once upon a time

butterflies and tree“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

Lately I finished reading both The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear, Books 1 and 2 of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles.  Perhaps it is not fair to review a trilogy when only two thirds of it is published and many of the other reviews I’ve read have griped about the fact that we don’t get all the answers.  It is true that after 1600+ pages, there remain all sorts of mysteries surrounding Kvothe and his adventures and any number of loose ends and tangents fluttering about that appear to have no real bearing on the narrative.  But such grousing seems premature.  The author will need something to talk about in the third book, which at this rate will probably weigh in (no pun intended) at 1500 pages or more (yay for e-readers!).  He does have a lot to wrap up, although odds are this trilogy will serve only as an introduction to the ongoing travels of Kvothe The Whatever He Ends Up Being When All Is Said And Done.  For now though, we have these two hefty novels and a story that is alternately a ripping good yarn and a tedious exposition of Kvothe’s day to day trials and tribulations.  I’m writing about it now because I find the series oddly intriguing, as much for the story itself as for what I suspect is going on behind the scenes.

(BIG FRAKKIN’ WARNING HERE:  SPOILERS AND LOTS OF THEM.  IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS AND PLAN TO…STOP HERE.  OR NOT.  I DON’T CARE.  YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.)

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Our Story Thus Far, in a nutshell:  Twelve year old Kvothe lives with his family in a caravan of traveling performers.  The family picks up an arcanist along the way and Kvothe finds he has a native facility for magic.  Then his entire troupe is murdered by mysterious demons known as the Chandrian; he is the only survivor.  He travels alone for awhile, lives hand to mouth in a nasty port town, and eventually makes his way to the University.  On the way he meets Denna, a pretty but mysterious young woman on her way somewhere else.  At University Kvothe impresses the Maesters enough that they pay him to attend for his first semester and study magic.  There follows much distress over money, sporadic and highly suspicious reappearances by Denna, some sparring with fellow students and teachers, more money troubles, some musical interludes, a fight with a dragon, and then more money troubles.  Kvothe has a fair amount of success at school and as a musician but eventually gets into some trouble and has to leave town for awhile.  He heads off to the court of Maer Alveron in another part of the world, where he saves the Maer’s life, woos a wife for him, kills off some bandits that were preying on the local tax collectors, befriends some mercenaries, solves  his money problems, and then wanders into the realm of the Fae and the arms of Felurian where he spends several blissful months having sex with her and running around naked.  After that, he studies T’ai Chi for awhile with one of his mercenary friends, kills a bunch of people, and returns to the University where he resumes both his studies and his search for the Chandrian.  Denna shows up and Kvothe finally blurts out that he loves her and she rabbits off.  Again.  The whole tale is narrated by Kvothe, in his guise as innkeeper Kote, to his student Bast and his guest Chronicler.  By the end of Fear about four years have passed in Kvothe’s life and two days have passed in the inn.

Are the books any good?  That is actually a hard question to answer.  They’ve certainly received any number of positive reviews, many along the lines of “ZOMG, BEST BOOK EVAR!!1!!11!!, and quite the little cottage industry of fan sites exist.  I would say that as fantasy novels go, they suck less, basically.  These books are nowhere near as gritty and bloody as the Song of Ice and Fire books and are somewhat less challenging but this is not a criticism (and I do wish people, including me, would stop comparing them).  They are intermittently hard to put down and despite their size they are a quick read.  They can be very frustrating but I have found after reading them that I think about them a lot.  This is because I cannot decide if the books are reasonably brilliant or a heaping helping of crap.

One of the most difficult things to get past is the writing itself.  As much as I hate to criticize someone who does something I can never do (eh, who am I kidding…) I’m not the only one who has noticed that Rothfuss applies an enormous amount of ink to a minimum of plot development.  At the beginning of Name Kvothe insists on taking three days to tell his story but by the end of Fear (Day 2) he’s encompassed all of maybe four years of Kvothe’s young life and although a fair bit has happened not much has changed.  He’s still at the University and still bickering with the Maesters.  He’s still chasing Denna.  He’s still pissing about with his feud with Ambrose.   About the only things to have substantially changed are that he is now a “man of the world” (wink wink nudge nudge) as well as a cold-blooded killer, and his money problems have been decisively resolved.  Thank god for that last bit, BTW, since it means I won’t have to read any more about Kvothe’s financial woes.

