How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Read: 1 May, 2017

My copy’s cover boasts that this story is “now a major DreamWorks Animation film.” That’s a lie. There is a DreamWorks movie with the same title, and even the main characters have the same names, but it’s not the same story. At all.

That was rather unexpected.

But not unwelcome. The movie was a wonderful story about a friendship between a boy and a dragon that sort of crammed in a thing about a Big Bad to be defeated at the end because I guess the screenwriters felt that they needed a grandiose climax but couldn’t be arsed to write a second draft in which the two plots actually make sense together.

Whereas in the book, there is a Big Bad, but it’s better integrated into the story. And, perhaps more importantly, it actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling the book. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the movie tugged my heartstrings in all the right ways. But in the book, the two don’t really seem to have much chemistry together.

It didn’t help that the only human female in the whole book was the main character’s mother. I get it, “boys don’t want to read about girls”, but what do you think teaches them that? Sure, the movie crammed in your normal Stock Strong Female Love Interest #3, but at least she was there. It was a start.

I also had trouble with the narration. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the rhythm of the text, and I kept stuttering and stumbling over myself while trying to read it out loud. The writing just didn’t have any poetry in it.

There’s a whole lot of your typical boy media “gross-out” stuff, like references to snot and belching and such. I can imagine those being a hit for some kids, but mine couldn’t care less. I can see how this book might hit a lot of a kid’s interests and become a family favourite, but it just wasn’t working for us. Maybe in a few years…

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Lumberjanes #3-4: A Terrible Plan & Out of Time by Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Watters

Read: 23 April, 2017

The first two volumes meandered toward a single plotline that was resolved. In these two, we get a few different mini plots that hint at the big mystery of the Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types.

These stories are satisfying on their own, and only some involve defeating big scary monsters (the first story in A Terrible Plan is simply the girls telling scary stories while sitting around a campfire), with no need for any big-p Plot. That said, though, we do get some more information on the camp, and on the mysterious Bear Woman.

Mostly, though, the story is about the friendships, and that’s where it delivers. I also love the inclusion of various sexualities and gender identities.

The art style fits the tone of the series perfectly – it’s cartoony, fairly expressive, whimsical. It’s not photorealistic, sometimes it’s even a bit first draft-y, but it always fits the mood of the panel well.

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Lumberjanes #1-2: Beware the Kitten Holy & Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis

Read: April 7, 2017

This is the high energy story of the young women of cabin Roanoke, who follow a bearwoman into the woods and are attacked by three-eyed foxes, and things only get stranger from there.

There’s very little downtime in Lumberjanes. Monsters fly out from every direction, the characters are constantly active, there’s loads of yelling… The downside to this is that the mystery never really gets time to build, there’s no pause to wonder what might be happening. It’s just action, action, action, reveal. It’s not my favourite pace, but it works.

The artwork is somewhat unrefined, but it fits the tone of the story and has a certain character to it.

Essentially, Lumberjanes is what it is, and it is that well. The reveal – which I won’t spoil – was a bit of a let down, only because I’ve seen it too often, but all the elements of the story worked.

This would be fantastic as a “baby’s first graphic novel”, for ages 7-10.

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The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

Read: 22 January, 2017

I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

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The Chronicles of Narnia #3: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

Read: 10 January, 2017

This is the story of a boy and his horse (and a girl and her horse, too, but I guess titles can only get so long before they become unwieldy), and their escape to Narnia and the north.

I had a lot of trouble getting into this one. Every time the adventure starts picking up, there’s a sudden Grownups Are Talking scene that just seemed to go on and on and on. My poor son has taken to drawing pictures during bedtime reads because, advanced in so many ways as he is, he just can’t find it in himself to get excited about Calormen politics. And I honestly can’t say that I blame him.

I might have felt differently if there had been something interesting or creative about the Calormenes. But, instead, they’re pretty much just a hodge-podge of “oriental” middle eastern stereotypes. Which really only serve to date the book.

I’m also unsure of what this does to the Narnia universe. In both The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a sense of an empty world. Sure, there was the cabby who served as the first king of Narnia, but his court was comprised of talking animals. And in TLTWaTW, everyone makes a huge fuss over there being actual human children in their world.

