Comparing TV shows by their ANTS scores is great fun, but did you know that stories come as books too? It’s time for an epic struggle between three high fantasy works with big readerships. Only one author will emerge triumphant after I’ve scored their books from 1 to 10 in four critical categories. Will it be Patrick Rothfuss with his impressive beard, N. K. Jemisin with her three Hugos,* or Brandon Sanderson with his ability to produce new novels like some kind of genetically engineered book factory?
This is the story of Kvothe, a protagonist with so much candy that a number of fans have concluded he must be satire. No author would make their hero that competent and then play it straight, would they? Yes, they would. Kvothe is exactly what he first appears to be: so naturally good at everything that he can only be challenged by the most extreme situations. Also, all the other cool characters are impressed by him, and most of his enemies hate him out of jealousy.
The plot is pretty simple: Kvothe’s family is murdered by mysterious bad guys, he spends some time as a street urchin, and then he goes to magic school for a while. Somehow, this takes up over 250,000 words.
Despite its high word count, Name of the Wind is actually fairly low on major characters. Bast, as Kvothe’s student, seems like he might be important, but we only see him in the framing device. Then we briefly meet Kvothe’s family before they die, and we briefly encounter a few people during the street-urchin phase that we quickly leave behind. At magic school, we have a few enigmatic teachers, a cartoonish bully who hates Kvothe for being so cool, and a couple of Kvothe’s friends who get very little screen time or involvement in the plot.
Other than Kvothe himself, there are only three characters who get significant development: Denna, Auri, and Devi. I’m sure it’s a coincidence that all three of them are very attractive women. Denna is the obvious romance interest, and she’s… not great, to say the least. Her main thing is to not be around when Kvothe wants to see her, which makes it seem like either she’s trying to avoid him because he’s creepy or she’s just a flaky person. She also has a plot about working for a possibly abusive employer, but it’s not explored in any detail.
Auri appears to be a secondary love interest, though I don’t know if the later books do that or not. She’s portrayed as naive and uncomprehending of the world around her, with a little bit of “lol so random” thrown in. Pro tip, authors: childlike innocence is rarely a good trait in a love interest. Auri at least has some novelty, which could build attachment if she were ever involved in the plot. Instead, she occasionally pops out of the underground catacombs to chat with Kvothe and to promise she’ll be important in the next book.
Devi is a sorcerous moneylender Kovthe borrows cash from on several occasions, and despite having less screen time than the other two, she’s easily the strongest on attachment. First, she’s a sorcerous moneylender, which is pretty unusual. Second, she actually gets some depth on account of her competing feelings. On the one hand, she’s gotta be a hard-ass and make sure Kvothe pays her back. On the other hand, she genuinely likes Kvothe and wants him to succeed. She’s also the best romance interest of the three, as she and Kvothe actually have some chemistry and shared interests, but I don’t think Rothfuss was doing that on purpose.
Finally, there’s Kvothe himself, and his attachment is tricky to measure. For readers who identify with him, it will be very high, on account of all the very cool things he does in very cool ways. Kvothe’s candy becomes the reader’s candy. But for readers who don’t identify with Kvothe, it all works in reverse. The constant heaping of candy just makes Kvothe annoying and unbelievable as a protagonist. This is actually a pretty common problem in speculative fiction, where protagonists of the white and male variety are often gifted with glory no one else could get away with. But Kvothe is an unusually extreme example, and from a purely craft perspective, he’s dragging the story down.
Final Score: 4
For the most part, Name of the Wind’s setting is extremely conventional high fantasy. You know the drill: swords, armor, fortresses, taverns, forests, the works. That still has some novelty, especially for people who are new to the genre, but it’s old hat for most fans. Nor is the setting realistic enough to feel like a place people actually live in, so it’s not getting any points there either.
The framing device’s spider demons do have some novelty, though, mostly because of the way Rothfuss keeps them mysterious. We don’t directly see one for quite a while, and our first description of them comes from several side characters’ dialogue as they try to make sense of what they’re seeing. It’s quite effective, and it makes you excited to see more cool monsters. Unfortunately, that’s just in the prologue and the epilogue.