Don’t misunderstand me, some things I liked a great deal.  I don’t read a lot of fantasy because I find most of it silly and Rothfuss avoids precisely those things about the genre that make me get all stabby.   The world of Four Corners is much like our world, peopled mostly by humans with a smattering of more unusual things cropping up here and there.  There are demons and the Fae, this is true, but so far these lend the right touch of fantasy rather than being overbearing.  The magic system is unusual and in my opinion cleverly developed.  Even better, it melds mostly seamlessly into the world.  We learn about the various types of magic as Kvothe does and we also come to learn that magic isn’t always the best answer.  Sometimes it fails, there are costs and consequences, and it definitely matters who wields it.  Our Hero has a bad habit of using it as a parlor trick but occasionally he manages something spectacularly clever and useful.  There is also a minimum of fantastical creatures and those that exist turn out to be sort of quotidian.  Dragons, for instance, are basically fire-breathing vegetarian lizards of unusual size.  The few demons we’ve seen (the scrael, the skin dancers) are creepy enough but it is odd how blasé everyone is about them.  The Chandrian are also a mystery but since the entire world conspires to hide everything it knows about them this is not surprising.  I rather like the air of mystery and legend about them and their enemies the Amyr.  The jury is still out on the Fae.  Bast is an enigma; I honestly have no idea why he hangs out with Kvothe but his cover story of studying with him is just that.  The whole side quest with Felurian borders on the ridiculous but is salvaged to some degree by interludes of lyric poetry and graceful imagery.  I am in general mostly content with the world and its people and I like the way Rothfuss sprinkles colloquialisms, foreign words, and slang into the dialog without bothering to explain it, so that conversation feels authentic.  (Note that he occasionally fails at this dramatically.)

Characters in the books are hit and miss.  My favorites among the supporting cast are Devi, the money lender in Imre who was tossed out of the University primarily because she was better at magic than any of her teachers, and Maer Alveron, the scion of a formerly ruling family who still retains a great deal of his royal prerogatives and the snooty attitude to go along with them.  He manages to be both an engaging charmer and a callous snob at the same time and he’s one of the few characters in the book that doesn’t feel culled from the Big Book O’ Stock Characters.  Most of the characters are not terribly unique.  There is a spoiled rich kid bully.  There is the dangerously absent-minded professor, the small-minded academic prig, the cold and austere keeper of the Archives.  There are any number of pretty girls who exist primarily to be pretty girls.  There is the mysterious waif who lives in the tunnels below the University and the addled troll who lives in the Archives, both of whom are fonts of arcane wisdom.  There is the gay couple that keeps the best music house in town.  There are the saintly Edema Ruh, Kvothe’s tribe, and Kvothe’s own star-crossed parents.  There is the mysterious courtier that Kvothe games with in Vintas and the poverty stricken saint who cares for abandoned children in Tarbean.   There’s Kvothe’s little band of mercenaries which consists of an archer, a thug, a female thug, and a ninja.  There is the magic and beautiful Felurian, who despite her reputation comes across as a ditzy blonde.

And then there is Denna.  Rothfuss cannot write about romantic relationships to save his life and this is nowhere more obvious than when Kvothe’s true love makes an appearance.  It is probably not a good idea to have your hero’s love interest be so unlikeable but there it is.  Kvothe is smitten with her and I can’t figure out why.  She’s a “professional companion” (*snicker*), she toys with Kvothe’s emotions and abuses his affection for her, she disappears randomly and returns just as inexplicably, she flaunts other men in front of him (including Ambrose), she flirts and withdraws and generally plays the tease, and she has serious commitment issues.  She is also probably involved up to her eyeballs with Kvothe’s worst enemies.  Rothfuss struggles to convince us that she’s worth all this but he fails.  Every time she is on the page the story turns to sludge.

