Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The goal of reading is to immerse yourself in another world. To find yourself in a place, a time, a situation that becomes so real to you that it’s a wrench when you realise that they were words on a page. I remember reading a book with a blind protagonist when I was a teenager (I think it was The Cay but I can’t be 100% sure now, after fifteen-ish years) and being surprised when I finished that I could see. Intellectually I knew that, of course I could see, I was reading, but the world the author had created was so non-visual that it was a shock to come out of it.

I read The Name of the Wind mostly in half-hour spurts, my lunch break at work. Almost every day that I read it, I was surprised by the beeping of my break timer. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take being wrenched out of the world anymore, so I avoided any kind of social/online interaction and just finished it.

And then I came downstairs and said, “I want to be back in this world. I’m ordering the sequel.” (I did check to see if it was at the local library, but all the copies are out and I seriously don’t want to wait that long.)

It’s hard to describe this book in a way that’s not trite. It’s an epic fantasy novel, with the medieval-esque setting and the swords and sorcery aspects of that – but it keeps from becoming clichéd. It’s also the first in a series. And it’s an amazing feat of worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure how he did it. With some authors, you can see how they do the worldbuilding. It may be skilful, but you can see that this is where they’re telling about the religion and this is where they’re laying out the social structure. There’s some of that in The Name of the Wind of course, but it’s often very subtle. The storytelling structure is incredibly effective, weaving hints and foreshadowing through the “present-day” bits as well as through the story. The world that he develops and presents is so incredibly real that it is almost painful to leave it.

Favourite quotable bit: Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of fire. A name is the fire itself.

The whole book isn’t in that vein, of course: that passage was said by a professor at the university where the main character is studying. But it basically sums up the motivation of the main character and, presumably, the impetus for the series. Words and communication of various forms – especially music, and especially singing, the combination of music and words – are so important throughout this book. People die because they say or sing the wrong things; names – pure names, not just the words – have immeasurable power; the stories told create the event and the character.

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, in part because it’s the first in a series. This book, while a book in itself and a story in itself, is also very much only the beginning of the story. It sets up the world and the characters and the conflict, but the conflict is not even close to being resolved, or even completely revealed.

It’s an incredible world, and I can’t wait to be in it again.

(Sidenote: This book didn’t completely register on my radar for a long time. I’d heard the name, but got it confused with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I read several years ago. It wasn’t until the sequel came out a few months ago, and a lot was being written about Patrick Rothfuss, that it clicked with me that they were different books. Also, The Shadow of the Wind is very good, and also has a relatively recent sequel, which I have not yet read and still want to.)

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One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

You may remember that I love Jasper Fforde. Hearing him speak on the Shades of Grey book tour is still one of the highlights of my literary life, and I’ve been looking forward to the fifth Thursday Next book for literally years. I love the world of Thursday Next and it’s so much fun to be back in it.

This one is a bit more complicated than the other Thursday Next books (and if you’ve read them, you know that that’s saying quite a lot). The world of Thursday Next is an alternate reality to our world, first of all – a world where literature is the primary form of … everything. Political parties are formed around adherents of specific authors, Richard III is “interactive” in the same way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is in our world, and there is an MI5-type organisation which has books and book-related activities under its jurisdiction (forgeries and the like). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s so much more to this world than that, but those are the easiest to relate.

And within the alternate reality that is the Thursday Next world, there are books about Thursday Next. These books are similar to, but not identical to, the Thursday Next books that exist in our world.

Oh, and also? There is an alternate reality within the alternate reality, where books are actually real, where characters exist when they’re not being read. In this Bookworld, there is a Thursday Next who is the written Thursday, portraying Thursday’s adventures to her readers in the “real” Thursday Next world. (There was a previous written Thursday, but the real-world Thursday didn’t like how the previous written Thursday was being read, so they got a new generic character to become Thursday, Thursday-approved.)

Confused yet? I swear, it makes more sense when you actually read through the series.

So, anyway, there are several versions of Thursday. And one of them is missing in this book. And one of them has to figure out where the missing one is, as well as various other issues that the missing Thursday was involved in, and, to some extent, who she is as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is the previously-mentioned complications. The other Thursday Next novels weren’t stand-alones, by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t rely quite as much on previous readings of the series. The reader, if I recall correctly, was reminded of quite a bit more detail in the middle three books , where in this book there are references that assume that you’ve read through the rest of the series. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading the fifth book in a series you’ve most likely read the previous books, but this one is not going to bring in many if any new readers.

It also didn’t have quite as much of the “fun” stuff of the other four books: the footnoterphone, Mycroft and his inventions, some of the intrigues of the “real” world. They were mentioned, but not used, and that was vaguely disappointing.

It’s good, though. It’s got a bit of a different feel than the others (although I definitely need a massive reread. You know, to make sure….) and some of the more philosophical/psychological issues that are explored by the end are very interesting. It’s one of the things that Fforde does really well: the blurred lines between fiction and reality. It’s a theme he’s explored in all of his books, not just the Thursday Next ones (although it is most explicit in Thursday Next) and he does it better than most. However, you definitely need to read the entire series before you read One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.

