“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
Having grown tired of fruitlessly re-reading of that fantasy series that hasn’t seen a new book in nearly 6 years, I decided it was long overdue to start on something else. Unfortunately, the series I chose was Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles, the final piece of which, The Doors of Stone, appears to be hidden away in a thrice-locked chest of its own. Fortunately, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are pretty damn solid books (quite literally; either of them would make an effective doorstop) and both deserve to be re-read at some point in the future.
SPOILERS follow for The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I have not read The Slow Regard of Silent Things yet, and as such will not be commenting on it.
“The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss, 2007, 662 pages
“The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss, 2011, 994 pages
On the most basic level, The Kingkiller Chronicle is the story of Kvothe, pronounced like “quothe”, a semi-mythical figure in the lore of the world of Temerant, the civilized, vaguely Western Europe-esque land where this story is set. However, we open with the narrator’s overview of Kote, who at first seems to be some random man who owns an inn in some random village, but… unsurprisingly… is in fact Kvothe, presumably seeking quiet retirement and/or refuge from those who mean to kill him. When Chronicler, a travelling… um, chronicler… turns up at the Waystone Inn after a bad encounter with a scrael (some sort of mechanical spider-demon thing) and one thing leads to another, and pretty soon Chronicler manages to convince Kvothe to tell him his life story. Kote’s assistant, Bast, has an interest in this too, as he wants to see his master return to the old ways of life rather than continuing his existence as some lonely, sad innkeeper.
The story is told mostly from Kvothe’s point-of-view, as his memoir, though it jumps back to Kote, Bast and Chronicler in the present for brief interludes. It seemed to me that these interludes were less frequent during the course of The Wise Man’s Fear than they were during The Name of the Wind, something which I was thankful for as they were almost exclusively my least favourite parts of the books. That being said, I do appreciate the way in which Rothfuss teases us with the answers to certain mysteries, and entices us with answers to mysteries we haven’t even encountered yet. One of these mysteries is Kote himself; we never see inside his head, as these sections adopt a third-person narrator instead.
Arguably the persona of Kote is a more interesting character than Kvothe for precisely that reason. While Kvothe is definitely more than sufficient as a fantasy protagonist, full of fascinating quirks, there is a bluntness to his character and a lack of Kote’s mystery – we know exactly what we are getting with Kvothe, and there is no doubt that he will survive to tell his tale, whereas Kote’s story is murkier – not only his past, but his future too. It will be interesting to see how The Doors of Stone bridges the gap between Kvothe and Kote, and how it explains things such as the fact that “there [is] no music” in the Waystone Inn.
Kvothe is a strange blend of epic hero and tragic hero. He has experienced great losses and the evil of the world at an early age, and his past is filled with sorrow and a childlike longing for the world to right itself again, yet he is also a brilliant academic, a magician and a musician, blessed with gifts of memory and deftness and a rash bravery that often manifests itself as arrogance. And for the most part, Kvothe is a likeable protagonist… up until around midway through The Wise Man’s Fear, where he completes several feats of legendary greatness in a very short period of time and becomes something of an epic figure in himself. And this is where I started to dislike Kvothe, as he had become less of a flawed hero, and more of an overpowered character who could do no wrong and whose actions bordered on overt wish-fulfilment. The second half of The Wise Man’s Fear is especially notable for this, and we did lose the sense of Kvothe as a plucky underdog, as he was throughout most of The Name of the Wind. But perhaps that is part of Kvothe’s complexity: he is a character we should like for his (mostly) valiant actions and heroic qualities, yet we as humans are inclined to dislike someone who is so fantastically… well, perfect. Is The Kingkiller Chronicles this a scathing commentary on human jealousy, then? I don’t think so. I think Patrick Rothfuss set out to write a story about a fantastical character in a fantastical world and possibly made his hero slightly too overpowered.
The Kingkiller Chronicle has no shortage of good secondary characters… unfortunately, they are just that: good. None of them are ‘on-screen’ for quite long enough for us to delve as deep into their personalities as we did into Kvothe’s. While Denna, Lorren, Devi, Simmon and the others definitely have some depth to them, there’s not quite enough to make us want to fully explore them. With the exception of Denna, Kvothe never quite develops a relationship with them that is meaningful enough to warrant proper contemplation of their characters. It’s odd, really. They’re all very good, but none of them are quite great.
