This, Patrick Rothfuss’ first novel, came highly recommended to me by a couple of friends. General consensus seemed to be that here we had the next big thing in fantasy writers (certainly the encomiums on the back of the book did nothing to dispel this perception).
The story begins with the main character (Kvothe, rhymes with quothe) all washed up (he is in his mid twenties after all — practically an old man) and tending a bar in the middle of nowhere. He used to quite the big deal, however, so a fella who goes by the unassuming name of ‘the Chronicler’ seeks him out and manages to convince him to tell his side of the story (with a no-editorialising guarantee). This provides a (3rd person) framing narrative, which we occasionally flash back to. Events that occur in this narrative suggest that Rothfuss might not be quite done with this character once he’s done telling the story of his life so far.
Most of the novel, however, concerns the (1st person) recounting of Kvothe’s life. The story (within a story) begins with Kvothe being happily raised in a travelling actors’ troupe. Here, he is taught all kinds of clever things about acting and music by his parents, and all kinds of more general clever things (chemistry etc.) by the University-trained wiseman that accompanies them. These chapters were somewhat painful to read because they entailed being repeatedly bludgeoned by a large mallet bearing the words: ‘Kvothe is precocious! Kvothe is unbelievably intelligent! Kvothe has skills and talents bordering on the preternatural!’ Remember that these chapters are told in the 1st person, which did Kvothe no favours in trying to convince me that he’s not an enormous prick (replace ‘Kvothe is’ with ‘I am’ in the above mallet inscription, and you’ll see what I mean).
His dad is quite the skilled bard and is putting together a song about some ancient evil or other from the age of myth. Kvothe goes to find kindling one day and returns to find the entire troupe slain by that very ancient evil (apparently not as myth-bound as was thought…). Suitably distraught, he runs off to live the life of a gutter urchin for a few years in the local metropolis. Eventually becoming bored of this, he (recalling his ex-tutor) heads to the University.
Here, they use a rather odd system whereby your fees for a term are reduced according to your performance on an exam. Kvothe (who is practically penniless at this stage) wows them to such a degree that they actually pay him money to attend. A huge amount of the conflict from this point on in the novel consists of Kvothe worrying about where he’s going to get the money to pay the next term’s fees. As soon as he somehow manages to pay for one term, he’s immediately fretting over the next. Unfortunately, this kind of grindy bean-counting conflict is not the most exciting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, quasi-social-realist drama about how hard it is to make ends meet is not what draws me to fantasy books. His adventures while at University (coming up with ways to make money, getting a girlfriend, making friends and enemies, learning stuff [including magic], finding out about the ancient evil so he can get his vengeance on) take us to the end of the book.
The world in which the novel takes place is (so far) entirely white and uncritically feudal and conservative. It’s the kind of novel that Moorcock might refer to as Epic Pooh (though it’s not really epic) and that China Miéville would certainly turn his nose up at. The only misery in there is of a Dickensian sort (poor street children begging for bread), and, to be pernickety, I can’t imagine an educational system that is more vulnerable to class divisions. It’s ostensibly a purely meritocratic system, which seems to make sense until you recall the entrenched educational advantages that come with wealth. Further, it’s not even purely meritocratic as you simply have to pay more if you’re a dunce. Again, this favours the rich overwhelmingly. I’m not saying this kind of set up isn’t seen in fantasy universes all the time, but I am saying it’s a bit jarring after one becomes used to the socially conscious approaches of, for example, Miéville (and Moorcock, Pullman, and Stephenson).
Sigh. Okay, let’s imagine we’ve never encountered socially conscious fantasy writing and that we read fantasy purely for vicarious thrills and a dose of escapism (which does sound pretty reasonable actually). I’d still like quality writing, though…
The choice to use 1st person for the autobiographical parts and 3rd for the framing narrative dovetails nicely with the novel’s structure, but the problem is that I’m not convinced of the value of this structure in the first place. It seems a little gimmicky; more importantly, I found the 1st person voice to be quite off-putting at times. Writing in the 1st person is difficult to do naturally (spare a thought for Jeff Vandermeer who wrote a substantial chunk of Veniss Underground in the 2nd person), and I often found myself thinking: ‘who speaks like this?’ or ‘who refers to themselves in this way?’.
There are some rather lovely depictions of Kvothe’s (re)encounters with story-telling and music (I particularly liked the section [honestly] where he wins an X-factor style contest at the local inn). In a touching and fairly insightful manner, Rothfuss links these to the healing and recovery that gradually occur in the wake of encountering the slaughtered remains of his family. However, there is also some truly diabolical prose (at times approaching Bulwer-Lytton levels). Feast your eyes on this extract:
“You can tell a lot about a person by their feet. […] Some men come in here, smiling and laughing, shoes all clean and brushed, socks all powdered up. Those are the people that hide things. They’ve got bad smelling secrets and they try to hide ’em, just like they try to hide their feet. […] It never works out though. Only way to stop your feet from smelling is to let them air out a bit. Could be the same with secrets. I don’t know about that, though. I just know about shoes.”
In another unfortunate lapse, he decides to give one incidental (idiot countryfolk) character a pan-rustic accent. This is the only occasion in the book when he chooses to do this (despite, presumably, many characters in the book have distinct accents). I don’t know if he’s taking inspiration from what he perceives to be the Irish accent, or an English West-country accent, but I do know that it’s absolutely horrendous. I hope we see no more of this.
The magic system is relatively detailed. Sympathetic magic, basically as described by James Frazer, allows action at a distance between two metaphorically linked (by resemblance or synecdoche) objects. Rothfuss elaborates on this basic idea quite nicely. Another, more powerful and more rare, form of magic requires knowing the ‘name’ of things (like the wind), allowing you to control them directly. This one seems to have the nasty effect of rendering you insane.
However, while the magic system may be detailed, many of the characters of the novel are not. Kvothe has a few friends, but I have no idea which is which. One of them is (basically) German, with much of what that stereotypically entails, but apart from that they’re quite flat. Most of the female characters we encounter through the first half of the novel, too, are just beautiful cut-outs. There are later exceptions to this, including Kvothe’s true love, who isn’t quite physically perfect and who actually has a couple of interesting traits. I realise that not every character can be equally richly textured, but I felt there was room for better character development in a number of places.
I think this review was more negative than positive, and, indeed, I found myself disgusted at a number of points while reading it. That said though, it was a pretty good source of vicarious thrills, and there were moments of truly lovely prose to go alongside the occasional painfully dud metaphor. I can’t guarantee that I’ll read the next instalment, but I can say that it’s a more tempting prospect than reading whatever follows The Left Hand of God (with which it is quite comparable). I just hope that he irons out some of that unevenness as his writing matures.