The Name of the Wind, The Daughter of the Empire, and Pulp Fantasy

In middle and early high school I read more pulp fantasy than I care to recall, which my Dad derisively referred to as “dragon books.” Most were terrible, and when I’ve picked some up more recently I’ve been aghast at the poor writing and haphazard plot. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is as bad as Dragonlance, The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, and the many of the others I used to read. To give some examples from The Name of the Wind: “The man cut him off with a sharp gesture,” whatever a sharp gesture is, and “[A sword] was deadly as a sharp stone beneath swift water.” Underwater stones are deadly? To who, besides writers struggling for metaphor? There are enough variations on “sharp” to whet every magic sword in the kingdom. Elsewhere, Kote’s head “[…] was bowed slightly, as if a great weight had settled onto him.” Chills get sent down spines. In addition to language problems, nothing actually happens in the first fifty pages, which also lack the jovial pleasure of the Shire.

Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire is at least as bad and perhaps worse. Atrocities, adverbs and cliches abound: “Mara put on a brave face,” as no one has ever done before, this not long after her “cheeks burn with anger,” her “eyes narrowed,” and “her voice controlled fury.” Doubts plague, inner peace is sought, weight shifts, and after 30 pages of honor and ritual I’m ready for Woody Allen.

The low standards for writing and reviewing pulp fantasy novels are evident from pieces like this one from The Onion A.V. Club, which says, “Shelve The Name Of The Wind beside The Lord Of The Rings, The Deed Of Paksenarrion, and The Wheel Of Time—and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals” (italics added). That day will never come. The Wheel of Time is written at a 12-year-old’s moral and intellectual level, and it dramatizes an immature adolescent’s view of sexuality. That The Name of the Wind received any good reviews, let alone a comparison to Tolkien, demonstrates the inadequacy of the competition to which fantasy novels are compared and the knowledge of some who review them. The Name of the Wind steals so much and so poorly from Tolkien that one should read the master and skip Robert Jordan. To explain how a series of novels as awful as The Wheel of Time comes to be, I’m forced to go back to Stephen King on Tolkien again:

A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans; even when you add in that clumsy, galumphing dirigible of an epilogue, The Silmarillion, it hasn’t been enough. Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others. The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not around to do it for them.

While the desire for Middle-Earth illuminates why The Wheel of Time was written, I can’t explain its popularity. The criticisms of The Name of the Wind and Daughter of the Empire both apply, and if I still owned The Wheel of Time novels I’d pick a page at random and find still more examples.

The worst part of someone reading these lousy novels is that some great modern fantasy novels exist: His Dark Materials and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy both qualify. Both are rich in language, plot and ideas, unlike the sloppy hackery from The Name of the Wind and Daughter of the Empire. They almost justify highbrow sneers about genre fiction, and I write about the two only as a reminder that good fantasy exists for those who care to find it. Too bad Feist, Wurts, and Rothfuss probably don’t understand the difference, and if they do, fail to show it in their writing.

8 responses

  1. Great another elitist cultural litt lover bashing fantasy how unique.

    While I can agree with you on the quality of the language in some of the books you mentioned above you still seem to miss an important point.

    Why do we read fantasy? The same question can apply to those who read police-novels or the latest thriller. To be amused is regularly the answer to all of these, and when choosing our amusements we pick something that we enjoy. For some it’s a chicklit about a young girls sexhabits and for some a nice horror or a thriller, or as in this case a nice fantasy.

    While it’s true that many of the books included in these popular genres are not of the same quality as some of higher litterary class it can’t be said that they are any less important. You bash wheel of time and name of the wind and others and dismiss them as written at a lower intellectual level. I disagree.

    They tell a story about something that a lot of people can relate to and even though it sometimes is true that its silly and maybe not nobelprize litterature it appeals to a whole bunch of people and that’s the most important thing about litterature, to amuse and enjoy people. The quality of the text is of course important to a degree but a perfectly written book that doesn’t pull me in is worthless.

    So keep your elitist way if you like but I still think people will choose books by the entertainment value rather than how intelligent elitist culutral snobs deem them to be.

    (and I’m sorry for any damage my misspellings and low standard english have inflicted on your cultural eyes)

    best regards //David

    by the way, I like your blog ^^


  2. You’re wrong about the name of the wind. But largely correct about the others. The Name of the Wind is technically superbly constructed – but it does resonate with the cliches of the other lesser pulp examples. The reason for this, is that Patrick Rothfuss has unashamedly taken these self-same artifacts of fantasy,the conventions, the habits of the canon – but he has treated them with the hand of a master wordsmith. The book has a touch of Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazney about it. I think your reception of it is based on the fact that it handles many of the expected themes – the urchin boy who makes good, encounters faerie, has loved and lost, carries a great sadness etc etc…we all know and we are nauseated in equal measure and as frequently..but The Name of the Wind is saved by the reverential touch of the author. This book is a tribute to the canon. A credit to it.


  3. A lot of absolutes there. Being a fan of fiction, I’d like to give you my opinion.

    After reading your fiftieth book of the same old genre, a person gets critical on details. Which is, in most cases, pleasure sabotage. You ruin the reading experience.
    In that sense I’m allot like you. Over time, however, I sorta just found it better to accept that my mind should put in more effort.

    The book is a mere conduit to stories and great ideas.


  4. I agree completely. I haven’t done an actual count but I would guess that Robert Jordan has had characters smooth skirts, tug braids, call people woolhead and drink plum punch at least three hundred times so far. I read two pages of The Name of the Wind and returned it to the library.
    I enjoy your blog. Cheers!


  5. okay as much as i agree on some of some fantasy novels being full of weird imagery, i still enjoy them. isn’t that what writing books is first and foremost about?

    some people think its all about someone creating worlds or expanding human understanding, but really i don’t consider those things to be the end all be all of writing.

    also i would assume a “sharp gesture” would be something along the lines of a fast hand chop like you were physically cutting someone off.

    still i have one major problem with this essay; why in gods name are you using the onion as an example?!
    seriously the onion? i am hoping you are not gullible enough to believe that any site linked to the onion is real
    “Onion A.V. Club, which says, “Shelve The Name Of The Wind beside The Lord Of The Rings, The Deed Of Paksenarrion, and The Wheel Of Time—and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals” (italics added). ”

    is taking the piss out of people, its a parody!

    oh yeah and daughter of the empire was terrible.


  6. I agree in much part with your assessment above. Beyond the writing I also deride much of Modern fantasy for poor plotting and editing. The plotting seems to be borrowed from television serials which typically view plotting as a work in progress not something established from the beginning.

    But more than missing Hobbits as Stephen King mentioned, I miss ‘Hobbit’s that is more single novel, well written, well edited book. I find the genre’s focus on multi-book epics is a detriment. Fortunately science fiction offers a nice escape.


  7. You give this as an example of poor writing as compared to “the master:”

    ‘Elsewhere, Kote’s head “[…] was bowed slightly, as if a great weight had settled onto him.” Chills get sent down spines.’

    and yet, in the first chapter of LOTR, we find:

    “He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he was carrying a great weight.”

    Also, yes, a sharp stone in swiftly flowing water would be more dangerous to a swimmer or boat than one in still water, because of the speed they would be traveling, especially if it was unnoticed because, it was, you know, underwater. Having canoed in rapidly flowing water, I can attest to this fact. If it seems a strained simile, surely it’s not far off from “like a bridge over troubled water?”


  8. Pingback: The Magicians – Lev Grossman « The Story's Story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: