Inside the Waystone, the light fell across Chronicler’s face and touched a beginning there, a blank page waiting the first words of a story. The light flowed across the bar, scattered a thousand tiny rainbow beginnings from the colored bottles, and climbed the wall toward the sword, as if searching for one final beginning.
There’s a type of writing I refer to as “functional banality”. It’s where an author can use unadorned, basic prose to tell their story (which may be any level of quality) fairly well but tends to trip up badly when attempting anything more complicated. Stephen King and JK Rowling are two writers I tend to put into this category, along with a lot of nonfiction authors like, say, Bill Bryson. The thing about successful authors of this kind is that they usually seem to be aware of this and tend to write in a way that takes it into account, or even turn it into a strength.
Patrick Rothfuss is one of these authors, except he is most definitely not aware of it. Rothfuss thinks he’s writing transcendant literature. Most of his fans seem to think so as well, if the reviews are any indication (names have been omitted to protect the incoherent):
“This is why I love fantasy so much. After a recent string of okay fantasy novels, a couple of good ones but nothing to get really excited about, I’ve rediscovered my passion thanks to this book. I’m so impressed, and so in love, I can’t begin to describe it. But I can try to give you a feel for the book, if I can figure out where to start and how to do justice to this masterpiece.”
“I can’t think of an emotion I didn’t experience while reading. I snorted with laughter, gasped in outrage, choked back tears, shook with disbelief and trembled with anticipation. Seriously, the book has it all.”
“As soon as I finished page 722, I turned back and started reading page 1. By far the best fantasy I’ve read in years. Depth and richness unparalleled since Tolkien. Greatly superior to Rowlings and Jordan in creating a believable world, even down to the laws governing it’s particular brand of magic.”
But when the light touched the sword there were no beginnings
to be seen. In fact, the light the sword reflected was dull, burnished, and ages old. Looking at it, Chronicler remembered that though it was the beginning of a day, it was also late autumn and growing colder. The sword shone with the knowledge that dawn was a small beginning compared to the ending of a season: the ending of a year.
If you think this is brilliant writing, you’ve never read brilliant writing.
Kvothe continues to be a whiny prima donna by insisting that Devan has to record his story in exactly the right way. We get a fairly entertaining scene where Devan demonstrates how fast he can write and starts to explain his neat sound-based short hand technique, but Kvothe instantly breaks the cipher and learns the whole thing with no effort. This just solidifies my Yay Devan, Boo Kvothe policy. Then it turns out Kvothe learned a whole language in a day and a half and uuuuuuuuuggggggggggghhhhhhh
I had heard before I started reading this that Kvothe only turns into an insufferable Mary Sue in the second book. I fucking wish.
Kvothe finally starts telling his story, but not before we get one more round of cryptic hint-dropping and Kvothewank and purple prose, during which we’re told a piece of this universe’s creation myth:
“In the beginning, as far as I know, the world was spun out of the nameless void by Aleph, who gave everything a name.
His brother Omega was busy playing D&D that day and didn’t join in.
Kvothe continued, smiling himself. “I see you laugh. Very well, for simplicity’s sake, let us assume I am the center of creation.
That’s funny, I thought we were already doing that.
Let us hurry forward to the only tale of any real importance.” His smile broadened. “Mine.”
Are you serious
In chapter 8 we get Kvothe’s backstory. I was interested to see that he grew up with a clan of travelling minstrels and entertainers which as far as I’m aware is a pretty unique childhood for an aspiring fantasy lad, but of course Rothfuss ruins it by telling us that “the Ruh” were the bestest, most awesome entertainers ever and his Dad was the best musician and actor and his Mother was super good at telling stories and writing and descended from nobility and they were both amazingly good looking and their marriage was perfect! I guess the Kvothewank gene somehow travels backward in time to affect his ancestors as well.
I remember reading along, coming in on the secondary parts. My father would encourage me to try particularly good sections myself, and I learned to love the feel of good words.
