How do I celebrate thee? Let me count the ways.
Storytelling forms the backbone of Patrick Rothfuss’ acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicle. The bulk of the narrative is, quite literally, a tale narrated by its protagonist to a scribe (or, to use his given name, Chronicler). Within this narrative are embedded a multitude of stories, told by professional storytellers, by laymen and women, sung in verses by travelling bards and troupers. The leading character and narrator, Kvothe, is himself a hero out of story, whose reputation is steadily bulked up through his life by the tales others have told of his feats. It is not often that you find a hero who responds to these stories by creating one of his own.
The premise of the series (there are two so far: The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear) is pretty much that of any other epic fantasy. The world is going mad, even the farthest corners of it (largely populated by sheep and goodhearted, thick headed farmers) are being intruded upon by demons and men with less-than-noble intentions. Something big is going on in the busy world outside, but in this village, the usual gang continues to meet at the Waystone Inn, drink their ale and tell stories, served by the quiet innkeeper with the ‘true flame’ red hair. The innkeeper is the legendary Kvothe, Kingkiller, University-trained ‘Arcane’, dragonslayer, now hidden away in a humble guise. Why? That, my readers, is what we are supposed to find out.
And that’s just where the uniqueness of Rothfuss’ rendering begins.
I think that, with the surge in fantasy publishing and movie-making, writing good, original books/movies/plays in this genre is getting increasingly difficult. Everyone seems to follow a pattern (read: prophesied hero found in poor, often neglected orphan boy who overcomes obstacles and defeats evil dark lord), recreating, however loosely, the Hero’s Journey recognized by Joseph Campbell. This is largely because mainstream Western fantasy relies heavily on myth for its structure (and aspires to the same universal level, as laid down by Tolkien), so there’s not much room for basic plot reconstruction. Books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are very rare. Your success at storytelling is largely based on how well you can create your world and whether you engage your readers’ attention well enough for them to forgive and forget that they have heard this story a hundred times before.
Rothfuss, though he begins with a familiar premise, destroys all notions of ‘copycat’ shortly into the first book (The Name of the Wind). In this review, I will proceed to lay out five major plot points/character constructions that make him different from other fantasy authors I have read, five reasons why you should, if you are a jaded fantasy fan, pick him up. If you are not a particularly jaded/experienced reader, you should pick him up anyway.
#1: Kvothe is not your run of the mill hero
Okay, this is a huge point, and one that almost completely made the books for me. Kvothe is not, wait for it, a prophesied hero. He has not been hailed with cryptic words, not been designated a saviour, not been forced onto a path that will lead, eventually, to the slaying of an evil foe. He doesn’t seem born to fulfil any particular ‘purpose’, though he has talents and skills that certainly appear beyond the ordinary. The quest that he sets himself seems driven purely by personal desire, with absolutely no relevance to the people around him. In fact, most of those around him don’t even know of this self-appointed mission.
And can I just say how relieving it is to meet a fantasy protagonist who is aware of his strengths and plays to them? While I love the trope of the innocent, unsure hero who is humble and ignorant of his own potential, I do love the worldly-wise, sharp Kvothe as well. It’s so hard to pull off a brazen, intelligent character who doesn’t piss off his readers, but somehow, Rothfuss manages. His tone communicates clearly the distinction between the more hardened, experienced voice of Kote the innkeeper, and the younger tone of Kvothe the student and wanderer.
In all, Kvothe is a breath of fresh air, different from the other fantasy heroes one tends to come across. It’s hard not to love him.
If Rothfuss does well with Kvothe, he outdoes himself with Denna. As the love interest and main female character (there are a number of female characters, none stereotypes), I feared for a moment that she might suffer the fate assigned to most of her breed- be reduced to nothing more than a romantic outlet for the hero’s passion or assigned the damsel in distress role. Denna, much like Egwene, defeated my gloomy expectations. She is literally as described by one of the characters, a ‘shower of sparks from a whetsone’, a spate of blazing light that throws into shadow everything around her. She is feisty, intelligent and so damn independent that you want to cry in relief that yes! Here is a fantasy heroine you can love, you can admire a la Katniss Everdeen. Here is a woman who enters the story as a love interest but is SO MUCH MORE. I love Denna, and I think that I would continue to read this series even if Kvothe sucked, only because I love her so damn much.
#3 The Stories
And there are a fair few of them. Rothfuss weaves beautiful tales, building a mythology for his world. Like in most fantasy novels, characters describe the wonders of a bygone era, one that possessed arts and ‘magics’ that the current one has lost. Besides these token tales of a mysterious past (which will no doubt prove important in the final book), there are a number of shorter, less grandiose stories in the books: folk tales, fairy tales, told by common men and women to pass the time around a fire. I’m going to go all lit-student here and comment on how Rothfuss uses the device of the storyteller not only to frame his narrative, but also to reflect on heroism in general. What is Kvothe but the stories people tell of him? What happens when those stories are done, where does he rest in between? The Kingkiller Chronicle is that rare thing: a story performing itself, showing us what a hero does after he has walked off into the sunset. It’s a bold narrative choice, but one that Rothfuss is executing wonderfully.
Anyone who ever wanted more of pure Hogwarts goodness, the rivalries between its students, it Houses, its classes without the more dramatic story of Harry Potter; anyone who loved New Spring precisely because it showed us a Tower (however briefly) before the advent of the Dragon Days; anyone who loves the Citadel sections of A Dance with Dragons will warm to the large swathes of text that deal with Kvothe’s tenure at the University. Here you have long, detailed visits to the academic centre of ‘The Four Corners of Civilization’, a look at all the different classes Kvothe takes, the students he meets, the professors, even the exams (here they’re called ‘Admissions’). You have a hero trying to make it on a less than ideal student budget and working while he studies. No plush ticket to five star meals and four poster beds for him. Kvothe lives in a dorm for a while before making his way to better off-campus housing.
I think Rothfuss has time and little urgency in the University chapters precisely because (as referred to above) Kvothe’s ‘quest’ is not one that involves the rest of the world. His friends are not prepping him for an inevitable showdown, nor does all of civilization appear to be moving towards a confrontation. Because of this, life goes on at its usual pace, and we, as readers, are allowed to see the world as it exists well before chaos and confusion (and the drums of war) seeps in.
#5 The Fae
The Fae in Rothfuss’ world greatly resemble the ancient, dangerous Fair Folk of old Irish tales, the People recreated in books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. They are, quite literally, fey, not human in aspect, expression, voice or (most chillingly) laughter. Their paths do not often cross the human world’s, and their customs and societies seem as varied, if not more so, than that of their more mundane neighbours. Rothfuss, though he does not engage in a detailed exploration of this realm (not yet, at least) offers enough tantalizing glimpses to make the reader yearn for more. His writing in these parts acquires an almost poetic bent (you’ll see what I mean), communicating thereby the almost transcendent beauty and ungraspability of these beings. They are not here to help or hinder, particularly. What they do is to remind us of how very large and varied Rothfuss’ world is; how, even two books in, we are not entirely done with exploring it.
Though I have recorded quibbles with his writing, I have to admit that he has the ability to weave an original, arresting story. Get yourself a copy of his book and trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I myself can’t wait for the next.