Of course, everyone who’s at all interested in British literature and/or wordplay needs to read The Eyre Affair anyway….

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Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

It has been enough of a break for me from Alison Weir that I was able to pick up The Wars of the Roses a couple of weeks ago: after I’d finished reading Ian Mortimer, I was still in a medievalist mood, and the Wars of the Roses themselves are much less controversial than The Princes in the Tower.

The book itself is really in two parts. The first half(ish) deals with the founding of the Lancastrian dynasty: Henry IV’s usurpation, Henry V’s military might, and Henry VI’s early reign. The second half deals with the conflict that we now consider the Wars of the Roses.  The first half, which sets up the personalities and motivations, is much stronger than the second, and much more interesting to me.  The second half is very battle-heavy. It’s justifiable that that part is battle-heavy, since it’s kind of the point of the book, but I personally found the setup more interesting than the conflict itself.

One person that I developed a massive dislike for was Margaret of Anjou. Some of that is my own Yorkist sympathy, but a lot of it is her complete misinterpretation/misreading of the culture and prejudices that she married into. She was already hated by the English people and nobles when her marriage ended the war, gave France a few traditionally English provinces (although not Calais), and brought no dowry to England itself. She then compounded the hatred by creating her own faction at court, essentially siphoning power away from both Henry and any nobles (like York) that she didn’t like. By the end, she was trying to ally with both Scotland and France – England’s most prominent enemies.

The other fact that I found interesting – and that I hadn’t known before – was that Elizabeth Wydville and her family were originally Lancastrians. Her first husband, and I think her father, had both died in the service of Henry VI – and yet she married Edward IV.

In part because of the emphasis on battles in the second half of the book, I don’t feel like I got to know Edward IV as much as I got to know his father, or even his brother George (Duke of Clarence), who was instrumental in the various machinations around the return of Henry VI.  Gloucester (Richard, later III) was also relatively shadowy, but I think her feelings for him were made pretty clear in The Princes in the Tower.

The main thing I took away from The Wars of the Roses was a renewed interest in Henry V and, by extension, Shakespeare’s history plays. Studying Henry V was one of the more memorable aspects of my Shakespeare class at university, and I happen to have full-cast recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was really interesting to listen to (and sometimes read along with) the various parts of Henry VI and “fact-check” to some extent the play with Weir’s book, and vice versa. I did the same with Henry V – and given my recent Ian Mortimer reading, I plan on reading 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory in the very near future.

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Something Different

I have posts coming on two, nearly three books that I’ve finished in the last couple of weeks, but first I wanted to link to this:

http://the3six5.posterous.com/may-17-2011-kendra-korte

the3six5 is a really, really cool project that started last year: Every day is a 365-word-maximum entry from a different person, so it’s like a worldwide diary. I’m so glad that I got to be a part of it this year, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it for the last 500+ entries.

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The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

I am a medievalist; this is not a secret. My shame is only that it has taken me so long to read this book and then blog about it. If anything, it’s a book that I wish I could have written – but it would take much more research than I have time and scope for.

It’s such a wide-ranging book: basically, it covers every conceivable aspect of the 14th century, in the guise of a travel book. It discusses hospitality, sights, sounds, costume, social structure, habits….everything (and more) that a modern travel guide would cover.

There’s so much in here that is fascinating to me: meals, physical city structure, social hierarchy and mobility (which changed so greatly from the beginning of the century to the end), travel modes and customs, manners…any detail you might want is probably in this book. I do vaguely remember thinking at points “Oh, there should be more about that” or “Why didn’t he include this” but since I can’t remember now where those points (or what this and that) were, they’re quibbles rather than problems.

Another quibble, which is a little bit ridiculous, is that the book is at times too wide-ranging and also too narrow. The fourteenth century was an amazingly dynamic time, encompassing the Black Death, Peasant’s Revolt, and quite a lot of the Hundred Years War. At times Mortimer (what a great name for a medievalist, by the way) goes into details about how things changed over the decades, but at other times he doesn’t. In some ways, it would have been nicer if he’d started off the book with the disclaimer that he did – because of a lack of surviving information before the 1300s, this book will only focus on the fourteenth century – but then added even further refinement, to a specific decade or even king’s reign. The things that remained relatively constant over the century could have been noted, but the things that were more fluid wouldn’t have been so overdetailed.

My last quibble is just a general shifting in tone. At times he’s very conversational, very much a travel agent/tour guide. You can almost picture him on top of one of the open-topped buses, with a microphone in his hand as his details are translated into fifteen different languages. But at other times, the style gets much more stereotypically historian: less conversational, more dry and serious. Not a big thing, hence the quibble label, and probably inevitable given the subject matter and level of research.

Long story short, though, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re at all interested in medieval life. Even if you’re only interested to the point of “I wonder if that scene in that Robin Hood/King Arthur movie was anywhere close to accurate”, this is the book to tell you – and you’ll definitely learn more than you thought you would along the way.

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