In the main story, our big bads are the Chandrian, but they’re actually kept too mysterious. We know so little about them that they could be big scary demons or just regular murderers, so that’s not much help. That could have worked if the rest of the story had more novelty to fall back on, but it largely doesn’t.
Kvothe’s magic school is a little unusual in that it charges tuition, and the library is pretty cool, but otherwise it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The magic itself is pretty interesting though. At least, the sympathetic magic is. It has easily understandable rules that Kvothe then works with to solve problems. For example, mages can create a magical link between two similar objects, and then what happens to one object happens to another. So if Kvothe gets hold of a hostile dragon’s scale, he can link it to the rest of the dragon, but that’s only the start. Throwing the scale in a fire won’t do much, as there isn’t enough heat to seriously hurt a dragon. He has to find some force capable of doing the beast serious harm.
There are other types of magic, but they’re kept pretty vague in this book. Naming magic in particular is super boring, as it seems that you can basically do anything once you know an object or concept’s true name. Maybe it’s developed more in the next book, but for now it’s just not very interesting.
One final boost of novelty comes from Rothfuss’s often poetic wordcraft. Phrases like “a silence of three parts” and “as if an alchemist had distilled a dozen swords” are highly memorable, easily standing out on the page. Granted, the boost would be stronger if these poetic devices made more sense in context, but credit where credit is due.
Final Score: 6
This book has an exceptionally slow beginning. Much of the framing device is spent setting the scene of a tavern that isn’t actually in the main story, and it’s only once the spider demons show up that there’s anything on the line. I guess the other source of tension is supposed to be how Kvothe is “losing himself” by living in a boring town where nothing happens, but that just makes Kvothe seem like an elitist jerk. And as soon as the spider demons become a real threat, it’s time to shift gears and go to the actual story, which starts with Kvothe’s childhood.
Said childhood is remarkably free of tension. Kvothe hangs out with his loving family for a while, who are both Roma-coded and extremely white, so that’s… fun? Then the family is murdered offscreen, but since we’re not given any reason to think Kvothe himself is in danger, tension remains low. It stays low as Kvothe summarizes his time as a street urchin, until the story finally picks up with his arrival at magic school.
Here, there’s some actual tension. Kvothe has no money, so he has to work nights to earn enough for food, and also maintain exceptional grades to keep his scholarship. This is difficult even for someone of Kvothe’s prodigious skill, and whenever he falls behind, it puts him further in debt to Devi the sorcerous moneylender. This is a compelling conflict until you realize one important thing: there’s no reason for Kvothe to work so hard. If he just took a year off school, he could easily earn money with his godlike musician skills, then have enough to attend next year with a less hectic schedule. If that option occurs to you, all the tension drains away and is replaced by frustration.
The final source of tension comes near the end, when Kvothe goes looking for signs of his family’s murderers and runs into a rampaging monster instead. The monster is called a draccus, and while it can’t fly, it does have fire breath and armored scales. Plus, it’s enraged from eating a bunch of fantasy drugs, and it’s heading for a defenseless town, so Kvothe has his work cut out for him.
This conflict has compelling stakes that Kvothe can’t put off for his gap year. Kvothe has his magic, but even so, an armored monster is a major challenge. It would be even better if we had any attachment to the town Kvothe is protecting, but it’s still a major upgrade. Unfortunately, it’s only one fight in a book that has otherwise been a real disappointment.
Final Score: 4
I’ve been pretty hard on Name of the Wind, but there’s still one last category. Can Rothfuss pull things together and manage a satisfying conclusion? No. In fact, the book resolves basically nothing, to the point that it doesn’t even seem to have an ending.
Kvothe is no closer to getting justice for his murdered family, and his money problems remain unchanged. He has a confrontation with his school bully, but it ends inconclusively. We then briefly return to the framing device where, again, nothing is resolved. It’s good to leave some things unresolved for the next book, but Rothfuss leaves everything unresolved instead. It feels less like a climax and more like he just stopped typing because the deadline had arrived.
The only satisfaction we get comes from the draccus fight I mentioned earlier. This is a good fight, showing that Rothfuss can write entertaining action when he chooses to. Kvothe defeats the monster, and the town is saved, yay! But this is a very minor battle. The draccus isn’t Kvothe’s nemesis, or even a servant of his nemesis; it’s just a monster. Defeating it doesn’t move any of the other plots forward.
