A good old feminist book rant

books copyLet’s ignore the fact that I have been completely awol for the past couple of months, and jump right into my review/analysis/feminist rant inspired by my current favourite author Patrick Rohtfuss’ book series.

Reading the first two parts of Patrick Rothfuss’ to-be trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles turned out to be a completely unanticipated rollercoaster ride in the best possible way. Without conducting a more in-depth analysis of the plot and characters let’s just state that the bare bones of the story are pretty much identical to 90% of the fantasy books that I have read: a young, talented boy loses his family in a tragedy, lives in poverty, discovers magic and eventually proceeds to doing extraordinary things. Not a particularly exciting premise to be sure but rest assured that everything on top that – the flesh and blood of the story if you will – are well worth exploring. Not only does the author give shape to the story with beautifully intricate and at parts even poetic language, he also has the skill of balancing out profound ideas with witty and relatable humour.

The quality that I found most surprising and inspiring was the treatment of the female characters throughout. Many books in the fantasy genre tend to harbour worn-out feminine stereotypes with only a minimal female presence in central roles. Kingkiller Chronicles departs from this tradition by bringing in a number of well-developed, singular female characters none of whose reason for existence is to be a pretty accessory. The epitome of this is the careful construction of the Adem: a people that has its own cultural history, language, country and customs. Like any fantasy author, Rothfuss has created his own world with different geological and cultural areas, languages and so on. Adem is one such, and it differs from the predominating culture in a number of ways.

At first we only know as much as the protagonist; that the Adem only venture outside their own country as mercenaries. They are said to be excellent fighters whose appearance is stoic to the point of where it’s considered an oddity among the “general population”. They are seen as other. The fact that no one seems to have any first-hand experience with the Adem has spruced up a mass of rumours, each one more fantastical than the last. Of course, as the protagonist learns more, the strange customs start to make sense, which in itself is a poignant remark of the human nature. We naturally fear the unknown especially when it is a part of another culture. Racism at its core is fear turned into anger and hate. Anyone who takes time to reflect on another culture will notice that people are people no matter how they communicate and what they believe in.

What really impressed me about the way the Adem are portrayed is that their society is matriarchal. As feminism is at the centre of my academic intrigue I got sucked in in a heartbeat. I haven’t come across many matriarchal communities in my previous experiences of fantasy lit, and really the only other remarkable example that springs to mind is the genius satire, Egalia’s Daughters. Being a satirical matriarchy, Egalia is the exaggerated polar opposite to our world, and provokes the reader through humour until they see how absolutely constructed the prevailing patriarchal system that we live in actually is.

The Adem are portrayed as hard-working and humble people; not fanatic or eccentric in any way. They are just as suspicious about outsiders as the outsiders are of them. Unfamiliar customs are just as off-putting and strange to them, and in their eyes, their way of doing things is obviously the correct one. Everyone else is uncivilised.

That aside, their philosophy is a fascinating one. Central to the Adem’s belief system is the tradition of martial arts, which is also the way in which their mercenaries bring wealth into the community. The backbone of the art is the Lethani, a sort of a spiritual and ethical path that guides all of the Adem to do the right thing. The Lethani is an innate morale peculiar to the culture, that in their eyes is missing from the rest of the world. The Lethani guides one to use their fighting skills sparingly and only for a cause that is for the good of the Adem. What the Lethani really is and includes is rather obscure but what seems to be clear is that although the Adem are known fighters it is not of the spirit of the Lethani to relish violence.

Another side of the fighting is the Ketan, which reminds me of yoga and thai-chi as it is described to be a series of movements to be performed in continuation as close to perfection as possible. These movements are then incorporated into combat where they usually take your average non-Adem opponent by surprise.

The Adem regard women superior fighters to men as they have less anger, and are therefore better at controlling themselves. Lethani is about control and knowing when to fight. Men are deemed more impulsive, more prone to violence and therefore more likely to depart from the code of conduct. The notion that men are less valuable for the society is a no-brainer for the Adem and although the male protagonist finds himself rather offended by this he and the reader are forced to admit that it is no worse than the opposite view of women being seen as the weaker sex.

But like any other society, the Adem also have their ridiculous beliefs that put them back on the same level with other systems. Due to the dominating role of women in the society the Adem hold a belief that men have no part in procreation at all, which serves the power of matriarchy as it diminishes the relevance of man entirely. Although for the reader as well as for the protagonist this belief is complete nonsense it does serve a purpose regarding the fictional world it is set in. By giving this flaw to the otherwise beautiful culture it descends back into being just another set traditions and customs constructed by humans who want to believe that their way is the right way.

An interesting component of the Adem values is that they have no sex taboo. This is of course in line with the belief that the physical act is in no way related to conception. When there is no danger of forming unwanted familial ties through offspring sex becomes purely a physical act where both participants are seeking pleasure and release. Because of this there is no shame or sense of ownership of another’s body. The protagonist comes from a world similar to ours where women are easily labelled promiscuous and viewed as men’s property. Their sex is owned by one man, and prostitutes are at the lowest level of social hierarchy. This is a massive problem in our current world as well, and women are still much more easily labelled sluts than men for having multiple sex partners. The violation of the female body – and what is considered a violation is constantly questioned and debated; and debated by men no less. The right to one’s own body is not a given to women like it is for men, and the sex taboo is one of the man-made constructions fuelling this way of thinking.

That said, the carefully thought-out philosophy of the Adem is refreshing and I applaud Patrick Rothfuss for coming up with all of its complexities. It shows another example of a culture built upon a set of circumstances, history and beliefs. In some ways it is no better than patriarchy but it demonstrates that many of the patriarchal customs are nothing but myths and tired traditions that have no foundation in facts, but merely illusions that are set to keep up the power relations.

In my opinion, one of the great triumphs of The Kingkiller Chronicles is its conventional setting, which in the hands of the author, turns into quite something else than your average fantasy novel. Patrick Rothfuss shows that with great sensitivity and originality the tired cliché of a teenage boy with tragic childhood and special skills can surpass its predecessors and become a thought-provoking, entertaining and a heartfelt story, that manages to tap into very important points about how racism and sexism are fuelled by preconceptions and the inability to see people as people – equal on all levels.