Epic fantasy is one of my favorite genres of fiction. Rather, fantasy, in general, is my favorite genre, but Epic Fantasy is usually what I display on my shelves (the covers usually just look so gosh-darned good in comparison to everything else). What else am I gonna get with my Thunderbolt online casino winnings?
I love reading, and reading big books, about men and women doing great, big things. I’ve read George R. R. Martin’s “A Sword of Ice and Fire” series, Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive”, and, most recently, Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Kingkiller Chronicles”. Do you know what irks me about all three of them? None of them have endings!
“The Kingkiller Chronicles” starts off with our protagonist, Kvothe, hiding out in an inn out in the middle of nowhere, posing as a bartender. He has an assistant named Bast, who’s enthusiastically serving Kvothe, and also posing.
They’re living, not exactly happily, their lives when a Chronicler enters town. He settles in, successfully identifies Kvothe as who he is, and eagerly asks to record his story. Kvothe, with some encouragement, eventually agrees to tell the Chronicler everything.
So you see, the story is actually a story being told within the story. And in case you were wondering, yes, there are characters within the story’s story that will be telling other stories. “The Kingkiller Chronicles” is just a whole bunch of story-ception.
By the way, if you’re wondering how to pronounce “Kvothe”, don’t worry: So was I. So I googled it, and there’s literally a post on Patrick Rothfuss’ website that explains it. It turns out that it’s pronounced exactly as written. Kv-oath. Kvothe.
What doesn’t help is a line at the beginning of the book that reads, “My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as Quothe”. That made me think that the V was silent, and I was reading the name as “Koth”.
From here, I’m not sure what to tell without getting into the spoiler zone. I don’t want to give away Kvothe’s backstory, but then again, the entire story is Kvothe’s backstory. So I guess I can say that Kvothe was born to a family of Troupers who traveled from city to city playing music and putting on shows.
They eventually pick up an Arcanist (Read: Wizard) named Ben, who teaches young Kvothe the basics of magic and herbalism. Ben soon realizes how clever Kvothe is, who has a nearly perfect recall-memory and recommends sending him to The University where Arcanists are taught.
Tragedy strikes, though when Ben leaves the Troupe to settle down, and the rest of the Troupe get murdered shortly afterward by beings known as The Chandrian, a group of seven immortal evildoers who are more or less believed to be a fairy tale by all known accounts.
The rest of the story follows Kvothe as he finds himself in trouble again and again and again… a lot of which is his own fault. What separates Kvothe from other fantasy protagonists I’ve read is that Kvothe’s connection to any kind of coherent plot is almost non-existent.
“The Kingkiller Chronicles” is quite literally a chronicle of Kvothe’s life, with the only throughline being Kvothe himself. I’ve read two entire books about the character at this point, and I still don’t feel like the plot has even started at this point.
Ostensibly… that is the plot. The problem is that there’s no ending, no payoffs, or climaxes. Actually, scratch that. There’s a ton of sex in book two.
The story occasionally interrupts itself in order to allow the Chronicler and Bast to comment on various bits of the story or for Kvothe himself to step back and explain things in “retrospect”. It’s a good plot device, but after two whole books without progressing any of the mysteries surrounding “present-day” Kvothe, or even name-dropping Bast or the Chronicler in the main story, it feels like the actual “plot” has made little to no progress.
Quality of Prose
That said, it’s a wonderfully written pair of books. I’ve read books a fraction of the length that were far more difficult to get through than the 1500+ pages of Patrick Rothfuss’ writing… Skylark Dunsque, for example…
The prose is excellent. I know exactly what is happening at all times, and the scenes play out well. The characters, even the minor ones, are greatly fleshed out and given far more depth than their significance in the story would otherwise call for. I enjoyed reading these books.
Kvothe’s characterization leaves me a bit on the fence, though. On the one hand, he’s very likable. He’s energetic, witty, a smart aleck, an insanely quick learner, and immensely talented. This is balanced out by the fact that he tends to be reckless, vengeful to the point of pettiness, and about as knowledgeable with women as a fifteen / sixteen-year-old boy could be expected to be. He lands himself in trouble constantly with a mouth that moves faster than his mind.
On the other hand, his skill can sometimes drift into the territory of being a Gary Stu. He’s top of his class. Popular. Stories constantly spread about his deeds. He speaks multiple languages, is a master with the Lute, an immensely talented Arcanist, a competent thief, and has willpower that can literally challenge ancient and powerful entities.
There is nothing he seemingly can’t do, given time. In fact, the only thing he’s consistently bad at is a) staying out of trouble (which is a given since he’s the protagonist of a fantasy story) and b) getting laid.
…until book two, when his inability with women sort of just… disappears? There’s a long and complicated story involved, and I won’t get into too much detail about to prevent spoilers, but Kvothe does a thing that’s never been done before and emerges from it without any fear or hesitation with women.
And while the book does get from A to B quite well, it makes Kvothe more and more unreal, disconnecting him from the audience (me) more and more. He becomes less and less relatable as he grows and grows and loses all the weaknesses that grounded him as a character.
Every good character has their weaknesses- or at least, their victories and losses. Luke Skywalker lost a hand and refused to kill his father. Harry Potter was impulsive with a flaring temper. Captain America has to do what he believes is right, no matter the consequences to himself. That’s part of what makes them heroes. They overcome their own faults and save the day regardless.
Kvothe’s only consistent “weakness” is Denna, a flighty girl he’s hopelessly in love with, who’s constantly moving from place to place, changing names and suitors constantly. He would literally do anything for her if she asked. Denna is a strange phenomenon in the plot, with her mystery largely unexplained after 1500+ pages. Their relationship, much like the plot itself, advances at a glacial pace when it isn’t going backward. It’s a unique and oddly frustrating thing to read.
All this to say that things end at a high point before book 3…
The Greatest Frustration of All
The more astute of you might have noticed that I do not recommend this book in the title, yet I claim to have enjoyed reading them. Why do I not recommend these novels then? The main reason is the lack of any sort of satisfying conclusion.
The books literally just stop, with Kvothe in the meta-narrative asking for a break between recalling his story for the Chronicler. Then book 2 picks up almost exactly where the first left off and then ends right before the actual plot seems ready to begin!
And all that would still be okay if the first book hadn’t been published in 2007 and the second in 2011. It has been, quite literally, a full decade since the last book came out, and no one has seen head or tail of the third novel.
According to Patrick Rothfuss himself, he apparently wrote the entire story in the nineties, but it wasn’t very good. It was also too large, so he chopped it up. Then he had to extensively rewrite it because it wasn’t very good when chopped up like that. So he rewrote and rewrote and got out the first two books.
Then the third he’s been stuck on for years and years because of problems in his personal life. I don’t know what those are, and frankly, it’s not really anybody’s business. However, he claimed in 2013 to have completed the first draft, but his editor commented she hasn’t seen a single word of it and doesn’t believe he has written anything.
Since Patrick himself never addressed this, no one seems to really know what to believe. Which sucks since he seems to have a sort of cult following that loves his novels that would really like an ETA or at least some sort of confirmation that progress has been made at all.
Regardless of whether or not these insinuations are true or not, I don’t think the finale is coming out any time soon. So much like “A Song of Ice and Fire”, I can’t recommend the series to anyone. It’s too painful to get so invested and then be stuck in what seems like an eternal purgatory of book finales forever. Or like reaching 99% on a loading screen that never finishes loading. The little icon just spins and spins and spins…
That’s “The Kingkiller Chronicles“. It’s good. It could be great, though, if it ever finishes buffering. Until that happens, however, I’d recommend something else entirely.