First, let’s set the mood.
Not that there’s any real similarity between FFIX and these books, but it feels right. Also, if it takes you longer than four hours to read this it means your eyes are broken or I’ve written much more than I expected.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about these books. My immediate thoughts after finishing the novels are here:
Also, worth knowing that there be spoilers here, so turn your head aside if you’ve not read both of the novels currently published in this alleged trilogy.
Seriously, there are spoilers below. I wrote this and I even read it again. I talk about things that might ruin the books for you.
I warned you, dummy.
The first novel came out to mass critical acclaim and mass sales. In fact, it sold so well that Rothfuss became a full time writer. It’s unusual for any writers to be able to leave their jobs behind, but even more unusual for someone to do it after one book, but Rothfuss was able to make that leap.
The second novel came out to much less critical acclaim but certainly as many sales, if not more.
The point is, just about everyone who read the first book loved it, including Ursula K Le Guin, Robin Hobb, and George RR Martin.
The second book, on the other hand, seems to divide a lot of fans. A lot of people hate it. A lot. But still more love it.
I say all this because even after reading 1,700 pages over two books, I still don’t know how I feel about these books.
It would be hard for me to say I didn’t enjoy them. Or, rather: it would be a lie. I raced through these books. I acquired several sleepless nights while reading these books. I read the first one so long into the night by Chelsea’s side that I went through the batteries on my flashlight, which is why I finally bought a reading light thingy.
Clearly, I enjoyed reading these books. They’re two of the most addictive books I’ve read in a long time. Maybe ever, though Royal Assassin and Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb give them a run for their money.
The thing is, they work in a very peculiar way. They’re not really conflict driven. They’re pure character and world. It’s kind of remarkable, because the cast of characters throughout is weirdly fluid.
But let’s talk about the beginning.
The first fifty pages establish Kvothe as an innkeeper in a small town under an assumed name. He doesn’t play music or sing or tell stories. He just provides people with drink and food. The issue there is that the town is small and generally uninterested in his tavern. Few travellers ever visit and fewer stay. Few of the locals ever stop in for meals or ale. Kvothe lives there with Bast, his apprentice, of sorts.
Those few who do stop in often bring word from the world beyond the village. They talk about the heavy taxes, the way the patrolmen are no different from highwaymen who rob those who journey along the roads. The main difference, of course, is that the king employs them, giving their victims far less recourse. One story they bring with them is of a sort of monster in the woods.
Kvothe fights the monster and sustains some injuries. At the same time, he meets The Chronicler, a man of a bit of fame. He listens to and records the tales of the lives of heroes, royals, and generally incredible humans, then disseminates their story through the world.
As it turns out, the Chronicler’s been looking for Kvothe, as all seem to. Kvothe is a legend. a legend throughout the whole of the continent. At this point we don’t really know why, but it’s also not important.
Finally Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler his story.
And this is where the novel begins, really. Somewhere around page fifty. From here the novel works on two fronts. The bulk of the text is Kvothe relaying the events of his life. The other front is the present.
While I like the moments set in the present, they’re pretty infrequent and not nearly as interesting as what’s happening in the past.
There are even moments when I think the novels should have dropped the device. Just begin with Kvothe relaying his story to the reader, because that’s really what this is, yeah? A first person narration intercut by third person narration set years after the narrative being told.
And though the novel could probably lose this element, I like the way it works. I think there’s a nice interplay between the past and the present, like in book two when Kvothe tells of his martial training. Because of the legends and because of the depth he goes to in explaining the martial arts of the Adem, we expect him to still be a great warrior. And then we watch him get beaten up quite easily. Sure, he’s fighting two men, but this is Kvothe! A man of legend!
What we see in these moments is the difference between who Kvothe is and who Kvothe the Legend is. One is indestructible. The other is only a man hiding from his fame, which is tied to his bounty.
But still, these fifty pages could easily be cut down to somewhere between twenty and three pages. I honestly think that’s true and would improve the beginning of the novel.
I mean, I read The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, which has a 200 page intro to the novel. Like, the narrative more or less begins on page 200, but I think those initial 200 pages are actually essential to the story being told there.
This is different. This is just a problem with pacing.
