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.

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