative. Much of the novel is told through the first person voice of Kvothe, but throughout there are many story songs sung by traveling performers (including Kvothe, whom is skilled with the lute and comes from the Edema Ruh, a troupe of traveling performers) and also storytellers spinning yarns in taverns about a past that may or may not be real.

After reading The Name of the Wind I can understand the impatience for the arrival of the third novel. Despite the fact I have nothing to really compare the novel to in terms of the fantasy genre, its attributes are such that it is undoubtedly an excellent novel. Rothfuss does almost nothing wrong and the novel is seriously addictive, drawing the reader into its world slowly and surely. There are a multitude of intriguing characters inhabiting its pages, but non more so than Kvothe, who stands as one of the great protagonists in speculative fiction. Fortunately I still have the second book sitting on my desk waiting patiently to be read (if books can be patient, then why can’t readers?). After I’ve completed that book then perhaps I’ll become one of the frustrated hoards waiting for Rothfuss to stop stroking his beard and do what all good fantasy writers should be doing, producing another epic 600 page plus tome to complete Kvothe’s story, and then everybody can be happy.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Green Island - Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)








Green Island begins in 1949 when Taiwan came under martial law instigated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, who had fled mainland China after finally being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. In 1986 I studied Chinese history as one of my year 12 subjects. Green Island reminded me of some of what I learned, but mostly it alerted me to what was left out of our curriculum, as if the ensuing history of what then happened in Taiwan was irrelevant. Shawna Yang Ryan has provided Western readers with an accessible account of what life was like for the Taiwanese from February 1947 onward, from the massacres that resulted from the influx of Nationalist forces, through to the SARs epidemic of the early 2000s.

Ryan’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of her family, beginning when she was born in the family home in Taipei on the night of the first massacre (up to 30,000 people ended up dying at the hands of Nationalist soldiers). Ryan, a Chinese American, lived in Taiwan for two years in order to research for the novel, exploring the island, accessing historical media and talking to people who had lived through those times. Such commitment and depth of research does give the novel an authentic tone, which is something that can be absent from historical fiction. Throughout the novel there is a great deal of familial detail, which can sometimes result in an uneven narrative pace, however this is offset by the resulting emotional connection developed over the course of Green Island. I had underestimated Ryan’s writing, believing that I was reasonably indifferent to the lives of the characters, even through their many hardships, until late in the novel when the narrator returns to Taiwan after a long absence and is placed in danger by the KMT. I felt protective of her and her partner, the idealistically naive Wei, and I realised that Shawna Yang Ryan had hooked me without me even noticing.

My interest and involvement in the novel increased once the narrator marries and subsequently moves to California where her husband lectures at Berkley University. The narrator not only has to navigate a new culture but, more importantly, she is given first-hand experience of the reach and power of the KMT, something that she could only imagine previously through the experiences of her father who had suffered through eleven years in captivity during the first decade of martial law. In California they give shelter to an escaped activist, Jia Bao, who plots with Wei to expose the evils of the KMT regime. The narrator’s relationship with the stoic Jia Bao and the danger it puts her and her family in gives the narrative an injection of tension that acts as a pay-off for some of the more prosaic sections earlier in the novel.


Although Green Island is certainly flawed, by the concluding chapters the novel had revealed itself to be much more accomplished than it had initially promised. More importantly Green Island deserves admiration for raising awareness in the West of Taiwanese history. Significantly the novel gives a voice to the multitudes of Taiwanese who suffered under the longest period of martial law (40 years) in modern history. Green Island is also an example of the importance of quality fiction. Fiction reveals histories, ideas, psychologies and foreign cultures that would be otherwise inaccessible to readers who find the idea of reading door-stop sized history books unappealing.