But let’s look at what happens next.
Kvothe’s story begins in earnest and it’s beautiful. His childhood with his parents and his troupe. These are essential pages in understanding who Kvothe is, what the world is.
Rothfuss certainly could have began the novel at the Death of Kvothe’s parents, but that would have been a very different book, and our stomachs wouldn’t have dropped through the floor when young unsuspecting Kvothe returned to find everyone he knew dead and burnt and ravaged.
This is where we encounter what seems to be the antagonist of the trilogy: The Chandrian. Evil from legend, from stories so long ago they barely exist anymore. Creatures who were once men but now live on endlessly as a secret scourge across the world.
If this were your typical epic fantasy or heroic fantasy, the entire novel would be focused on this.
The ancient evil who killed our hero’s family and even burnt away his music, causing him to run and cower and hide as a streetkid, barely eking out a daily existence.
And, really, he spends much of the first two novels seeking for information about the Chandrian. That was, in part, why he went to the university at all. To scour their impossibly large library to find ancient words or any words that would shed some light on who and what and how they are, and maybe, more importantly, how to defeat them.
But this is sort of the conceit that the rest of his life revolves around, and while it may be his reason for coming to the university and certainly a reason for staying, the bulk of Kvothe’s story is spent learning and occasionally adventuring. But mostly there’s music.
Music is in his bones and it’s really the spine of his story. We come to learn how important music is not just for him as a person, his psychological health, but also for his livelihood and for making sense of his life.
It’s no accident that many of his most intelligent schemes come while he’s picking at his lute.
And this is where the novel folds back to the present. To a man who has no instrument, who rarely sings. A man so burning with music but with none left inside him.
Anyrate, Kvothe arrives at the university and essentially scams his way in, even though he’s fifteen, though most people who enter are much closer to twenty, if not over twenty.
The university is the fulcrum of his life. It’s where he makes a home and discovers who and what he is, as well as how and why the world is the way it is.
This is also where we come to an interesting thing about Kvothe. He is, in many ways, a Gary Sue, or at least has many of its signs and manners. Kvothe is legendary, as noted, but with good reason. He’s a genius mechanically, musically, and intellectually. He does things at fifteen that scholars at the university will never be able to manage.
If Rothfuss were a different writer, this would make the books unreadable.
But he sets up Kvothe with some serious tragic flaws as well as some flaws common to all teenagers. He’s brash and arrogant and rash and careless and carries around an immense temper. And while these are common flaws to humans, it should also be remembered that Kvothe is a genius, so the trouble he often finds himself in is the kind that only a genius can manage to find. Meaning, he gets into some seriously hairy and peculiar situations. Not necessarily life threatening, but often time just that.
We also come to learn how Kvothe is not the same as the legend. He dispels many of the exaggerations that grow around his name and even explains how they got their start. Often, he whispered the words into the air. At least initially. But as time goes on, many of his exploits take on a world of their own.
It’s similar to Harry Potter, in superficial ways. Harry is the Boy Who Lived and he accidentally survives and fights some serious stuff. While he didn’t set out to fight monsters and the like, he most certainly did do those things. It’s especially similar to Simon Snowlock from Tad Williams’ trilogy mentioned above.
To Simon, he’s just scraping by, barely surviving his encounters with elves, dragons, demons, and giants. To those who hear about what happened, he’s a hero from legend who slew a dragon, danced with elves, and made monsters and demons cower before him.
And since I brought up Harry Potter, I’ll talk about the similarities.
Someone could argue that Rothfuss wrote Harry Potter for adults. They wouldn’t be wrong in saying that, but they would be doing a disservice to both characters. It’s not like magic schools were invented in the 90s, and, really, the University in this world is much more similar to Le Guin’s Earthsea than it is to Hogwarts. Even the magic of this world are clearly direct descendants from the wizards of Roke. Not literally descended, but the ideas come heavily from Le Guin and share little similarity with Rowling.
So while the two are, on the surface, almost identical. In actuality, the two stories couldn’t be more different.