I have a terrifying feeling that this part is supposed to be autobiographical.
I learned the sordid inner workings of the royal court in Modeg from a … courtesan. As my father used to say: “Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady. Their lives are hard enough, and it never hurts to be polite.”
Oh his Dad’s a shithead, fancy that.
There’s a fairly excruciating bit where a town won’t let the troupe entertain due to some problems caused by the last bunch, but Kvothe’s Dad acts like a smarmy asshole and basically passively-aggressively threatens the mayor into letting him get his way. Suddenly Kvothe’s behavior isn’t so surprising. The entire troupe appear to have serious entitlement issues, turning their noses up at the townsfolk and generally acting like spoiled rich assholes:
Now you have to understand that twenty pennies might be a good bit of money for some little ragamuffin troupe living hand-to-mouth. But for us it was simply insulting. He should have offered us forty to play for the evening, free use of the public hall, a good meal, and beds at the inn. The last we would graciously decline, as their beds were no doubt lousy and those in our wagons were not.
That was the hardest part of growing up Edema Ruh. We are strangers everywhere. Many folk view us as vagabonds and beggars, while others deem us little more than thieves, heretics, and whores. It’s hard to be wrongfully accused, but it’s worse when the people looking down on you are clods who have never read a book or traveled more than twenty miles from the place they were born.
OH YOU POOR DEARS
So Kvothe is supposed to be only eleven at this point but really doesn’t seem like it, speaking like someone much older. I guess that’s fitting since in the framing story he’s around 25 but talks and acts like a grizzled world-weary 50 year old. I can’t say I really blame Rothfuss for not being able to convincing child characters- even good writers have trouble with this- but at the same time if you’re going to include something in your story, at least try to do it well.
Later that day an “arcanist” shows up at the town. I’m starting to wonder if it’s possible to use any variation on wizard or magician and not have it sound like an MMO class. The mayor tries to kick the guy out of town because of trouble arcanists have caused in the past (this is starting to oddly familiar for some reason) but the arcanist summons wind and uses “sympathy lanterns”, whatever they are, to scare him away.
It’s hard for us Edema Ruh, but at least we had each other. This man had no one.
How is it hard for them? They’re a group of highly respected and sought-after entertainers with the patronage of a powerful, wealthy baron who seem to have a standard of living well beyond that of their clients. Is it just moving around all the time that’s hard? Because there are plenty of people who’d kill for that sort of lifestyle.
This storyline could have been compelling had Rothfuss portrayed the Edema Ruh in a more realistic light- living hand to mouth, scrounging for every bit of money and food, forced to stay perpetually on the move just to survive. But no, Kvothewank requires that they be awesome and magnificent and shit diamonds.
Kvothe takes pity on the
arcanist wizard after learning how poor he is and tries to buy some poison antidote that he read about in a play. The wizard, who is named Ben, offers to join the troupe to produce makeup for them and work the lights. This part is actually pretty good- Kvothe comes across like a real kid his age and the dialogue is fairly well written. Well, until this bit:
“I may be overstepping myself a little,” I said as I held out my hand for him to shake. “But let me be the first to welcome you to the troupe.”
This is not how an 11 year old speaks, Rothfuss.
It turns out Kvothe actually welcomed him into the group partially out of curiosity at how his awesome wizard skills worked. Is Kvothe going to to become a wizard? I sure hope so because maybe then something interesting will happen.
So I invited him into our troupe, hoping to find answers to my questions. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was looking for the name of the wind.
Okay, yes. We get that that’s the title of the book. You don’t have to remind us every chapter (there have been three more title drops between this and the last one I quoted).
These two chapters were pretty painful. It’s good that the actual story is beginning, but the sheer levels of Kvothewank were almost unbearable. That even Kvothe’s parents are awesome and amazing and special and beautiful shows how deeply infatuated with the character Rothfuss is.