Final Score: 3
At around 130,000 words, Jemisin’s entry is by far the shortest of our three novels, and also the only one with a Hugo. It’s set on a seismically unstable world where apocalypses are so common that people just refer to them as a “fifth season,” hence the title. It’s also got extremely powerful mages who are super oppressed. Will that help it with engagement? Let’s find out!
Jemisin is consistently great at building attachment for her three main characters: Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Each of these three plays heavily on sympathy, as they are all the victims of problems that aren’t their fault. Damaya is a child whose teachers might kill her at any moment because they think she’s dangerous. Syenite has more influence, but she’s still stuck in a system that only values her for the utility she provides and will discard her at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, Essun is the most heart-wrenching of all: the book starts with one of her children beaten to death and the other abducted.
This remains true even though it’s obvious fairly early that the three protagonists are actually all the same person at different points in her life. If anything, that realization actually helps. Normally, multiple viewpoints will hurt attachment because readers have less time to spend with each character. But since these three are actually the same character, attachment built with one has at least some transfer to the others. Attachment may suffer if you dislike the oppressed-mages trope as much as I do, as all three characters are primarily marginalized for their magical abilities, but Jemisin’s description of their suffering is so poignant that it often doesn’t matter.
The rest of the small cast isn’t nearly as strong. Tonkee is a cryptic lady who travels with Essun for a while and doesn’t do much. She has some novelty as a vagabond geologist, but the plot offers her few chances to shine. She’s also trans, which is pretty cool, and at least she doesn’t actively detract from attachment like the other two.
Those two are Hoa and Alabaster. Hoa appears as a young child, but it’s obvious from the start that he’s actually a super powerful magic being in disguise. That makes his demeanor more annoying than endearing, and it’s even more annoying that it takes Essun so long to guess what he is. Alabaster is worse. He’s an overpowered mentor character who’s oh so coy with his secret knowledge, and then later he causes a super-apocalypse,* largely motivated by how oppressed he and his fellow mages are. Never mind that his apocalypse will kill most of the mages too. I can only assume that his next plan will be to eliminate poverty in developed nations by nuking the United States.
One other point in the attachment column is the pirate village that Syenite spends some time in. The rest of the world is portrayed as cruel and oppressive, especially toward mages, so these unbigoted pirates quickly endear themselves to the reader. Of course, the pirates all die because this story is heckin dark, but it’s good while it lasts.
Final Score: 6
Back in my first ANTS comparison post, I used The Fifth Season* as an example of what it takes to score a 10 in novelty, so apologies for that spoiler. On the bright side, I now have the pleasure of explaining just how Jemisin manages such a high rating.
The most immediate reason is the magic, which is all about energy and geology. Mages take heat energy from their environment and channel it into the earth, shifting the stone around to create all manner of effects. Sometimes the magic resembles earthbending from Avatar, but in other cases, it’s about the deeper geological effects. Mages can release the pressure from fault lines, causing earthquakes hundreds of miles away, or they might break open the mantle and bring a new volcano into the world. Jemisin’s description of these powers is top notch, and the magic is even fairly rational! Once we know a mage uses heat energy to move the earth, it’s easy to extrapolate that they can easily freeze enemies in their tracks.
Next is the world itself, where Jemisin welds physical and social factors together. This world is geologically unstable, making powerful earthquakes and volcanic eruptions part of life. As you would expect, humans have shaped their society around this unfortunate reality. Just about everyone maintains stockpiles of food and water for when lava flows destroy crops and acid rains contaminate the aquifer, but there’s more! While nations and empires exist, this world is highly decentralized, with the most important social unit being local communities, or “comms.”
That’s because when a disaster strikes, central authority is the first thing to break down, so local populations have to be more self-sufficient. This doesn’t mean the world is conflict-free by any means. Indeed, we see different comms fighting each other for limited resources as Alabaster’s super-apocalypse gets worse and worse. But it’s understood that those fights are primarily skirmishes in humanity’s real war with the environment. Everything is designed with this dynamic in mind, even the curse words!
