An unlikely pair

unlikely pair
I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.

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.