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The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss
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The Lightning Tree is a companion novella to Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles. Listed as Book 2.4 of the series and included originally in Rogues, a fantastical short fiction collection compiled and edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner R. Dozois, The Lightning Tree is a prequel of sorts. The novella sets its eye upon the shape and flux of an average day for Bast, the assistant at the Wayside Inn. Taking place prior to Chronicler's arrival at the inn, Bast's day is steeped in the twilit intrigue that lays thick around his person in the first two novels.

I'm fairly new to The Kingkiller Chronicles and just finished reading The Wise Man's Fear late last night. My thoughts have been decanting since and I wasn't quite ready to step back from that twilit intrigue so picking up this short story was doubly compelling. I've really enjoyed Rothfuss' style overall and was easily sucked into his Four Corners from the start. Some of this is personal preference - I'm always ready to set off walking into a fantasy world coated in atmosphere and adventure. Some of it is that, through both novels and now this short story, Rothfuss has managed to fan a flame; something is broiling and spitting up under the surface of the Wayside and a snapping spark is looming as more of Kvothe's story is revealed. I've enjoyed guessing at both immensely.

Enjoyed it enough that I've started on the novella that follows The Lightning Tree, The Slow Regard of Silent Things. While I'm aware that gobbling this next story up will only serve to entrench me with other readers who eagerly await Rothfuss' third Kingkiller novel, I can't claim much interest in sparing myself. The fangirls go marching one by one. Hurrah! Hurrah! Especially as Slow Regard delves into Auri, another amalgamated supporting yet integral character of the series that I find fascinating. I think this is a major pull for this series. That Rothfuss writes so many layers into his supporting characters and they don't feel hinged on narrow tropes that might flatten them. Bast is Fae, a student, a seducer, an answerer; he's flawed, young, and old. Each of these layers has been and continues to be interesting to explore.

The only drawback to this novella is spoilerish; before I mark spoiler tags I'll say that it concerns something Bast does during the day and it feels like a hairsplitting issue to me but one I'd like to address anyways. Some forewarning even if you have read this story: the following is long and it's something I'm just trying to figure out for myself. As such, it's not going to be edited or feel like my reviews usually feel. It's also nothing more than an opinion on a scene and I'm aware a lot of people may not agree with my opinion. I'd really love to hear other people's takes actually.

During Bast's day, he trades an answer to a child's problem for the location of where one of the prettiest girls in town bathes everyday. He also makes the child swear not to trade the information with anyone else and not to go watch the girl bathe himself as part of the deal. There's a small debate about whether she is actually the prettiest girl in town - common immaturity/up-selling from the child, down-selling from Bast. When Bast goes to bathe himself, he's aware that's he's being spied on by a few girls from town. Later on Bast makes good on his newfound information and sneaks over to where Emberlee will be bathing, puts flowers in the water upstream, and then climbs up a tree to wait on her. Once she arrives and some of the flowers have floated down to her, he stages a fall from his perch. Shocked, she scrambles from the river and wraps what she grabs first around herself. She approaches him, he smiles, and like a bad seventies porno minus the audio track, they have sex. As sex is implied so is the connection that Emberlee was one of the girls who were spying on Bast earlier.

This scene didn't sit right with me while I was reading the story but I really couldn't put my finger on it until some time had passed. I didn't have an issue with the sex; Bast has several partners throughout the day - despite the silly setups to the implied liaisons, two of the interludes and even the majority of the third are fun or interesting and seemed relative to his nature. I was momentarily put off when Bast realized he was being spied on but this faded as the reader is brought quickly into the knowledge that Bast is fully aware of their presence prior to him taking his clothes off to bathe. Emberlee, however, is not aware that Bast is spying on her. He makes his presence known after watching her for a few moments and she is obviously not expecting anyone.

This is where the split hairs come into play for me. This is a day in the life of Bast; his normal behavior throughout that day is implied aplenty but the reader is in the dark in other areas. There's just no way to incorporate some areas sufficiently in a story, much less a short story such as this. For all we know, Emberlee and the other girls routinely have liaisons during their baths just as they routinely spy on Bast. The split then becomes a rift between what we are able to know and what we aren't, a rift that is more about content then anything sexist or abusive. Most would disqualify this scene as abusive as Emberlee does end up having sex with Bast willingly. In fact it is largely this happening, this dynamic, that made it so hard for me to figure just what was bothering me about this scene in particular.

