My obsessively detailed reread of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is over, but the speculation goes on. I’m going to post the occasional speculative summary of cool things posted since last time. Spoilers for all of The Wise Man’s Fear and The Name of the Wind—these discussions assume you’ve read all of both books, and frankly they won’t make the slightest bit of sense if you haven’t. But we welcome new people who have read the books and want to geek out about them. This post is full of spoilers, please don’t venture beyond the cut unless you want them.
Abbreviations: NW = The Name of the Wind. WMF = The Wise Man’s Fear. D3 = Day Three, the forthcoming final volume. K = Kvothe or Kote when I can’t figure out what to call him and I’m feeling Kafkaesque. MT: Myr Tariniel. D = Denna, 4C = Four Corners, CTH—that thing I can’t spell! IID3Y = Is it Day Three Yet?
This is the first of what’s going to be a mini-series of posts about women in the books.
First—I think that NW and WMF are way better than most books about all of this stuff; there are more women and they are better integrated than normal. That doesn’t make them perfect. I’m not attacking here, I’m writing from a perspective of thinking they really are better than normal, but still with some problems.
Today we’re going to think about women in the frame.
What women in the frame, you ask yourself? Exactly.
We’ve talked about hierarchies of trust in these books, and layers of narrative. Anything Kvothe tells us is suspect, and when Kvothe quotes somebody telling him something, that’s even more suspect. We have most of our information about the world from Kvothe’s narrative, but there is also information in the frame. And in the frame we have three significant characters, and they all happen to be men.
There’s no reason for them to be.
Kvothe is who he is, and we’ve already talked about how this would be a very different book from Denna’s POV. (Maybe in another inn in another part of the wood, D is telling her story to a female chronicler, helped out by a female Fae?) But Rothfuss decided to give us Kvothe’s story, and even though women can do things in this world, he’s male. There are lots and lots of plot reasons, from D on outwards, for him to be male, and I suspect it’s pretty essential for Rothfuss’s conception of Kvothe and who he is, in contrast to D and so on.
We’ve seen women working in inns, we’ve seen women studying arcane arts, and we’ve seen women in Fae, so there’s no reason inherent to the world that Bast has to be male. There’s also no plot reason visible so far. So that’s another choice.
Maybe a woman wouldn’t be able to travel safely alone the way Chronicler does—not that he’s safe, he’s used to having his possessions stolen, but he’s not risking as much. But women go to the University, women write books, women tell stories. I don’t see any plot reasons so far that Chronicler has to be male.
There’s no reason for any of them to be female either, and they’re not. All male.
The regulars in the Waystone are also all men, even though we have seen inns with women in them—Hespe and D when travelling at least. There’s no indication that there’s a cultural thing here the way there was in South Wales in my childhood where no respectable woman would be seen dead in a pub—the Bentley family come in, the ones with the sheep, and the mother takes the kid to the bathroom and leaves the baby with K and Bast. You wouldn’t get that if it was a “women don’t go in” thing. So women can go in, but we don’t see them doing it except for that one time, and all the regulars are men.
Mary Bentley and her little girl who needs the bathroom are the only women we actually see in the frame. Others are mentioned—Shep’s young widow, Aaron’s mother, the widow Bast’s supposedly leaving his money to, and all the girls Bast dances with and kisses. (Maybe he is related to Felurian. Or maybe they’re all like that?) But Mary and her little girl are the only ones we see in the frame. The frame isn’t all that big as a proportion of the whole thing. But it’s what’s the most reliable, and it’s what we get first. And it has just two women in it, a mother taking a little girl to the bathrom.
When I do my character workshops in cons, when I’m talking about minor characters I suggest that people ask themselves when they’re thinking about the character, “Is it more interesting for them to be male or female? Young or old? From the mainstream culture or from a different culture? Gay or straight?” Not better, more interesting. What’s going to make them more interesting as a character?
This is great when you have time to expand your characters and make them interesting. But say you have somebody bring the protagonist a drink. You don’t have room to make them interesting and flesh them out. Sometimes making them interesting would give them too much significance, draw too much attention to them. They’re still there. Say their story function is to say “Here’s your drink,” and distract the protagonist from their brooding so that they can go off in a new direction. The standard person would be—well, that depends on the setting. A barmaid, a waitress, a waiter, an innkeeper, old, young, human, alien, gay, straight, male, female—they’re not going to do any more in the story than put down that drink. But if they say “Here’s your drink, sir,” that’s one kind of person, and if they say “Here’s your drink, sugar,” that’s another kind, and you have a better story if you know what they say, even if that’s all they’re going to say before they disappear off the page, because the way the protagonist will be distracted from their thoughts will be different.
If the protagonist watches the old waiter staggering off with a tray and wonders how long he’s been doing that, gathering up glasses every night, and decides not to get into a rut like that? If the protagonist gets a sexual buzz from the server and really isn’t sure how to deal with that so gets up to leave? (Michel Tremblay has a great book called The Black Notebook about a waitress in an all night diner who’s a midget whose customers are almost all drag queens.)
And I think it’s useful and important to avoid the default expectations, say, a young black waitress in an IHOP and an old white innkeeper in a country pub, because when you go with default settings you get things that are bland, and also you get things that perpetuate the stereotypes, and also you get things that are leaning on the default sexist/racist/ablist/homophobic settings that are built into our culture. On the top of our minds we can have a lot of good intentions and a lot of conscious thoughts about what we’re doing, but our sleeping minds were programmed in the past by people with other assumptions, and so when we go for cultural default that’s what tends to fall out. We can be better than that, but it takes a bit of effort and attention. (I am far from always living up to my ideals in this case. Far.) But even without any of that, even for somebody who didn’t care at all and thought that all the bad stuff was just peachy, even then going with the defaults is sloppy and leads to cliches.
Now Rothfuss has built this world so that it’s a lot like the standard imagination of a fantasy world, like a late Renaissance with loads of magic but without gunpowder. And the status of women generally is very interesting and well thought through. Except among the Adem, it’s generally higher than it was in equivalent historical periods, with more freedom, but still restricted compared to men. Women have quite a lot of options and quite a lot of freedom. We see women working in inns, helping run businesses, trading on the river, and attending the University.
That last one is very interesting. Women can attend the University, but (WMF, the chapter when they break into Ambrose’s rooms, source Mola/Fela/Devi) they have to all live in the same commons whether they want to or not. Male students can live in commons or they can take rooms in inns or they can sleep under hedges—women have to live in this one dorm, and there’s a curfew. This is very like the situation in Oxford and Cambridge... in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Before that, in real historical Europe, if you were female you could only study privately. Universities were for men only.
But even though we see women doing these things, which I will write about another time, and even though we have the Adem culture with its interesting conscious examination of women, which I will write about another time, and we have Mola and Fela and Devi (especially Devi), who I will write about another time, and we have Auri and D, who we have probably talked about sufficiently, all of our three main characters in the frame are men, and all the regulars in the Waystone are men.
This is the first view of the world we get, the Waystone and the story about Taborlin and the Chandrian, and it’s the most reliable view of the world we get because it’s not filtered through Kvothe’s perceptions, and everyone there is male. Every single one.
Now, John Scalzi talked about how he read the beginning and they were eating stew and he sighed, because stew is a fantasy cliche. I’d like to say that I read the beginning and I sighed because they were all guys and that’s also a fantasy cliche. But I didn’t, because I didn’t even notice until I thought about it, because it’s not just a cliche it’s the standard normal default and I am so totally used to it. As I said in the beginning, I think Rothfuss really is doing better at this kind of thing than most people.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.