Now, just a few years later, we find out that there are whole nations of humans less than a day’s ride from Caer Paravel.

It reminded me of the book of Genesis: God creates Adam and Eve, who have three sons, who then go off and get married. And, suddenly, we have near descendants going off to other lands and living in the cities there. Knowing a little of C.S. Lewis’s religious perspective, I can’t help but wonder if he wasn’t having a bit of a larf when writing this.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very pale follow up to TLTWaTW. There are too many grownups and grownup doings, and the use of stereotypes just comes off as lazy.

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Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Read: 21 May, 2016

In the period after the Death Star’s destruction, Rebel pilot Norra returns to Akiva to find her son. Of course, things go awry – specifically, remnants of the Empire’s leadership happen to have gathered on the planet to decide the fate of the galaxy now that it’s emperor is dead.

Right off the bat, the writing style is very sub-par. It took me a long time to get into the story enough to (mostly) ignore, but then it would just jab at me with awkward or inefficient phrasing. Things like: “The TIE wibbles and wobbles through the air, careening drunkenly across the Myrrann rooftops – it zigzags herkily-jerkily out of sight.”

Yeah.

The characters themselves were fine. They were pretty stock and didn’t exactly have emotional range, but I figured that was something that didn’t evolve in the Star Wars universe until after the events of the original trilogy anyway (with a few very rare sparks here and there).

For the most part, the characters have Backstory and Function, and then are otherwise left to just fulfill the needs of the plot. Which isn’t a terrible thing if the plot can carry it and – for me – it did. Not that it was spectacular or anything, but stuff happened, there were fights, there was action, there were explosions… I wasn’t exactly expecting a Star Wars version of McEwan’s Atonement.

One thing I really liked – and loved in the recent movie as well – is that the galaxy feels much more full than it did with Lucas at the helm. With the original trilogy, all characters (with the very welcome exception of Mon Mothma) are male unless the role demands otherwise. This left men as the default, and women as the sex slaves, maternal figures, or the love interest. Lucas seemed to try to fix this in the prequels, but fell quite short of success.

With the recent franchise, women have been much better distributed. They pop up in the background, they lead Stormtroopers, they’re around. It’s been so refreshing to finally, after thirty years of being a fan, to see the galaxy have room for someone like me.

Aftermath does the same, but takes it one step further – it writes women back into the original trilogy. Norra, our main character, was a pilot in that final battle – a pilot who was never onscreen but, now, has a story and a place. And I am willing to overlook quite a bit for making me – finally – feel welcome in a franchise that I’ve adored my entire life.

Unfortunately, the writing style is pretty terrible. With all the money and resources at their disposal, I sincerely wish that Disney had selected a better writer to handle this book. In most other ways, they seem to take the franchise seriously, and to want us to take it seriously as well. They seem to want to mainstream Star Wars fandom on a level that it hasn’t been before. But I think that the first step needs to be to give these books to authors who will be able to tell the stories with the care they deserve.

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Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Read: 8 April, 2016

On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Read: 29 February, 2016

John Chandagnac was a puppeteer-turned-accountant on his way to Jamaica to reclaim his birthright from his thieving uncle. On the way, however, his ship was captured by pirates. Chandagnac must become the pirate Shandy to defeat the magic-wielding pirates, save a magician’s daughter, and claim his family fortunes.

I really enjoyed most of the book. As with Anubis Gates, the writing style is tremendously exciting, and this time he’s got swashbuckling pirates to work with instead of just Romantic poets. I tore through the first 80% of the book, hardly able to put it down. But then, as with Anubis Gates, it just lost me. The book seems to lose focus toward the end. When I read Anubis Gates, I got the sense that Powers had just become bored with the story and was trying to end it quickly so he could move on. On Stranger Tides seems to have suffered from the same problem. The killing of Blackbeard, a terrifying character throughout and the prophesied goal for our main character (according to Woefully Fat, the bocor who infodumps the information Shandy will need to accomplish his goals) is over in a flash, and his character lacks all the menace that had been cultivated throughout.

The saving of Beth Hurwood felt rushed, and the reclaiming of the Jamaican estates is just dropped entirely – despite being the stated goal from the very beginning and despite Shandy’s uncle being narratively brought back from the dead in order for it to happen.