Anyrate, coming back from that digression–Kvothe does things that both promote a legend but also allow one to accidentally sprout up around him. He danced and made love to a god and survived to tell the tale. He called down fire and lightning to kill nearly twenty bandits when it seemed that all hope was lost. He wrote songs and letters that brought a queen to love him. He killed a dragon!
Kvothe manages to put himself in ridiculous circumstances and simply by virtue of surviving creates a legend complex and vast.
Only a genius teenager could get himself in this kind of trouble, but only a genius could find his way back out.
But the novels aren’t even about adventures. This is clear to me.
The books are about learning and understanding.
Even when a quest is given a hundred pages, most of that time is spent with Kvothe’s curiosity bringing him to new understandings, and only a handful of pages actually have anything to do with fighting or magic using or anything that a more traditionally told heroic fantasy would devote its heft to.
But Kvothe’s story is lethargic because, for him, the story of his life is not about the exploits. It’s about a child orphaned by demons discovering how the world works and finding a way to survive in it, while also making sense of the events of his own life and the many mysteries that fill the world and life itself.
I think this is most evident when Kvothe describes his journey from the university to Vintas. In one sentence, he describes being captured by pirates and escaping them and a shipwreck only to find himself penniless and nearly naked on the other shore.
That could be its own novel!
But here it’s a sentence. This is after some 400 pages of his time at the university and is followed by 500 pages of learning all the things that can’t be learnt within the confines of the university. Then he goes back to the university and we see how his exploits have actually broadened his education far more than an entire decade of study could have.
And even though I’ve written over 2,000 words already, I have yet to even touch on what the actual conflict is.
The novels set up the Chandrian as the antagonist, and he certainly has an adversarial relationship with Ambrose, a student and distant relative to the then king. But I think the real conflict of the novel are threefold and have surprisingly little to do with those obvious antagonists.
But before we get there, I’ll lay out a theory that’s probably been thought before.
As the novels move on, we come to learn that more and more members of the royal family are dying. Ambrose is known to be twelfth in line to the throne, if I’m not mistaken. This is pretty far from the throne, but the gap seems to be shrinking. Even in his early twenties, he enjoys a lot of power.
I imagine the king killed in this Kingkiller Chronicle is Ambrose, who gains the throne through some kind of nefarious dealings. There’s no real evidence that this will happen, but there is a kind of rising tide, I’d say. And we know some king has to die. Seems pointless for it to be someone we haven’t yet met in the novel.
I also think Kvothe hasn’t yet killed the king, but will, in the present, at some point in the third novel.
But maybe not.
Like I said, I don’t think that’s the real conflict.
The conflicts, as I see them are like this:
- Understanding vs Ignorance
- Acceptance of life
I’ll unpack these.
The biggest and most everpresent conflict is the economic one. Kvothe is perpetually impoverished. Even at the end of the second novel, he’s certainly not wealthy, though he does enjoy much more economic freedom than he previously did.
But this is also the most interesting aspect of the novels. The true cost of education.
In this world, the only people able to go to the University are the children of nobility or wealthy merchants. There are exceptions, Kvothe being one of them, but, by and large, the price of attending the university would be staggering to the average person.
And that’s just the price of tuition. Rothfuss clearly acknowledges all the hidden prices of university. From the need to buy food and rent shelter, to the very real need to own ink, writing utensils, and paper to write on. More than that, we’re constantly reminded that Kvothe must even buy the components that make up the devices he builds and develops.
When he wants to make some gadget to be sold, he must first buy everything that goes into it, then spend X amount of hours building it.
Because of Kvothe’s poverty, we’re really tied into his resourcefulness. It’s what makes his exploits more believable: we already care so much about his ingenuity and watch him constantly hustle just to get enough money to survive the month and pay tuition at the end of the term.
Cost is constantly on Kvothe’s mind. He drinks water at the tavern when people buy him drinks so that he can split the cost of the drink with the tavern at the end of the night. He wears ragged and worn clothes because they’re all he has. If he rips them or bleeds into them or loses them, then he will have only the one shirt and trousers to wear until he can steal or acquire enough money in order to dress himself again. He must turn down invitations to the houses of nobility [which, incidentally, is one way for him to find economic freedom–by acquiring a rich patron for his music] simply because he knows he doesn’t have any clothes that wouldn’t insult the host. He has to haggle with everyone for everything. He manages to get shelter by being the inn’s on staff musical entertainment. He also gambles to make himself a bit of extra money. Always betting on himself in some skill measured in what amounts to magic. He has to deal with loansharks and criminals just to keep enough money in his pocket to keep attending university, which is the only home he’s known since his parents’ Death, the only place that can teach him what he needs to know to survive, to thrive, and to find out why the Chandrian does what the Chandrian does.