The plot on a whole is… weirdly disappointing and anticlimactic, in places. The battle with the draccus at the end of The Name of the Wind is pretty good, but that’s all I can say for it, and it is barely satisfying as the novel’s conclusive battle. Rothfuss’s main failing in The Wise Man’s Fear was that the many interconnected plot arcs felt insufficient. We were just going on a journey with Kvothe, but the journey had no destination, and no culmination of events, only a weird, discordant anticlimax. That being said, Rothfuss is strong enough as a writer to entice us to keep reading where a lesser author might have failed.
Rothfuss’s prose is clean and functional, which is more than can be said for many fantasy writers, not overly ostentatious or intimidating, but still rife with imagery that is mysterious or unsettling or dreamlike when it needs to be. While he does not waste words, he does linger with certain plotlines considerably longer than is necessary. There is only so much time we can spend at the University and learning the ways of the Ademre without growing bored. Doubtless some of Rothfuss’s seemingly more random anecdotes will take on considerable importance in the sequel, but he needs to find a way to ground the narrative without taking us on unnecessary journeys through the Archives that almost exclusively conclude with fraying loose ends. This problem is most apparent in The Wise Man’s Fear, where many elements of Kvothe’s journey go on far too long to hold the reader’s interest. I am sure that this book would have been more enjoyable if it had been about 50 pages shorter, and the worldbuilding would not have suffered hugely from it.
The worldbuilding itself varies from very strong to decidedly average, depending on the aspect. It is easiest to start by saying that Rothfuss’s weakness is with the geography; sometimes it seems that the world is built to accommodate Kvothe’s story, and solely for that. It is rare that we get the sense of things happening in distant and faraway kingdoms unless they relate directly to the main story. Though with so much story to write, one could argue that Rothfuss did not have the time to include this.
Now on to the strengths of the worldbuilding:
Rothfuss’s presentation of various cultures – the Ademre, the Cealdish, the Edema Ruh – is very strong, and he finds ample time to explore their traditions and beliefs without being too expositional. The system of sympathy is one of the cleverest and most fascinating explorations of magic that I’ve ever seen in a fantasy, blending traditional “magic school” tropes and cold hard science and intellectualism. But the most exceptional part of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s worldbuilding is in its use of music. Rothfuss presents music and lyrics and its effect on characters in a way that is pretty much unrivalled in the fantasy genre. Music is the real magic in The Kingkiller Chronicle. This is when Rothfuss’s writing is at its strongest – prose that borders on poetry and flows like music, coupled with the first-person narrator’s critical evaluation of that music. Kvothe may see one thing in a set of lyrics; we as readers may see something very different, which only alerts us to how different Kvothe’s soul is to our own. After all, our protagonist is, at heart, a trouper and a performer (as he reminds us with almost irritating frequency throughout the novels). And despite the fact that he spends many terms at the University trying to decipher the mysteries of physics and medicine and sympathy, we know that Kvothe’s ultimate dream is to understand human emotion, and empathy, on all levels.
That, then, is possibly the purpose of Kvothe’s visit to the stony-faced Ademre; he wants to see how empathy is expressed in a culture where emotion takes on a depth and subtlety that the muscles of the face alone cannot express. It is also the reason for his pursuit of Denna; she is an enigma to him, not only because of the possibly unsolvable mystery of who she is and what she wants, but also because of the contrasting and strange emotions that Kvothe himself feels for her.
The Kingkiller Chronicle is a fantasy story driven by character rather than plot. It is a bold move, and one that mostly pays off, but it leaves us lacking when it comes to an overarching story. It seems likely that many of the secrets ahead – such as what lies within the Loeclos Box, who the king is that Kvothe must kill, and what lies behind the four-plate door – are less important than Kvothe’s own personal revelations on the road ahead. I am afraid to say that such an unconventional resolution may cause readers to view The Doors of Stone as a disappointment in terms of resolving the series’ loose plot threads, at least on the first reading. But I will reserve judgement until that time.
Rothfuss has set himself a task to rival Kvothe’s, that of understanding the complete spectrum of human emotion through the medium of a fantasy story. But such a task is impossible, and thus it seems that parts of The Kingkiller Chronicle are doomed to fail – like its sad, lonely protagonist, hiding away from music and people, alone with only the “patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”