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Musing on Books
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW, 2007, $24.99.
Thirteen, by Richard Morgan, Del Rey, 2007, $24.99.
I'M SURE you're all familiar with reader fatigue. It's the malaise that causes you to glance at a book, sigh, and put it down, having skimmed perhaps the back cover blurb or the inside flap, without any interest at all in the words that have managed to penetrate the fog. It feels a little like boredom, but is more accurately the inability to engage with the printed page. In general, we blame this on the book, or what we assume the book is about—which is to say, the same-old, same-old.
Any type of book, any genre, can engender this feeling, and when caught in its grip, the reader approaches everything with a somewhat jaded eye. At its worst, it can cause you to forget why exactly it is you want to read in the first place.
Let me make this clear: I used to place blame on the books, but I've come to realize it's probably me. I'm feeling somewhat jaded, and I want something, but my ability to engage with text at this point is rather minimal. When I'm in this mood, I've given up on looking for emotional delight. Or emotional anything, really. If the words fail to somehow grab me, I move on, restlessly grazing. (No, I'm not going to carry that particular analogy any further.)
But if a book I approach with a certain sense of gloom does somehow manage to catch the attention that is already flagging before I've turned to page one, it feels like a revelation. And if it continues to hold me, or surprise me, if it gets under my rather thick skin in some way, it reminds me of why I read in the first place.
So: this month's column, and the two very different books herein.
There seems to be some general agreement that a book should start in the middle of action, should move quickly, should be easily absorbed. But Rothfuss's opening scene, a one-page prologue, does the opposite. There is no action; there is, rather, description of inaction, of, in fact, silence. And the silence takes place in a quiet, under-populated inn. It's all nuance.
The inn is owned by Kote; his single employee is Bast. And into the lives of these two men comes the Chronicler, a man who's made it his life to discover—and write—the truth. The Chronicler is looking for Kvothe, the Kingkiller. He isn't blind and he isn't a man who reveres myth. He knows that the truth is both less than myth, and in some complicated way, more. He understands people, and in some way, he understands how to get them to talk to him. And if Kote is at first reluctant to speak of the past, in the end, he relents, and in relenting, he gives us the book: The first day of the Kingkiller Chronicles. Because Kote is, of course, the Kvothe of myth.
Rothfuss's writing is enough to make me weep. I want to say with envy, but I think most writers come to writing through reading, and it is impossible, in the end, not to read Rothfuss as a reader; to be drawn into his story, and Kvothe's; to see the present as it is, and the past as it unfolds. He takes his time, and he draws his characters—bit players and central figures—with care. No voice is the same, and no voice seems to speak from some authorial dictate. Even the backstory of the world is filtered through the men who come to the tavern night after night. They are both familiar tropes and distinctive characters.
Kvothe was born to the Ruh, a traveling troupe of actors who had, among their many viewers, high nobility and commoners alike. He was educated, and learned to read, to write, and above all to question. He was quick but young, and always a bit odd. He might have remained in ignorance of magic if not for a chance encounter with an Arcanist who would eventually join the Ruh in their travels. Abenthy becomes the first of his many teachers. And Kvothe learns quickly.
Magic is a lot like math, in Rothfuss's world—or at least the beginnings of it are. This frustrates Kvothe a great deal, because in his dreams, magic is myth, and he, like any child, wants to be larger than life.
But there is magic, in Rothfuss's world; there is the inexplicable wildness of a power that is not confined to normal life or thought; there is history, and tragedy, in a past that is only remembered in story or song, and perhaps not even then. And Kvothe will chase it, for different reasons, throughout the course of his early life. That life starts on the open road and winds its way toward the city in which the University lies waiting.
I want to say more about that life, but I can't do it justice, and although I don't care about spoilers at all, many of you do. Suffice it to say that any plot synopsis of the story would do it such a grave injustice that I'm not even tempted to try.
Most of the book is a first person narrative because most of the book is Kvothe's account, as told to the Chronicler.
You could tell a story in a much smaller number of pages. But you couldn't tell this story with this much grace or power. Rothfuss reminds me not only of why I read, but why I keep returning to High Fantasy—I'm looking for books like Name of the Wind.