This, if nothing else, is the central conflict of the novels. Everything depends on Kvothe’s ability to acquire money so that he can deal with the more important conflicts, which, if not central, are at least more important to the story.
All of this effort is so he can learn and understand the world and life. This is the implicit conflict that gives real shape to the novel. What would a novel about a teenager constantly trying to scrape enough money to survive be if there wasn’t something larger?
Not to say that a novel about that wouldn’t be worth its weight, but it would certainly be a depressing tale.
Despite everything, I would call this, in general, a more optimistic version of fantasy. At least it feels that way as Kvothe tells is. Kvothe’s story is funny, exciting, fun, insightful, and addictive. Chronicler and Bast see the enjoyment he gains from recounting his life, from the nostalgia of the child and man he was.
Much as his life is full of pain and heartache, we really come to feel that exhilaration you get from learning something new, from overcoming difficult problems, from acquiring specific knowledge that turns out to open up a much broader understanding of the world, or at least presents an avenue to understanding much more than the specific thing learnt.
Many of Kvothe’s biggest problems come from his inability to figure something out or his inability to correctly see the context or even situation that he’s in the middle of.
His ignorance leads him into immense trouble at times, and because he’s a genius, the danger becomes exponentially greater.
It’s only through thought and discovery that he’s able to make it through.
This is not a heroic fantasy with a big brawling badass. It’s the story of a boy who must constantly be resourceful, who must constantly think his way out of every situation.
That’s why the bulk of these 1,700 pages is devoted to learning and problem solving. It’s really a novel of puzzles, but the puzzles are ones that he falls into by being arrogant and stubborn and careless.
And then we get the tone of the narrative, which is strongly shaped by the story happening in the present. Because though the narrative Kvothe is telling is optimistic in tone, the real tone of the novel is one of pessimism and despair.
Each book begins and ends with the narration telling us that Kvothe is a man waiting to die.
He has given up on life. He can smile about the legend the world thinks he is, but it’s clear he has no great love for the stories grown up and around him.
This is where Bast becomes a very interesting character. He’s dangerous and powerful and appears for a long time to be a harmless student, until we discover that he is actually an incredibly powerful creature called the fae, who is remarkably dangerous. It also becomes clear that he’s trying desperately to remind Kvothe the innkeeper that he actually is that legendary man who did all those amazing things.
He brought the Chronicler to the inn to make Kvothe tell his story. He hired the soldiers who beat up Kvothe, hoping Kvothe would dispatch them easily and in doing so remember who he really is and all the power he holds within him, even though it’s hinted that he may have lost his magical ability.
Kvothe wants to die. He’s accepted Death. He knows it’s coming for him, whether by the king’s hand or the Chandrian–it doesn’t seem to matter. What does matter is that Kvothe is without hope and has accepted this as a fact and internalised it so deeply that he no longer even sees himself as the man who sprouted those many legends.
It’s a very interesting element and certainly the only reason the narrative is split the way it is.
This third conflict is the real conflict of the novel.
Despite all the pages and time devoted to the Chandrian, the novel is really about present day Kvothe choosing to live.
There’s actually one more conflict in the novels, which may prove to be more important than expected.
that conflict is one of love.
Kvothe is hopelessly in love with Denna, who clearly cherishes his friendship and maybe even his love, but theirs is a complex relationship. It’s one familiar to me and so I feel very strongly for Kvothe.
But I think the real conflict with regard to this has to do with the absence of love and the desire to be loved.
Kvothe needs love. He needs it like blood in his veins. It’s what drives his music and his education. The hope that he’ll be able to share just moments with Denna, that she’ll maybe turn her gaze towards him and realise that he’s what she’s wanted all along.