In general realistic male/female relationships are in short supply, all the way from Kvothe’s perfect parents, to his dalliance with Felurian and subsequent trysts with any woman who looks at him twice, right up to the utterly unappealing Denna.  Every single romantic interaction in this book sounds like it was written by someone whose entire knowledge of love comes from, well, fantasy novels.  Is this unfair?  Probably, but when you have an author who has his young hero’s deflowering managed by a surreally beautiful and otherworldly woman who is infamous for driving men to madness and death and he not only survives but becomes her equal in the arts of passion, you kind of have to wonder.  The kid is sixteen (maybe fifteen), he can barely say two words together in the presence of the girl he loves, and we are to believe that he keeps Felurian deliriously happy for months?  This, by the way, is after he successfully woos a beautiful noblewoman with prose, song, and even poetry on behalf of his pseudo-royal, sort-of patron.   Yeah, right.  Women in general in the book are not terribly convincing characters.

What of Our Young Hero himself?  Well, he’s kind of intriguing.  Most of Kvothe’s problems stem from his precocious talent, his loss of his family, his inexperience with settled society, and his youth.  In many respects he is a remarkable young man.  He’s smart, he’s musically talented, he has wit and some charm, and he’s rather a natural at magic.  He’s only barely likeable but there’s no rule anywhere that says your protagonist has to be a nice guy.  He’s not honest as a rule.  He is temperamental and overconfident.   He has some anger management issues.  He is unabashedly selfish.   He’s also a quitter.  When things come easily to him he excels at them.  Because he is natively good at several flashy and impressive things he gets a great deal of respect and no small amount of hate.  However, when things don’t come so easily he gives up.  He abandons his studies with the Adem without even passing the first trial fight.  He gives up Denna repeatedly.  He has trouble with math and chemistry and quits both.  He’s constantly ready to run away if it looks like events might head even slightly south.  His entire existence as an innkeeper in Nowhere is an attempt to avoid facing his life.   It is also true that aside from his magic tricks Kvothe is not terribly competent.  He cannot “call the name of the wind” with any degree of reliability.  He has deep trust issues and sucks at most human relationships.  He has a temper and is petty and routinely makes things far worse for himself because he cannot resist taking jabs at people who can squash him like a bug.

So then he is essentially a troubled hero, one with the sort of character flaws that you would expect him to mature out of as he grows into the man he is meant to be.  Pretty standard hero arc, actually.  Then out of nowhere he murders nine people in cold blood.   This takes him entirely out of the realm of flawed hero and puts him squarely into WTF territory.   It is not that they were innocents; they were certainly kidnappers and rapists (but the worse crime seems to be that they slandered the Edema Ruh).   It’s how he goes about it.  Kvothe first poisons them to make them sluggish and then mercilessly hunts them down one by one and kills them.  And he leaves one of them alive but mortally wounded so that he will die slowly and in agony.  He appears untroubled by remorse and is mostly concerned with how people will tell the inevitable tale.  It is distinctly weird that shortly after this he is back at the University griping about the Maesters and mooning after Denna.

The books are chock full o’ hints and clues and signposts, some subtle, some quite blatant, some contradictory.  Denna appears to have some connection with the Chandrian.  Her mysterious patron, who Kvothe nicknames Master Ash, is probably Cinder.  She is the sole survivor of a wedding massacre perpetrated by the Chandrian.  She takes up the harp (lyre, get it?) on the advice of her patron and composes a song about Lanre/Haliax that portrays him as a tragic hero (which upsets Kvothe no end).  Her habit of suddenly showing up wherever Kvothe is cannot be an accident and at one point she actually blurts out to Kvothe that it is her job to watch him.  Hell, she might actually be Chandrian.  Meluan Lackless, the woman Kvothe woos for the Maer, is probably Kvothe’s aunt.  She looks familiar but he can’t place her.  Her sister ran away with the Edema Ruh and we know Kvothe’s mother was a noblewoman who eloped with his father.  This might make Kvothe the true heir to the Lackless family heirlooms, which are a lockless box and a lockless door, both foreshadowed by the mysterious box in Kote’s room and the mysterious door in the Archives.