The magic system itself is a bit of a touchy subject. There are, of course, real Vodun practitioners, and they are not typically the kids of people who have a lot of social power. The taking and using of their religious beliefs for the entertainment of outsiders is a problem. That said, the magic system worked quite well in the context of the story, it paired well with the plot.

There were some gender issues with the book as well. There are very few main characters, with only two who are meaningful to the plot. One of those is dead, and the other is a helpless, even catatonic damsel through most of the plot (though she does have some potential when she’s conscious). Other female characters include the mother of a bad guy with an Oedipus complex, and a few women in the pirate camp who are either sexually available or attached to a male pirate (or both). Even more offensive, one of these latter women is named Ann Bonny. That’s right, one of the most famous female pirate captains is here reduced to a pirate wife and potential sexual distraction for the main character. The erasure of women in fiction and history isn’t exactly uncommon. Whole worlds are constructed where women just don’t seem to exist at all, or they exist elsewhere, or they hang around in the wings to provide goals, distractions, and the next generation of characters. It’s annoying, but at least Powers has the excuse that he’s grown up in a culture where this is normalized. Naming one of these background characters Ann Bonny, however, just feels nasty. Better to pretend she doesn’t exist than to remake her as little more than a wife and potential sexual conquest.

I still found the story gripping, and it was full of wonderful ideas and creepy imagery. But aspects of it, particularly on the gender side and how the baddies were constructed, made it feel very dated.

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A Memoir by Lady Trent #2: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Read: 24 January, 2016

I’m not a terribly huge fan of dragons but natural history? The Victorian era? Women who find a way to be badass despite the whole of their society weighing down on them? It’s like these books were written specifically with me in mind.

In this episode, Isabella mounts her first expedition without her husband, and finds herself caught in the middle of a multi-directional political struggle. And, of course, she and her companions make some pretty wonderful scientific discoveries along the way.

As with the first, this book is pretty much perfect. The characters are strong and come through really well, the pacing is spot on, the tone matches the content perfectly. I honestly can’t think of a single critical thing to say.

I’m seeing from reviews that many people found the book boring, mostly because it spent so much time away from the dragons. I guess I can understand, and it’s true that Brennan isn’t exactly Anne McCaffrey. It’s hard to see how this series would hold any interest at all for readers who just want dragons! and adventure!

It is a slower pace, and the dragons themselves are almost incidental to the characterization of Isabella – of her growth, and of her negotiation between the expectations of her gender and the hungers of her personality. But for the right audience (i.e.: me), these books are just glorious.

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The Kingkiller Chronicle #2: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Read: 24 October, 2015

Fair warning: This review contains a lot of spoilers. I’ve been trying to white-out spoilers from my reviews, but there were just too many here, and it was hard to get my thoughts down without constantly spoiling something. So I’m just going to go ahead and put a spoiler warning on the whole thing.

Wise Man’s Fear takes place on the second day of Kvothe’s narration to Chronicler, in which he continues to talk about his days at the University and covers his travels to Vintas and Ademre.

I’m really loving this series. It’s well-written, it’s interesting, and the pacing has kept me in its grip for over 2,000 pages so far. I love the meta-story of how myths are formed, and the banter between characters is usually a lot of fun (it does sometimes get a little over the top, especially with Devi and Denna, but it mostly works).

Many have pointed out that the women in the series tend to be either invisible or too perfect, and I think there is something to that. We can explain some of it away by the fact that Kvothe spends a lot of his time at the University, where women don’t often get to study, but those were choices the author made (both in putting so much of the story there and in making the University like that in the first place). Then there are characters like Auri, who feel a bit like male fantasies of “strong female characters” rather than characters of substance.

Still, I think it’s a much smaller problem than many critics make it seem, and we do have to keep in mind that we are getting the story through the interpretations of a teenage boy.

There were, however, some details that started to get pretty painful – particularly around the final 1/3 of the book. When I was a teenager, I had several nerdy male friends (the kind who got together for D&D-style roleplay sessions, drew comics, and wrote fanfiction). Much of the final 1/3 of Wise Man’s Fear reminded me of their stories, and not in a particularly good way.