The Richard Morgan novel is nothing at all like the Rothfuss. Where Rothfuss is graceful and nuanced, Morgan is like a slap in the face. Or ten. His writing is sharp, edgy, visceral. His characters are almost entirely free of sentiment. His world has that kind of worn, run-down feel that was captured so successfully on screen in Bladerunner.
I admit that had anyone told me what this novel was about before I picked it up, I would have passed. And I also admit that, had the Canadian/UK edition title of the novel not been Black Man, I probably wouldn't have picked it up. My first thought when I was unpacking the book in the store was, "that's a brave title." My second thought was, "Maybe it's not as political a statement as it seems." And my third was, "Oh, yes it is."
I started at the beginning, because I sometimes do that, and my reaction was: "Psycho-killer with questionable sanity on a spaceship." I don't in general read serial killer novels. I don't in general read horror novels. The opening to this one felt like both. But I was curious. The reading for the first few pages was entirely an intellectual exercise. I wanted to see where the book went.
It went two places.
To Carl Marsalis, the Black Man of the title, a genetically modified human known, in Morgan's future, as a variant thirteen. Created to be a soldier and raised to become a sociopath, Marsalis, like all variant thirteens, was given a choice when the war was over: Ship out to Mars or live on Earth in quarantine in a concentration camp. He shipped out to Mars.
And won a lottery back. He's now employed by UNGLA, the future United Nations, and he's sent to track down rogue variant thirteens, and either turn them over to the aforementioned camps, or, more often the outcome, kill them.
It's a living.
But his living in Jesusland—or the United Republic—is about to be cut short by a sting operation, and he winds up in jail. This doesn't have a lot to do with the book's opening. There is an investigation into a shuttle that's landed in the water. The shuttle is the property of COLIN, and the COLIN investigative team, Tom Norton and Sevgi Ertekin, have come to look at the scene of the slaughter.
Sevgi, aware that there are malfunctions with the capsules that are supposed to keep travelers in deep sleep for the length of a very long and very tedious voyage, takes one look at the data, and very clearly points out that the cannibalism is not necessarily the act of a crazed lunatic—someone woke up, and someone needed to eat. He chose the only edible or harvestable food on the ship.
Okay, I admit by this point, the intellectual triggers had fired, and while I was still reading the book with a sense of curiosity about what Morgan was doing with his beginnings, I was probably now committed to at least finishing the novel. I also thought, "If Morgan stripped out the SFnal elements of this book, he'd make a million dollars writing high tech thrillers." (I was totally wrong. He can't strip them out; the characters are a product of their context, and it's wed to those elements.)
The novel draws Sevgi and Marsalis together because the perpetrator of a series of crimes that are also being investigated is a variant thirteen.
All of the elements of the book are related. Marsalis intends to take a flyer when they drag him out of jail and onto the job. He doesn't intend to get involved with the COLIN investigation, because once he's out of Florida and in the Rim States, UNGLA has greater authority, and he can get himself picked up and returned to what passes for home.
But…he doesn't. He starts to play at investigating because Sevgi knows he doesn't intend to stick around, and he's curious. He asks to see VR footage of the crime scene of one of the murders, and as he's walked through the reconstruction of probable events, he calls a halt and tells them what he's pretty certain happened—but it's not the same as their reconstruction, except that both versions end in the death of the victim.
And somewhere in the tangle of interaction between Sevgi and Marsalis, I got lost—in a good way. I started to care about the characters, to see them as people, and more important, to see them as people that, against expectation, I really cared about. Somewhere in the middle of the book the switch flipped and I could not put the book down until I'd finished it. And started it again. And finished it again.
I adored this book. It made me wince several times, it made me laugh out loud at least three times, it made me weep, and it surprised me. It was not a light read, and I think some people will have problems with the level of violence, but Morgan can be surprising in his subtlety—possibly because on the surface, there isn't any.
I started writing this review with an eye to all the slightly more academic things that make it good—structure, writing, pacing, world-building. But in this particular case, while all those things are true, they're almost an excuse for liking the book, so I took them all out and that left me with my reactions, reading it.
This is the first Richard K. Morgan novel I've read, but it definitely won't be the last—because I read for character, and he understands people. I think in some grudging way, given the cynicism of his universe, he even likes them, and when all is said and done, I will read anything if you can make me care about the characters.
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