The author clearly enjoys playing with names.  In a weird bit of conversation Kvothe actually tells someone how to say his name (when was the last time you did that  as opposed to just saying your name?) and it turns out is pronounced like “quothe”  (as in, “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.'”).  There is all sorts of fun with the Lackless family name: Lackless, Luckless, Locloes, Lockless, Lackey, Loechees (yes, Chronicler is probably descended from the family).  The Eolian is named after a lyre (really, get it?) that is played by the wind.  Kvothe accidentally names Auri after the sun and this intrigues Elodin so much he takes him on as a student.  Rothfuss is so taken with his little jest at Ambrose Jackis that Kvothe writes a satirical song about him called “Jackass, Jackass” so that we don’t miss it.  Elodin is alarmed when he hears how often Denna changes her  name, believing she changed her real name.  Nearly all of Denna’s alternate identities sound similar to denner, a  highly addictive substance.  Once you start thinking of her as a drug Kvothe’s fascination with her makes much more sense.  Kvothe’s alias means “disaster” and he points out he chose this deliberately.  And of course there is the use of names to control things: the wind, iron, even Felurian (and I wonder about the Cthaeh…).

Numbers also crop up a lot, three and seven in particular.  There are three books, three days to tell the story, the “silence of three parts”, three years spent in Tarbean, the three days and nights of the battle of Drossen Tor, Bast’s assertion that he owns Chronicler three ways, three locks on Kvothe’s chest, the phrase “I’ve told you three times”, Kvothe’s Adem name meaning three things, by the end of Fear Kvothe has called the wind three times.   There are seven Chandrian, seven things before the lockless door, seven numbered days in the week, seven days of mourning, seven lucky talents, seven named countries on the map, seven old cities which Lanre destroyed, expect disaster every seven years, seven words to make a woman love you.  I don’t know what any of this means but the books are crammed with this stuff.   Identifying them and speculating on their meaning has become a bit of a parlor game on the internet.

This right here is why I find these books fascinating.  I suppose this is because I really do suspect that there is something going on that is not immediately obvious.  Consider the effort that the author puts into telling us that Kvothe is a liar.  Rothfuss is not even remotely subtle about this.  He makes it clear that Kvothe is unreliable  and Kvothe’s background in story telling and the theater are used several times to propel Kvothe further into the realm of myth.  Since Kvothe occasionally takes pains to spread misinformation about himself we cannot be certain which parts of his story are strictly the truth.   So what do we know?  We know this is a story about magic and in our world most magic is sleight of hand.  What are we being misdirected away from?   The author makes repeated efforts to draw our attention to the actual telling of the story.  Kvothe deliberately tells lies about himself.  He tells stories about his escapades, stories he knows will be spread and elaborated upon and distorted.  He admits this and he is quite put out when someone (Chronicler, Denna) tries to take control of a story from him.  Chronicler’s entire job so far in the book is to put Kvothe’s story on paper, Bast goes on endlessly about stories and their meaning, and one of the locals actually chastises Kote for being a poor storyteller.  At the same time we are told that all stories are masks, all stories are to some extent untrue.  Are we being told in so many words that we can’t trust anything Kvothe tells us?

I think when all is said and done my own personal jury is still out on this series.  Are the individual books awesome?  Not really.  The writing is too amateurish too often for that to be the case.  Also, there is something to be said for books in a trilogy standing on their own as stories and these fall somewhere short of that mark.   On the other hand they succeed mightily in other respects.  Not many books keep me thinking about them long after I’ve closed the covers and shelved them.  Not many invite re-reading like these do (and this despite the long boring bits).  Not many leave me with so many questions that I can’t wait to find out what happens.  Ultimately, there is so much going on, so much potential, that it is literally impossible to know without the third book in hand whether the series fails or succeeds.   Either way, the potential is spectacular.   If Rothfuss is able to weave compelling magic out of all the threads in the first two books then The Kingkiller Chronicles will rightly figure prominently in any list of fantasy masterworks.  If not, well…I like a train wreck as much as the  next person, so…win, win, basically.

“Don’t believe everything you hear in stories.”

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on June 5, 2012.

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