It starts when Kvothe meets Felurian, who is basically a Sex Goddess who inflicts death by snu snu. I think you can see where this is going. If Kvothe simply bested her with his cunning and got his magical gift, it’s be fine. Better if she weren’t the Snu Snu Fairy, but whatever. Those aren’t exactly uncommon in myths, so it would at least fit in with that aspect of the story. Unfortunately, Kvothe then decides to spend many more pages with her (one reviewer totalled Felurian’s story at around 60 pages), during which he learns to be The Best At Sex (because it wasn’t enough for him to be The Best At Music, The Best At Artificing, and The Best At Learning). That’s pages upon pages of Kvothe just sitting around learning sex moves named like the swordplay manoeuvres from The Wheel of Time.

But it doesn’t end there. Kvothe leaves Felurian only to draw the attention of a tavern waitress known for rejecting patrons’ advances, and spends several days with her in marathon snu snu.

When that is finally over, Kvothe heads off to become The Best At Fighting. A bit much, but I did really enjoy learning about the Ademre culture, and the Sword Tree was really cool. Unfortunately, Kvothe The Sexer was still in full swing, so he had to spent a fair amount of his time around the Adem having sex with his teacher (!!) and the character who is presented as basically the best fighter the Adem village has to offer (!!!). He might as well have bed Shehyn just to complete his collection!

Aside from how juvenile this all was, it was frustrating to finally see a matriarchal Amazon society only for every major character of appropriate age who was not set up as an antagonist become Kvothe’s sexual partner.

I’ve always liked Denna as a character. I know a lot of people don’t (to quote a few reviews: She’s “shittily written”, a “cardboard cutout”, a “bitch”, “bland”… you get the idea), but I really do. I’ve known people who consistently made poor choices, sometimes involving their relationships, and I’ve felt the same urge to try shaking them out of it or rescue them from the latest situation they’ve found themselves in. Denna is one of those – Kvothe enjoys the time he spends with her, she’s a talented musician, her sense of humour matches his, she’s beautiful, but she also makes terrible life choices. But you can’t save people from their own choices. Try and you’ll just drive them away, and then they won’t even have your friendship.

Kvothe understands this, and his decision to just drop it and be her friend is exactly the right one. It gives her a respite from all the crappy things in her life, and it gives her something to contrast them against. And by not acting like a condescending, judgemental hero-in-waiting, Kvothe gets to be a safe place for her. That is exactly how we must act around loved ones in abusive relationships.

Kvothe messes this up quite a bit, though. He keeps putting his romantic feelings ahead of their friendship, and the last thing Denna needs is to deal with yet another man’s romantic feelings. He has no right to keep poking them in when she has been so clear in establishing the boundaries of their relationship. For now, I think Rothfuss has done a fairly good job of making it clear that Kvothe is in error when he behaves this way, and that’s a good thing. I’m a little scared, though, that he’ll fumble the relationship in the last book by giving Denna to Kvothe (at least for a while – we know from the narrative set up that they won’t have a Happily Ever After), and I will just scream if they come together just in time for her to die of whatever her lung troubles are.

Except for two passages. The first being their big fight. Kvothe says some truly nasty things in that fight. I get that he was hurting, and that he was terrified for her safety. Heck, there was probably some PTSD in the mix there. But he behaved abominably. That’s forgiveable since he’s 16 and a character who always makes the right choices would be insufferable, but I felt like there needed to be a bit more introspection. I know it’s hard, since it’s a very fine line between introspection and wallowing, but I feel like Kvothe needed to think about what he said during that conversation more, and perhaps display a better understanding of what he had done wrong. I also feel like there should have been more of a consequence. When Kvothe and Denna find each other again, they just avoid talking about it and have a few awkward pauses in their conversations before they get back into the rhythm of their relationship. I don’t think it’s good for Rothfuss’s younger male readers to see so little consequence for such abominable behaviour, and I don’t think it fits Denna’s character to gloss over the incident so easily.

The other passage is when Kvothe rescues the Denna look-alike from bandits. This lets him play saviour to a Denna (even if she isn’t the original) and get her appreciation. Denna, despite falling into a good number of tropes, is interesting, and part of what makes her interesting is precisely that she doesn’t conform to Kvothe’s Knight In Shining Armour fantasy. Letting him act it out anyway with a pseudo-Denna felt gratuitous and absurd.