There are a few nits to pick, of course. It’s a bit unbelievable when we’re told that most people don’t use metal tools, and it took me most of the book to figure out what the heck a sessapinae is, but those are incredibly minor. Jemisin’s world is both very cool and exceptionally well thought out.
Final Score: 10
At first glance, The Fifth Season seems to be headed for its second 10 of the evening. This is a very dark story, which lends itself well to tension. Lots of people die, including major characters, which makes it more believable that more people will die in later conflicts. The protagonist definitely has plot armor, but she’s still unavoidably scarred by the destruction around her. We see how her childhood abuse makes her cynical and untrusting, how losing her pirate family leaves her in a near-constant state of fight or flight, and how the death of her son puts her into a dissociative fugue.
Jemisin also avoids a problem that plagues so many dark stories: she never relies on calamity to create tension. There’s always uncertainty over whether a bad thing will happen, usually because the protagonist is in a position to do something about it. As the child Damaya, she has to convince her teachers that she’s not a danger and they shouldn’t kill her. As the young adult Syenite, she defends her pirate town from attack by the central authority. And as the middle-aged Essun, she chases after her daughter’s kidnappers, desperate to save her one surviving child. The stakes are always high and the odds are never in the hero’s favor.
This book is also very good about creating moments of lower tension between the peaks so that readers have a chance to catch their breath. After Essun escapes from an angry mob, she has a quiet scene of following her daughter’s trail toward the next village. The tension isn’t gone, but it’s reduced just enough to not be exhausting. Even so, The Fifth Season’s tension is so high that it will probably turn a few readers off, a phenomenon that doesn’t happen with the other ANTS. Some folks don’t love high tension, but those who do will enjoy the story even more.
However, there is a significant problem: the oppressed mages. A lot of Fifth Season’s tension is derived from the protagonist being mistreated over her magic, and it just doesn’t make sense, especially considering how powerful mages are in this setting. It’s difficult to believe an angry mob would attack a woman who could kill them with a thought, and when they do anyway, it doesn’t seem like the protagonist is in much danger. The same thing happens when her pirate town is attacked. The enemy’s ships have anti-magic fields on board, but it still seems like the hero should be able to freeze them in place by pulling all the heat out of the water around them.
I’ve seen a lot of claims that Fifth Season’s oppressed mages are an exception to the trope, but that just isn’t true. They’re still too powerful for mundane humans to threaten, and it’s still unbelievable that they’d be oppressed in the first place. The only difference between this and something like Fantastic Beasts or Dragon Age is that Jemisin’s writing is better across the board, so the issue is less obvious. The oppressed mages bring down what could have been a perfect score, but the tension is still respectable.
Final Score: 7
While Fifth Season ranges from good to great in the other categories, it crashes and burns here, largely for the same reason as Name of the Wind: nothing is resolved. In fairness, that isn’t immediately apparent. At first, Damaya’s and Syenite’s plots both have some satisfaction at their endings. Damaya succeeds in convincing the evil teachers not to kill her and graduates from magic school instead. Syenite fails to protect her pirate town, which is a major downer but still potentially satisfying.
The problem is that once you’ve realized those two are younger versions of Essun, their plots just don’t matter as much. We can assume Damaya isn’t killed because Essun isn’t dead, and it’s pretty clear the pirates will all die since Essun isn’t living with her cool pirate family anymore. Readers who don’t figure it out until later will have a better time, but it’s pretty obvious.
Meanwhile, Essun’s plot has a bizarrely bad ending. After spending the whole book tracking her kidnapped daughter, Essun just gives up when the trail is disrupted. That’s it, she’s done, pack it all in. There’s surely no way she could find the trail again, or just keep heading in the same direction, since until then the kidnapper had been traveling in a mostly straight line. This is actually worse than Name of the Wind’s ending. At least with that book, none of the unresolved plots were particularly urgent. In Fifth Season, Essun chooses to abandon her daughter on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Why does this happen? My best guess is that Jemisin wanted Essun to stop at a nearby town so she could be there for the next book while the daughter has her own plot. That goal is accomplished, but in the most contrived way.
