The new epic fantasy on everybody’s lips is the Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss, not least because of its recent association with musical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda will act as creative producer of Liongate’s new film, TV, and video game franchise based on the books. This fact and the recommendation of a dear friend was all the convincing I needed to start book one, The Name of the Wind. Yet while the writing is beautiful and the plot is enticing, I am disappointed to say this book had a distinctly un-feminist tone.
I was only 40 pages into the book, rapidly falling in love with the poetic prose and fantastical atmosphere, when a sudden realization shook me out of my enjoyment: The only references to women so far had been as amusements, flirts, and whores.
First, in a characterization scene between protagonist Kvothe and his male protégé Bast, Bast jokes of chasing young wives and daughters as a distraction from his studies (note how they are already defined by their relation to men). Then, the first female characters to actually appear—and the only ones to exist outside the story-within-a-story so far by my current progress—enter Kvothe’s tavern. Their function is to contribute to the lively atmosphere by “flirting,” while the fire crackles and someone knocks over a chair. This was followed by two distasteful metaphors playing on the concept that low-class women do not deserve respect. In the first, Kvothe instructs Bast to carry his sword carefully as if it were a lady, rather than carelessly as if it were a “wench.” In the second, Bast berates Kvothe for sneaking out in the middle of the night leaving only a note as if Bast were “some dockside whore.” Although I hoped the book would get better as the story progressed, I felt that these first few examples very clearly set the tone for how women would be portrayed: irrelevant except in terms of their sexuality and/or other benefit to men.
So, did the book get better? I’m only halfway through it at the time of writing this blog post but fortunately someone else already noticed the same problematic tropes I did and wrote out an analysis. Fantasy author Marie Brennan (known for her Doppelganger and Onyx Court series) writes in a blog post on her website a catalogue of every female character in The Name of the Wind with either dialogue or a name and gives a brief description. She makes many good points, and I highly recommend you read her analysis. After reading her list, I noted that of the twenty-nine female characters listed, the sole or primary role of at least a third of them is sexual. There are some interesting female characters, namely Kvothe’s mother, but she is still given a supporting in her husband’s creative endeavors and their sexual relationship is highly played up. Also, Kvothe’s main love interest is severely objectified, with countless references to her beauty.
Now, one might argue that these examples only serve to express the characters’ attitudes towards women and that therefore means it should not bother me (as if the characters we read about and admire can never affect our own worldviews and values). My rebuttal is that the sheer concentration of casually disrespectful male characters is a reflection on traits the author values as “manly.” Not only is Bast portrayed as a womanizer and Kvothe not much better, but Kvothe’s father and mentor pass a joke back and forth about renting Kvothe’s mother. That’s four out of five major male characters in the first third of the story. Furthermore, the decision to write exclusively misogynistic males with no comment on the morality of their behavior may be fine for a story that exists in a vacuum, but no stories do. Young readers (and older ones too) may find this behavior normalized through their exposure to it in fiction and therefore accept it in real life as well. Female readers reading this fantasy work as an escape from reality may find themselves alienated by the “men’s club” atmosphere. You could say that this book wasn’t written for women, or that women were irrelevant to Rothfuss and his story. To which I say: I would rather there be no female characters than for them to be shallow and objectified when they do appear. You can say Rothfuss was being “realistic,” but as Brennan points out, this is a fantasy novel for crying out loud! I believe that authors have a responsibility to, if not provide morals, at least not perpetuate existing ills of our society.
This is not the mean that I hate the book. Problematic aspects aside (if we can put them aside), it is a wonderful piece of fantasy literature. But I believe it could do better. Brennan gives several suggestions of how to fix it in her blog post. Rothfuss of course isn’t going to rewrite it (and it wouldn’t be the same if he did), but he can keep these points in mind for future books, and he and Lin-Manuel Miranda can try to do better in the new Lionsgate adaptations. In the meantime, I will continue to read the book and probably the rest of the series, simultaneously enjoying its merits while also keeping an eye on its flaws. For I believe that it is possible to appreciate a form of entertainment while still being aware of its shortcomings.