In an attempt to use up some of my rapidly dwindling free time, plus some of the proceeds from finally turning my candy-concession change into Amazon credit, I recently bought books by two new fantasy authors – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Based on reviews (including comments here) I expected one to be a bit of a curiosity, OK as an alternative to TV or games but ultimately unsatisfying, and the other to be significantly better than that. That’s pretty much how things turned out, but not in the way I expected.

Let’s talk about Rothfuss’s book first. Some reviewers had complained that the main character, Kvothe, is too much of a Mary Sue. Actually, he’s like the head of the class at the Mary Sue Academy for the Unrealistically Gifted. If he were dropped into the Star Trek universe, he’d quickly shove Wesley Crusher and the younger James Kirk – two of the most notorious examples of the phenomenon from that canon – off center stage simultaneously. Even worse, he’s not just accidentally a Mary Sue with some other qualities. Being so close to perfect is the very core of his character, the plot seems to hinge on it, even the other characters are aware of it as they’re often forced to deliver strange gazes at awkward times so the audience will recognize the exact instant at which they recognized Kvothe’s awesomeness. Even his missteps are reflections of virtue – being too brave, too witty, and so on. The one glaring exception is that the young Kvothe seems to be as singularly bad at defending himself as the older Kvothe is singularly good. It’s so anomalous, without any explanation for how the Kvothe of the “mean streets” episodes could fail to appreciate the need for improvement, that it only makes things worse. Kvothe doesn’t seem more balanced because of it; he only seems more hastily or clumsily drawn.

This lack of creativity extends elsewhere, as well. I’ve read nearly 400 pages, and Kvothe has finally met his Great Love in flashback. I don’t mind slow pace, in fact I prefer it, but nothing original has happened in those 400 pages. The plot – idyllic childhood, sudden trauma, mean streets, admission to wizard school, and so on – should be very familiar to anyone who has read fantasy before. There’s nothing particularly wrong with repeating these tropes, I didn’t mind at all when Greg Keyes did it, but Rothfuss is no Keyes. Maybe more of a Feist or Jordan, or perhaps even Rowling. Kvothe’s time at “the University” has been particularly tiresome. Character-wise we have the Loyal Friends (the very first people he meets), the Insufferable Snob, the Inimical Master, the Inimical Master’s Rival, the Avuncular Head Master, etc. Plot-wise we have all the familiar vignettes that play out like daydreams – perhaps credibly Kvothe’s, but clearly the author’s as well. There’s no doubt whatsoever about who’s who, doing what. Every character is there to be one thing and one thing only. Ron Weasley would bring a welcome dash of complex characterization. It’s particularly offensive how Rothfuss portrays female characters, every single one of whom is primarily female and only secondarily anything else (if we’re lucky). Out of 400 pages so far, I could probably recognize every one from another work and tell you who did it better. Enough.

All that said, it’s not a terrible book. It’s nowhere near bad enough to justify the accusation that the good reviews must be astroturf. Though uninspired, the writing is passable, and isn’t peppered with the get-thee-to-an-editor howlers that characterize That Other Guy’s work. I can see how people who don’t mind the repetition and flat characterization, who appreciate a plain piece of wish-fulfillment more than I do, would find this book enjoyable. Writers as good as Ursula K. LeGuin and Orson Scott Card praise it (another point of contrast with That Other Guy), and as a Young Adult offering I might give it higher marks myself, but I’m just not enjoying it enough to finish.

All is not lost, though. I had lower expectations for Abercrombie’s debut, and I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, the characters are a bit “oversaturated” in this one too, but the characters are not quite two-dimensional and not quite Mary Sue. For example, Logen is a pretty classic barbarian, fighting fearsome almost-human warriors in the frozen north, hunted by the barbarian king he once served as champion, etc. etc. etc. We’ve seen his ilk a hundred times before; even his ennui reminds me of Elric or Corum. Bayaz the all-powerful wizard certainly has his deus ex machina moments too, to give another example. Nonetheless, Abercrombie doesn’t just take this common material and use it as-is. He’s a good enough writer to make each character unique. Logen is not quite Elric or Corum, even though he’s like them. Bayaz is not quite Every Other Archmage. Glokta is a pretty unique character, not mapping easily onto any common archetype. The characters we’re supposed to like sometimes turn out to have significant flaws – not just weaknesses but character defects, and in one case a shocking one. The characters we’re supposed to dislike . . . well, there’s still not really anything to like about them, but we learn to dislike them in different ways or for different reasons as the plot progresses. It’s a funny thing about swords and sorcery that it’s so full of these familiar characters and plotlines which authors must use to avoid losing their readers in worlds that are just too unfamiliar. However, the good authors learn how to walk that line, to mix enough of the familiar with the original, to make homage instead of parody. Whereas Rothfuss leapt over that line with abandon, Abercrombie stays neatly on the side that makes a good story. The characters and situations are mostly familiar, but not so much that they detract from the plot.

Say, how about that plot? Well, this is clearly the first of a series, the one where we assemble the main characters for the adventures that follow, so it’s a bit early to say for sure. What I will say is that it’s not entirely clear who’s on which side, or even what sides there are. There are some characters who will undoubtedly reappear in fairly obvious roles, some who will probably reappear but in less obvious roles, and others who will probably turn out to be irrelevant. There are important characters (e.g. barbarian king Bethod) we haven’t even met yet but surely will. There are places and events and things that have been mentioned but not fully explained, which will probably figure prominently in later volumes, and a good pattern of such things (e.g. the legends of Bayaz’s predecessors) being revealed as the story progresses. In other words, the foundation has been laid for a good story. The closest parallel I can think of is Keyes’s Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series, which was in an almost identical state at the end of the first volume and which turned out to be excellent. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire series showed similar promise after the first volume, before the plot started taking a back seat to the gratuitous introduction of new settings and new factions and new everything for each book. Even that was fun to read for the first few books or so, though. I expect that the next couple of books in Abercrombie’s First Law series will also be fun to read, and then it might even turn out to be something more.