Final Score: 2
Now that Sanderson has raked in approximately all the money with his surprise Kickstarter, it’s time for him to face the ultimate gauntlet: having one of his books graded by me, a critic who lives on the internet. I’m sure he’s shaking in his boots.
The Way of Kings* is difficult to summarize because it follows a bunch of characters and is over 383,000 words long, but most of the plot centers on a war between humans and a fantasy species called the Parshendi. That’s where two of the three major POV characters spend their time.* Since this is a Sanderson book, there are countless secondary plots building in the background. That’s just who he is.
Of our three main characters, Kaladin is by far the best when it comes to attachment, mostly because he’s got sympathetic problems and is deeply selfless. Betrayed by his aristocratic commander, he’s thrown into a cannon-fodder unit where recruits rarely last more than a few weeks. Instead of seeing only to his own survival, Kaladin also works hard to keep the other men in his unit alive, even when it increases the risk to his own life. He also has a pretty compelling character arc of learning to value himself after a string of brutal failures. He’s a bit over-candied in places, with lines about how he’s the bestest spearman that there ever was, but it’s not emphasized enough to make him unlikable.
Our other two protagonists, Shallan and Dalinar, are both okay in this department. Shallan is trying to steal a magical artifact to pay off her family’s debilitating debts, which is reasonably sympathetic. She has other problems, but we don’t get to know about them until the very end, thanks to meta mysteries. Dalinar is trying to reform the human aristocracy, which is indeed terrible, so he’s easy to cheer for. His main problem is that he’s weirdly naive about it at times, like someone who stepped into the setting from real life rather than someone who was raised in it.
The main problem these two characters have is that their problems just aren’t nearly as compelling as Kaladin’s constant struggle for survival. We also have Kaladin’s many flashback scenes, in which his big problem is that the other townsfolk dislike his family for being cool doctors. That’s more than a little contrived, and the fake spinach actually decreases his attachment in the present, if only a little.
Then there are about one million side characters. Jasnah has some decent novelty as a researcher trying to rigorously investigate doomsday prophecies, and Kaladin’s men are about as sympathetic as he is. Most of the others are one-off POV characters who fill out the book’s many interludes. While they aren’t actively bad, they are a waste of time, keeping us away from the characters we’re actually invested in.*
By far the worst is Szeth the assassin. His story is largely unrelated to the other characters, and it features him murdering whole rooms of people, even though he hates murder. Why is he doing this? Is it some kind of magical compulsion or brainwashing? No, it’s because he was exiled from his culture and ordered to unconditionally obey whoever found him. He can stop murdering at any time, but he’s just too devoted to his cultural conventions! After the third or fourth time hearing this, it sounds like maybe he doesn’t actually dislike murder that much. It doesn’t help that even as he’s shouting about how much he hates all the murder he’s doing, he keeps manifesting new magical powers. What a tool.
Final Score: 5
The world of Roshar has a lot of features that help it stand out from other fantasy settings, which is a major boon to the books. Shardblades and Shardplate are essentially fantasy versions of lightsabers and powered armor, respectively, and they enable some really interesting fight scenes. Other pieces of magitech aren’t as well thought out, but we still see some interesting ideas. I especially like the little spider-bot that administers anesthetic, as too many fantasy authors tend to neglect medicine when imagining how their speculative elements would affect the world.
The environment is pretty novel too, as it’s regularly beset by supernatural highstorms. In addition to high winds and torrential rains, these dangerous weather systems bring stormlight, a power source for most of Roshar’s magic. Not only does this make for some beautiful description, but it also elegantly ties two major setting elements together rather than making readers remember both highstorms and a separate source of magic.
In addition to the highstorms’ immediate destruction, Sanderson also takes the time to show us how the world at large has adapted to them. Most of the animals are crustaceans, and even the plants can retreat into hard shells for protection. Topsoil is very rare, as it’s easily blown away, so the most successful plants are those with roots that can break through rock and get to the nutrients beneath. It sounds simple, but showing the ripple effects from highstorms gives the world important depth, keeping it fresh and interesting for longer.