And sometimes they’re close. But Kvothe, in doing what he thinks is right for Denna, transgresses on her personhood and her desires.
It’s uncomfortable to experience because you know he so deeply intends to do right by her but is so hopelessly doing it all wrong.
It’s about misunderstanding. It’s two people sanding on either side of a river and staring at the water but seeing completely different things.
This is actually an idea that sprouted up in the writing of this essay and wasn’t really something I thought of as central to the novel, but it very well could fold back and be much of the reason why Kvothe is no longer the Kvothe of Legend. Why he is now Kvothe the Despondant, the Heartbroken, the Defeated, the Hopeless.
He lost his love. He lost all that was left to him, and so he gave up his music, gave up his magic, gave up his skill, and has become a simple innkeeper waiting for Death to find him.
This will be an interesting element of the third novel and why I think most people will be disappointed by it.
You already see the reviews of the second novel: Nothing happens.
Well, that’s one way of looking at the story, but I think it’s something where expectations don’t match intention. Because, in many ways, not a lot does happen, and what does happen is very episodic. But that’s if you’re looking at this story as a sequence of prominent events, which is not the way the story’s being told.
This is the story of a life, and a life is more than just the big moments. A life is really defined by the thousands of quiet little moments, and that’s exactly what Rothfuss captures so perfectly.
I believe people will be disappointed with the third book because they’re going to expect a resolution to the two explicit conflicts: the Chandrian and Ambrose.
I think the resolution to both of those will happen, but not at all in the way that many readers are expecting or want. I think they’ll expect and hope for a conclusion that leads to the destruction of the Chandrian or at least some way of neutralising them, and I think the same will be true of the Ambrose conflict.
But I imagine Kvothe doesn’t kill the Chandrian. Evil doesn’t get vanquished in life. It simply goes on.
The poor rarely rise above the nobility, especially when it’s one man–genius or not–who stands against one of the most powerful nobles in the land.
I think the real conflict in this novel is Kvothe’s hopelessness.
We know he’s now economically secure–possibly even wildly wealthy.
We know he knows quite a lot, though it’s implied that he’s lost his ability to enact that knowledge, which is an interesting discrepancy and something that’s both peculiar and awesome about Rothfuss’ magic system.
So I believe the first two conflicts I laid out above [economic and knowledge vs ignorance] are implicitly answered by the fact that Kvothe still lives. He certainly doesn’t understand everything and he may be unsatisfied with his ignorance, but that’s not what caused him to collapse into despair.
No, I think the despair comes from the absence of love, or the fact that he lost it. Possibly lost Denna permanently or in such a way that Kvothe believes is irreconcilable. Possibly, even, she’s dead, and her Death is at least directly or indirectly caused by Kvothe’s actions.
So how does Kvothe learn to live again?
Well, that’s what we hope to find out.
But I do think that this trilogy that began with so much acclaim and love from readers, writers, and critics will deliver something that many will find deeply unsatisfying. They’ll feel betrayed by what they believe was a promise when the Chandrian were introduced.
It may even impact the rest of his career, but I imagine there will be enough who still love it to push him through to his next project.
Probably you’re wondering why I wrote so much about a trilogy that’s been read by very few people that I know. It’s a fair question, considering I’ve never devoted so many words to any other book or series of books on here, but I’ve come to understand important things about this trilogy and about books in general by writing it out.
Because this has been my struggle with these books. I clearly enjoyed them, was addicted to them, but wasn’t sure if they’re even good or if I even actually like what they’re doing. Also, I want to understand how he can write so many words that involve so little explicit narrative movement or even direction and become both a critical darling and a bestseller and write something that I couldn’t put down.
I think I’ve come to at least some of these answers.
But most importantly, I think it’s fair to say that I truly love these books.
I hope everyone I know reads them some day.
But mostly, I hope the third book comes out this year, as I believe it will [despite the absence of evidence].
For now, I’ll keep thinking, keep writing, and hopefully find a way to take all these lessons and apply them to my own writing.
Because that’s what this is all about, yeah? Taking the best lessons, stealing them, tucking them into your inside coat pockets, and running back to your own worlds to make them richer, deeper, more beautiful.