That’s not to say that I disliked the whole sequence. Having Kvothe repeat what had been done to his family but with himself as the Chandrian was a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the execution was a bit so-so. The lead up and the act itself were both great, but then it was dropped, as if it had just been yet another of Kvothe’s adventures. He only compared the two scenes for a single moment, and that was a bit of a waste. I feel like the episode could have been used to advance the Chandrian/Amyr plot, perhaps by showing how close Kvothe is coming to evil. Instead, we just get a doctor telling him that you cut off gangrenous legs, so of course it’s a good thing to murder a bunch of bandits. End of story, introspection over. And while he does seem a little disturbed that he had left one of the men alive but fatally wounded, he quickly comes to peace with that (even worse, he smiles to think of it). The only guilt that remains with him is that he also murdered women. Even after his experiences with the Adem!

Instead of exploring the issue raised by the Amyr (the danger of “for the greater good”), the episode became little more than an opportunity for Kvothe to play saviour to a girl who reminds him of the girl he really wants to save. And that’s just annoying.

There were several scenes where Kvothe really just doesn’t seem to get it. Even worse, he always does a little pontificating to show just how well he does get it, then proceeds to completely bungle the interaction. The best example I can think of off the top of my hat is when he reveals to Alvaron and Melurian that he is Edema Ruh. As narrator, he notes how delicate the situation is and the fact that he must proceed with extreme caution. However, he introduces the topic by telling them that he murdered the travellers, making them think that the Ruh have been kidnapping girls, then reveals that they weren’t actually Ruh and that he knows this because, as a Ruh, he knows that Ruh would never kidnap girls. All of this in a conversation with a woman who already strongly believes that the Edema Ruh are thugs and rapists. Does that really sound like proceeding with caution? Does that sound like handling the matter delicately? It is, literally, the worst possible way to explain what had happened. In fact, I’d say that his description of the events practically guaranteed Melurian’s reaction.

How about, instead, he were to take the events chronologically: A group of Edema Ruh were murdered and bandits took their place for a) the writ of safe passage, b) access into towns, and c) the convenient excuse to lure girls away from their families in the middle of the night. He was staying the night with them on his journey when the bandits boasted to him of their ploy. When he found out that, in addition to stealing from communities as they pass through, they had kidnapped two girls, he killed them in order to rescue the girls, and he brought them home to their families. It isn’t nearly as dramatic, but that’s the point. Right from the beginning of the story, it’s clearly established that the people who kidnapped the girls were not Ruh, that the Ruh were as much victims as the girls had been, and that Kvothe’s actions were warranted. Melurian may still have gone into a rage, but at least then it would be because of her own prejudices rather than simply because of Kvothe’s inability to put the dramatics aside for a moment.

And may I please mention that implying Melurian had had pre-marital sex with a Ruh to her husband probably doesn’t fit “handling the conversation delicately” either?

There were a few scenes like this, and they were just painful to read. Not in the “oh no, this tension is building up and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop” sense, which would have been wonderful. No, it was in the “holy shit, Kvothe, can you please just shut your freaking mouth?!” sense.

My final complaint comes right near the end, when Kvothe is trying to learn how to read Yllish story knots and he discovers that Denna has knotted a word into her hair, strongly suggesting that she may know how to read Yllish story knot (or at least may have some information that could advance things). Rather than talk to her about this, perhaps probe how much she knows, perhaps describe the knot inscription he’s trying to translate to see if she has any insight to offer, the subject is just dropped so that Kvothe can have some more awkward silences and then blurt out that he wants her to love him so that their relationship can get even more awkward. There was a perfect opportunity for her to have some actual involvement in the main plotline, and it’s like it just never occurred to Rothfuss. Maybe he had something else in mind for that interaction and he was too focused on his planned progression to see the natural progression forming under his nose. I don’t know, but it was frustrating.

This review is getting quite a bit longer than I intended, so I’d better wrap it up! I’m really enjoying these books, and Rothfuss definitely has a way with narrative. Despite some pretty glaring flaws in this book, I did enjoy the ride – no small feat when the ride is over 1,000 pages long!

There are a lot of loose threads that I can’t wait to see resolved, though I’m a little afraid that, given the hints we’ve seen so far, the story can’t possibly be concluded in a satisfactory way. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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