The main problem is that while the environment is well explored, human culture isn’t. Most of the human cultures we see are generically feudal, with few if any concessions made to such an unusual environment. This is especially disappointing when compared to Fifth Season’s similar premise of a world wracked by natural disasters. The one non-feudal society we encounter is so bizarre that it’s impossible to believe: a land where soldiers are oppressed and assassins are sent out into the wider world to do pro bono murdering.
Final Score: 7
Much like attachment, Way of Kings’ tension varies a lot depending on what character you’re following. Kaladin has the most, as he and his men could easily be killed anytime they go on a mission. Even when not in mortal danger, everything is difficult for them, from caring for the wounded to getting enough food for everyone to eat. Later in the story, Kaladin decides they have no choice but to escape, which adds even more tension as even attempted desertion is punishable by death.
In comparison, Shallan has less tension, but she still has some. She’ll certainly be in trouble if she’s caught stealing the magical artifact, but it’s unlikely she’d be executed. If she fails to get it, her family might be in danger of assassination because of their debts, though how much danger is unclear. She’s also catching glimpses of creepy magical spirits, which adds another splash of tension. For most stories, this would be fine, but compared to Kaladin’s constant life-or-death struggles, Shallan’s problems seem pretty pedestrian.
That’s nothing compared to Dalinar, who spends most of the book with almost nothing on the line. While his stated goal is to reform the aristocracy, his actual actions mostly involve trying out different military tactics against the Parshendi. We have no reason to care who actually wins the war, so this means nothing. It’s not until very late that Dalinar’s tension picks up, when he personally goes into battle and is nearly killed.
There’s one part of the book with even lower tension though: Kaladin’s flashbacks. In the present, Kaladin is trying to keep himself and his men alive. In the past, he slowly meanders through his everyday life, occasionally angsting about whether to join the army or become a doctor. It’s so dull that you’re probably better off skipping most of those chapters and reading a summary instead.
Final Score: 5
In this final category, Way of Kings pulls ahead of the competition on the basis of actually resolving things. What a concept! In fact, we get significant resolutions for each of our POV characters. Kaladin and his men successfully escape and enlist with Dalinar, who doesn’t use cannon fodder units. Instead, Dalinar makes them his bodyguards as a reward for their service. In Dalinar’s own story, he gains new political influence that gives him a real chance of enacting his reforms. Meanwhile, Shallan discovers the magical artifact was a fake the whole time, but also that she has previously unknown powers that she can use to help her family.
For the most part, these resolutions feel earned, and they each address a major conflict from earlier in the book. They provide the sense of closure that you really need after reading through a book so thick that it technically qualifies as ballast. And the best part is that Sanderson does this without sacrificing his hooks for book two. Kaladin and his men are no longer sacrificial pawns, but they still have a war to fight with the Parshendi. Dalinar has more authority now, but that also means the other nobles will take his reform efforts seriously and fight him at every turn. Shallan is embarking on an entirely new adventure with her cool powers and the creepy spirits she saw earlier.
This is something I wish more authors understood. When you’re writing a series, individual books shouldn’t tie off all their problems or leave all their problems unresolved. They need a mix of both! That’s how you ensure that there’s enough story to support a series, while also rewarding readers for finishing each installment. It’s nice to see that Sanderson gets that, whatever other gripes I might have with his writing.
Speaking of gripes: the main problem with Way of Kings’ satisfaction is the way it’s divided into three separate storylines, a problem common to books with multiple POVs. Kaladin’s and Dalinar’s endings are at least somewhat linked, as the two of them team up to win an important battle against the Parshendi, but Shallan is a continent away. Her triumphs mean nothing to most of the other characters. Even in the war storyline, we have two smaller triumphs when we could have had one big triumph.
Despite that, the ending is quite strong, mostly because it actually feels like an ending and not just a place where the author had to stop typing.
Final Score: 7
If someone will give me a dramatic drumroll, our final scores are… 17 for Name of the Wind, 25 for Fifth Season, and 24 for Way of Kings. That’s about what I expected going into this. Fifth Season and Way of Kings both have their problems, but they’re good enough in other areas to make up for it. Name of the Wind depends entirely on readers identifying with the vast amounts of candy it heaps on Kvothe, and anyone who doesn’t is likely to bounce off hard.
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