Comparative Fantasy: On Rothfuss, Abercrombie, Sanderson, and Robertson

kingkiller chronicle

Each and every morning, I hop into my car and drive 45 miles to the office and spend a minimum of an hour if I'm lucky. Double that for the return home, five days per week, and I get a solid 10-15 hours weekly with my trusty Audible subscription. When I first started this heavy commute four years ago, I was overambitious and tried to listen to heavy nonfiction titles, only to find that some topics just don't keep me awake enough at 6 am. After much searching, I discovered that the best books for commuting were 1950s robot-heavy sci fi (Asimov FTW!) and contemporary fantasy. Being relatively new to fantasy, I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of work and feel generally a bit late to the party. That being said, not all were created equal.

Below are four series that I began and/or finished in the past year and just some of my thoughts about them. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I am purposely a bit vague about the plot lines but do hope that you will check them out on your own and let me know what you think. Remember: these are all just the opinions of one guy.

 

"The Kingkiller Chronicle" by Patrick Rothfuss

This series came highly recommended by a close friend and did really start off with a bang. With two titles currently in market and a 3rd on the way, this (eventual) trilogy covers the life of a single hero name Kvothe. The general premise is that Kvothe is retelling the story of his life to a historian over the period of three days; each book in the trilogy represents a single day of the retelling, with brief interludes of "present day" action.

The first book, "The Name of the Wind", blew me away. I ended up sitting in the parking lot at my office for a few extra minutes each day just to get further and further into the audiobook. Kvothe is a compelling character who is far from the perfect hero that you typically encounter. Without spoiling any plot, I can confidently tell you that he literally falls on his face at one point and who doesn't love a bit of physical humor? As the book progresses, both Kvothe and the reader discover an entire world and system of magic (the hallmark of any good fantasy world).

The second book ("The Wise Man's Fear"), however, is where I differ from many lovers of Rothfuss. Again, while attempting to avoid any specific spoilers, I would just say that Kvothe stops being this relatable, imperfect hero to becoming too unbelievable. The best at everything he does, all the time. As the reader, I didn't believe the progression and all of a sudden felt distanced from Kvothe and began wondering if, perhaps, he was an unreliable narrator. He is telling the story himself to a historian, is he not? Suffice to say, I was a bit turned off by the second installment in this trilogy. I know I don't necessarily represent the feelings of the rest of the fantasy-loving community.

The third book, "Doors of Stone", is stuck in the same realm as George R.R. Martin's "The Winds of Winter"; everyone's looking forward to at least hearing what the release date might be. Even though I was a bit turned off by the direction the series went, I'll still pick it up when it finally does come out.

On a barely-related note, I did see Patrick Rothfuss at Mosinee Airport last year but he was on the phone and I wasn't rude enough to interrupt him to introduce myself. Maybe next time.

 

"The First Law" by Joe Abercrombie

The same friend that introduced me to Kingkiller followed it up with another recommendation: "The First Law" trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. Knowing my slight disappointment with Rothfuss, he was adamant that Abercrombie could deliver - and he was most assuredly correct. I can unequivocally recommend this series. I loved all three parts of this (complete) trilogy.

The first book, "The Blade Itself", introduces you one-by-one to each of the characters that will drive the action. Unlike Kingkiller, there really isn't just one single "hero" and the action follows different characters in each chapter. There are two characteristics of Abercrombie's narrative that particularly drew me in as a reader: he challenges the notion of "good and evil" and he doesn't actually focus all that much on the system of magic.

No spoilers, I swear. I will just say that Abercrombie creates surprisingly complex characters. He builds rich inner lives of characters so that, even if they primarily do "good" or "bad" actions, you can't truly see them as in one camp or the other. The worst characters are revealed to have inner conflict and the best characters are revealed to have inner demons. Doesn't it just feel like that must be closer to truth? Based on my review above, you can guess that I don't fall for "perfect" characters.

And when it comes to magic, I would wager that the majority of fantasy worlds rely quite heavily on their unique system of magic to engage the reader. In this trilogy, I would say that it's not really the case. Magic exists in the books but it is surely not the main focus for 90% of the narrative. I am, ashamedly, only on the fourth book of "A Song of Fire and Ice" by George R.R. Martin so far (slow playing until book #6 comes out) but I would relate that series and this one; political intrigue plays as big of a part as magic, if not bigger. Friggin' loved it. Read it. Just do.

The three books are: "The Blade Itself," "Before They Are Hanged," and "Last Argument of Kings".

 

"The Stormlight Archive" by Brandon Sanderson

After a few months, Audible got a pretty good handle on what I was enjoying and ultimately recommended this series to me. This is one of those series that everyone else seemed to have already read, yet somehow I'd just heard of it. Well, sort of. The first book, "The Way of Kings", actually made it to #4 on my 42 Books That You Can't Put Down After Picking Up list I published awhile back. I hadn't read it at that time yet but included it based on recommendations from reddit. Either way, Audible seems to have hit the nail on the head and recommended a dynamite series that, again, I'd be happy to recommend to anyone who appreciates good fantasy.

While perhaps know most for his "Mistborn" series (which I started last week), Brandon Sanderson has been a powerhouse in the fantasy genre for years, even finishing out Robert Jordan's epic "Wheel of Time" series after he unfortunately passed away. "The Stormlight Archive" is a series consisting of "The Way of Kings," "Words of Radiance," and the yet-unpublished "Oathbringer" which is slated for publication on November 14th, 2017. If you anticipate plowing through the first two books as quickly as I did, you may want to hold off on picking them up until late Fall so that you can slide right into "Oathbringer" without this painful wait I'm currently experiencing. [UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that this series will continue on well past the third book and ultimately up to ten, so I guess just jump in whenever you have the time!]

More like Kingkiller and less like First Law, Stormlight does rely quite heavily on the system of magic to drive action. Essentially, certain characters are able to harness "stormlight" captured from oft-occurring "high storms" to unlock inner powers. The reader begins to learn about this magical system along with the main characters (or which there are only a handful) and more is revealed about the world in each book. By the end of the second, there is still plenty to be uncovered in the finale. I've already preordered it and seriously don't know if I can wait. Brandon Sanderson, if you're reading this, can you send me an ARC? Please?

 

"The Cycle of Arawn" by Edward Robertson

Ever since I listened to "The Cycle of Arawn" early last year, I've made it my mission to spread the word of its existence to my fantasy-loving booknerd friends. Edward W. Robertson is a self-published author that managed to get his first trilogy (which you can get as a single audiobook, saving some credits!) into Audible's Top 100 list for over 6 months. While not yet talked about as widely as the other series mentioned above, I would highly recommend giving this one a listen and/or read. While initially most successful as an audiobook, the series is available on paper as well. And paper is awesome.

In this trilogy, I don't know if you ever really decide whether or not you actually like the protagonists. They're definitely not like blameless Kvothe, they don't have the tortured souls of Logen Ninefingers (from "The First Law"), and at times they act like annoying 14-year-old boys. Which I guess they almost are at the beginning of the series but I swear they don't grow out of it. Despite this, the system of magic is unique and highly engaging, the action is fast-paced, and the 60+ hour audiobook unbelievably ended "too soon" in my opinion.

Give it a listen and let me know if you are as enamored as I was!

How'd I do?

Have you read any of these books? Have different opinions? I'd love to have some dialogue in the comments.