The flowers in the water, the eventual sex... they feel like the excusing bookends of a peeping tom's wet dream. I did something romantic for her, of course I get to take a peek - she owes me. She's bathing in the river, basically in public, it doesn't matter that I see her checking for anyone in the area before she takes her clothes off and starts to bathe - she's basically inviting me to watch her. There is nothing in the scene that indicates any difference between Bast's watching Emberlee without invitation and Bast's other interactions during the day but there is a difference, a very important one. With his other two partners there is consent from the start, with Emberlee there's a lapse. Regardless of the outcome, the lapse isn't okay. I feel that Rothfuss could have done a better job of this scene. Yes, this is a book that is of an era archetype - yes, this kind of action is believable of that era (of all eras, actually). However, this is a fantasy book... this is not historical fiction, it's not an alternative sketch of our world that relies on historically gendered behavior. Nothing in the story depends upon how this scene plays out and if consent was implied in this scene as it is in others in some way, there would be no split hairs hanging about the place for me.

This splitting of hairs also brings up a further layer to the issue: the morality of a character and whether this should dictate enjoyment of a story as a whole. Bast, as a character, is a (in the apparent perception of his behavior though we are made aware that this juxtaposes with who he actually is) young man who possesses an individual nature just like any other young male character would. I'm of the belief that Rothfuss' largest duty is to the nature of his character rather than the sensibilities of his audience - without that duty, real life would have no written representation. I don't need Bast to be a moral character, I don't need all of his decisions to be correct. I quite like Bast in this story and the story itself was easily a four star read for me as a companion novella to the series.

I think the best example I can come up with as a comparison to how I feel about this issue is the following. I've been reading/rereading a lot of classics recently and there are some authors that I really enjoy. One of these authors is Steinbeck. He was able to marry social commentary with his work to an impressive and important degree. He also uses the n-word in his books. This word is, in the works that I have read, always said by a character and is representative of how such a character would have talked and thought during that era. A white-washed character that was moral and that, as such, didn't talk and act like their historical counterparts might have been easier to digest but it wouldn't have been realistic. Still, I couldn't help that feeling of, "I know Steinbeck was intelligent, I wish he'd been more intelligent than this" from coming forth and weighing in on my enjoyment of the book. Later, logic won out and I felt that it was important for the characters to be realistic so that people can read them and learn from that ugly need to classify someone as someone beneath you, that need to hate or disregard someone based on the color of their skin (or any difference), learn from it so that we can change it.

But, I repeat, this is fantasy. Bast is not representative of historical canon and action. Had Rothfuss made us aware that Bast and Emberlee routinely met up and his actions were more about surprise than intrusion - nothing of the story would have been changed other than the flavor of this scene. With that simple twist, Rothfuss could have fleshed his world and his character in a way that was different enough to mean something. It's like that (paraphrased) saying, "rape jokes make the rapists in the room feel like their actions are normal and supported by everyone else in the room;" when I hear a rape joke or read a scene in which a character does something I wouldn't, does that mean I'm going to become a rapist or I'm going to automatically do something against my nature? No. But, just as not everyone will agree with my opinion of this scene, not everyone has the same ideas framed in the same psychology or experience as I do about how to treat and interact with other people. For someone who already believes it's perfectly okay to spy on someone (man or woman/boy or girl) in intimate situations without their consent, this reinforces that however. It does more than bolster it actually, it fetishizes it.

So while I enjoyed this read and I enjoy Bast, while I have no real need for Bast to be anything but what he is and there are plenty of unknowns surrounding this situation, while I will continue to read Rothfuss because I like the world that he has built up and I enjoy his style, there is a tinge of disappointment with this one scene. Out of personal preference and social consciousness more than anything concerning style or the sum of a character's parts.
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  lamotamant | Sep 24, 2016 |
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Bast almost made it out the back door of the Waystone Inn.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The Lightning Tree is a novella and one of the companion tales in the The Kingkiller Chronicle series by American author Patrick Rothfuss. The novella was first published in the anthology Rogues on June 17, 2014 by Bantam Spectra in the United States.

The narrative follows a day in the life of Bast, a supporting character in The Kingkiller Chronicle series. This day most likely takes place within a month of the first events of The Name of the Wind, the first book of the series.
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