Pat Rothfuss has become a pretty major name in the fantasy world in the past few years. And for good reason. The dude obviously knows his genre and he takes his writing pretty seriously. Like, more revisions than years I’ve lived, and I’ve lived for 24 years. Even if you don’t like Rothfuss’s books, I think you’d be hard-pressed to make the claim that they aren’t at least thoughtfully and intentionally crafted novels. Currently, he has the first two books (of three) out: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. I’ve now read both books twice, and what I want to figure out here is why my feelings toward them have moved from “OMGILOVETHESEBOOKS” to “Well, they’re alright in some ways.” Here we go.
The Kingkiller Chronicle follows the story of Kvothe, a boy orphaned at a young age by evil, ancient forces called the Chandrian. Kvothe spends the next several years of his life training and learning everything he can, including magic, in order to avenge the deaths of his parents. On his way, he lives the poor life, attends the University, learns the truth about dragons, kicks ass at playing lute, and is overall pretty much awesome. Yep, I think that about covers it.
Let’s start with the good stuff, which, to be fair, is really good. Rothfuss, in a genre where good worldbuilding is pretty standard, is a shining star among pretty boring, mostly non-shiny stars. Maybe best in his worldbuilding repertoire is Rothfuss’s ability to create cultures. He’s not only created several currency systems, but there are important, interesting cultural differences between the peoples of his world. Kvothe has friends from different parts of the world, and he, along with the reader, is continually running into major cultural distinctions that not only distinguish one character from another but also give the reader a sense of how carefully created the peoples of this world are in addition to the world itself. The Four Corners, the world of the Kingkiller Chronicle, is built from the ground up, and Rothfuss has done the work necessary to give his readers a story environment that is clearly bigger than the narrative of his novels. What I mean is, one gets the distinct impression that there are plenty of other things going on in this world apart from the main narrative of the story, which is pretty neat. Kvothe’s narrative is cool, but it doesn’t define Rothfuss’s world in the way that so many fantasy narratives do their worlds.
In addition to this, Rothfuss does the trappings of the genre especially well, which is to say that all of the neat, nifty stuff within fantasy–the magic, the lore, the creatures, the supernatural–is put to use by an author who is clearly someone absolutely well read within the fantasy genre. The magic system of the Kingkiller Chronicle is especially cool, and it’s done in a way that approaches a logical, sensical base. And the best part about it is that it only approaches that. One way that, at least for me, authors can ruin a magical system is to make it entirely logical; magic seems to be something that works best when it has at least a shade of unknowability to it, because without that, it’s pretty much science. Anyway, that’s all to say that Rothfuss knows his stuff and has constructed a fantastic magic system.
So, for the bad: I really like everything about this story except the main character, Kvothe. He’s presented as this awesome, super intuitive, wicked smart, extra talented dude, and hey, I like people that fantastic. But the problem is this: Kvothe is that way from the start of the story. He goes to a school where he starts out smarter/more talented than pretty much everyone there, he plays in a tavern-esque sort of place with a bunch of professional musicians and is better than just about all of them (and the list goes on), and this is all at the age of, what, 15? 16? And, ok, sure, it might be alright if Kovthe had some interior development to offset his exterior stagnation, but he doesn’t. Now, you can have a fantastically created world, but if the protagonist, the dude who is supposedly motivating both this story and my reading of it, shows no development (which is different than progression–Kvothe does goes from awesome to slightly more awesome in several ways), the narrative comes off as relatively weak. To sum up, character development, at least where it counts, is a thing of legend in these books. And because of that, Kvothe kind of comes off as a dick. I mean, I want to like him, but I end up liking him in the same way that I like awful things, which is to say not at all.
Now, I would imagine there is the possibility that Rothfuss’s overall project here is one where he’s interrogating the reliability of fantasy narrators (the reason the story is told in the first person is because the current Kvothe is telling his life story), but if that’s the case, he’s doing an absolutely unbelievable job of covering his trail.
At the end of the day, I like these books. They have some really enjoyable moments, some neat secondary characters, and a cool backdrop. But it’s tough getting around Kvothe’s general maintained, unchanging perfection. I give the Kingkiller Chronicle (at least the first 2/3rds of it) three out of five pieces of lasagna. Well, maybe four. Nah, three.