At a glance the first two installments of Patrick Rothfuss fantasy trilogy, the Kingkiller Chronicles, may resemble a certain other best-selling series a little too much. A young boy sees his family slaughtered, grows up as an orphan and attends a magic school, we’ve heard this story before, haven’t we? But a few pages in, one quickly realizes that this is something different, this is something interesting and new. The Kingkiller Chronicles is also the kind of deep and serious story that shouldn’t necessarily scare away people averse to classical fantasy, it focuses a lot more on character development than dragons or goblins or the like. Here I will write a bit regarding what I like about the trilogy so far, what I perhaps like less, and some predictions for what could happen in the third and last book.
First of all, let’s say something about the format of the story. It is told in first-person past tense but with some third-person perspective thrown in for good measure. Or to be less technical, we have some parts taking place in current time while most of the story is presented as flashbacks told by Kvothe, the narrator, to Chronicler. Had anyone described this to me before I read the book I would have been a bit skeptical to be honest. But I wasn’t even aware of this when I first read The Name of the Wind, and eventually I realized that I liked it.
In particular I like how the story-within-a-story gives the impression that there will be more, once the main story is over. The chapters taking place at the Wayside Inn are far from filler, the way the whole thing is written makes me feel like there will eventually be a final chapter taking place in the Wayside Inn after which there will be no further flashbacks and the story will take off , now entirely in present tense with Kvothe having returned to something resembling his former self. I hope that does indeed happen in the middle of the third book or in a hypothetical fourth one, but we shall have to wait and see. A hint in this direction might perhaps be found within the cliffhanger involving Bast at the end of The Wise Man’s Fear.
Besides the overall structure and setting of the story, it also has to be said that Rothfuss’ language and style of writing throughout the books is simply amazing. It is pragmatic when it needs to be, describing mundane details in an efficient manner and so on, but at times can also be beautiful. The key to why I like Rothfuss’ style is the way it varies a bit depending on the current topic. When writing about for example Kvothe’s education at the University or the harsh realities of survival in Tarbean, the language is like I said pragmatic, details are described as needed but there isn’t much flowing prose inbetween. Certain other topic’s, however, both deserve and get an altogether different treatment.
Consider for example the Chandrian, or Kvothe’s relationship with Denna. These matters are the magic of the story, not just in the literal sense like in the case of the Chandrian, but also in the way the language changes when dealing with them. The following is a passage from The Name of the Wind, it is a part of Kvothe’s description of Cinder, taking place when he comes back to his troupe’s camp after the Chandrian attack:
“His sword was pale and elegant. When it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breath and everything is still.”
This paragraph immediately conjures up a rather vivid image, does it not? This sort of elegance sets the tone for all descriptions of the Chandrian. Artful writing like this, combined with how the Chandrian are first introduced earlier in the book through rumors and songs, makes them stand out as magical in an otherwise rather mundane, fictional but still mundane, world. The fact that the magic of the Chandrian are a contrast to the more technical and relatively more realistic parts of the story taking place in Tarbean and at the University also means that they don’t cause the series to fall off the deep end with regards to seriousness.
The description of Cinder continues with the same elegance. A few paragraphs later on comes another passage, that creates as vivid an image of Cinder as the above quoted passage did of his sword.
“He relaxed when he saw me. He dropped the tip of his sword and smiled with perfect ivory teeth. It was the expression a nightmare wore.”
One can’t read that passage without going a bit cold, or at least recognizing on some emotional level a certain darkness, a darkness beyond even the strictly worldly darkness of the murder and mayhem described a page or so earlier.
Another kind of magic, significantly more pleasant then the darkness above, can be found in the descriptions of Kvothe’s relationship with Denna. Had someone described it to me before I read the book I might suspected it to be boring. But reading these parts of the book without prior expectations I found them fascinatingly well crafted. The way Kvothe is infatuated with Denna is convincing and poetic, and it is never boring. Some of the prose cannot be described with any other word than beautiful, such as for example this excerpt from The Name of the Wind:
“It had the desperate feel of the last warm nights of summer. We spoke of everything and nothing, and all the while I could hardly breathe for the nearness of her, the way she moved, the sound of her voice as it touched the autumn air.”
Kvothe and Denna’s relationship, it has to be said, is not entirely free of cliche. The way they quarrel towards the end of The Wise Man’s Fear is a little bit too typical of a trilogy-spanning romance. Both the timing of it and the reasons behind it are by now too formulaic for my taste. The fact that it happens in the second book so as to leave room for it to be left behind them in the third book is something that is commonplace in love stories of this kind, and the fact that it starts out with him being overly defensive of her is not as innovative a reason for their falling out as I would have hoped for.
While on the topic of cliches we might also mention that another one can be found in the entire character of Ambrose. We have here in a nutshell your classic arrogant young nobleman, surfing the crest of his father’s tide of money while spitting on everyone in general and the poor, underprivileged hero in particular. To some extent there is a certain relevant social critique to be found in such portrayals, but Ambrose seems a little bit too much like he was cast in a mold for my taste, the only thing separating him from Draco Malfoy is that his father isn’t, as far as we know, in cahoots with the dark lord.
Ambrose is for example described as an unimpressive student who we can suspect was primarily accepted to the university due to his father’s wealth. That is, unlike the talented young protagonist who gets by on merit alone. Ambrose is furthermore described as not particularly charming, to put it mildly. He makes creepy advances towards women where he acts like he is entitled to their affection due to his socioeconomic standing, and his only friends all seem to be people like him. Once again unlike the charming young protagonist who is a natural charmer and generally well liked by those who get to know him.
I‘ve always maintained that there is a difference between evil and incompetence, and this point could have been made clearer if Ambrose had been like he was with the exception of some talent or other redeeming factor. It of course isn’t necessary for a good story, it’s just that at times he felt a little bit too stereotypical.
These minor defects aside, the Kingkiller Chronicles still stands out as one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever come across, second only to George R.R. Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire. Hopefully, Patrick Rothfuss will feel as I do that there is room to expand this trilogy with one, or perhaps two, or maybe even three additional books beyond the ones we know about. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, I have a list of things I’d rather not see in the third installment, based on nothing more than personal preferences. Hopefully it won’t turn out, like it now appears, that Denna’s patron, Master Ash, and the Chandrian Cinder are the same character. It looks like this is the case, what with a cinder being burning ash and all, but it would feel a bit too simple and convenient, everything would fit together a little too neatly. If Cinder is not Master Ash then that also opens up room for a major villain not related to either the Chandiran or the University, which in a nice way would increase the scope of the story.
Furthermore, it might very well be the case that Denna dies at some point between Kvothe’s time at the University and the interview at the Waystone Inn. It would be very consistent with the tone Kvothe sets for the whole story when he begins telling it, but it would be slightly less consistent with the reader getting to meet her again when the story takes off from the Inn in the coming books. Assuming that the theories of Kvothe being over a hundred years old when he meets Chronicler are wrong, Denna could otherwise make an appearance in present time which would be nice.
Finally, I would prefer Kvothe and Felurian never to meet again. Not, of course, because I’m a prude, but because a literal sex goddess can only make so many appearances in a story before it looses its grounding.