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Book review: <i>King Killer Chronicles, Day One</i> by Patrick Rothfuss

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the cover of the book


From a distance, it's not too bad. The shadowed, hooded figure is suitably mysterious - there's no indication of a hero or villain, and he appears to be bleeding from the eyes. The foiled copper text is appropriately twiddly, but at least avoids cheesy medievalisation. Likewise, the image, though not surprising, lacks the standard "tiny-figures-'gainst-an-epic-panorama" that makes every fantasy book published since 1981 look exactly the same. Bring back the nude chicks with swords, I say, just before they throw me out of the pub. Pricks. Regardless, close inspection is a bit less favourable. The image is simply a crude collage - you could knock it up in Photoshop in an afternoon. The foliage framing the central image appears in different resolutions simultaneously, there's only one leaf repeated a dozen times, and, as we learn in the first 2 pages of the text, the blood is supposed to be hair. Red hair, yes, but accidentally making the cover look like more Stephen King than Tolkein is really not something an "artist" should do. Goodkind's last books were a bit like this, too. What's going on? Doesn't anyone want to pay painters for beautiful, ornate wrap-arounds any more? Curse you, Photoshop! How many lives must you ruin!!!!!?!!!?


Kote is a humble but capable innkeeper in a small farming town. His friend Bast lives and works with him. Their lives are peaceful, amiable and a little dull. Everything changes when a local farmer staggers into the Waystone Inn one night, bleeding from a dozen deep cuts, missing his horse, and carrying a bundle under his arm. He staggers inside as the regulars fuss around him, and then flips his bundled blanket open onto a tabletop. With a clatter, a spider the size of a cartwheel tumbles out. The men jump back like scorched cats. As you would. The spider's not alive any more, but it's not really a spider, either. It's a demon. The farmers are shaken, but resilient men. Only Kote and Bast realise the significance of this creature's appearance, and only Kote has the strength to do anything about it. These creatures, the scrael, travel in groups, and so, the next night, Kote hunts the last four of the creatures. He's alone, but his fire attracts Chronicler, a traveller recently robbed and looking for food. Back at the Waystone, after a narrow victory and a lot of chest-wound stitching, the Chronicler and Kote get to know each other.

Specifically, the Chronicler tells Kote that he knows who he is, to whit, Kvothe, world famous warrior, wizard, wooer of women, and doer of a whole bunch of other shit that we don't have any idea as to the truth of, what with this being the first chapter of the first book in a brand-new series. Anyway, the Chronicler has come all this way, risking the safety of Kvothe (for it is he), a man obviously reluctant to be found, in the name of a story. Kvothe eventually agrees, but demands three days for the telling. The Chronicler eventually submits to this requirement, and day one, e.g. this book, begins. Back we go, to the travelling gypsy childhood of a boy called Kvothe...

The good

Ok, maybe you’re thinking, “Tom, that sounds like a blend of intriguing invention and standard fantasy cliches.” You’d be right. It takes the book 50-100 pages to hit its stride, although there’s plenty to like along the way. What kept me reading that far was the quality of the prose, and Rothfuss’ style.

The first item is in evidence from the page one. In case you’ve never read one, most fantasy books start with a rambling prologue intended to familiarise the with the strange(ish) new(ish) world they’re about to enter by dropping some backstory/historical ka-nollidge up in their grill. In practice this rarely works. At best it’s 18 pages of Star-Wars-style portentous pre-plot, thick with silly names you won’t remember and heavily trading on a sense of scale that the book has yet to earn. At worst it’s a dusty history lesson - a history lesson in BULLSHIT. The Name of the Wind begins with a prologue, but it’s a total of one (1) page long, and describes, beautifully, three different types of silence falling over the Waystone Inn. The passage is repeated at the book’s end, slightly varied, now meaning much more to us, but no less touching and poetic.

Which brings me to the second point, concerning style. Many fantasy authors try to write in Olde Englishe Talke. Tolkien got away with this, but Tolkien was a fucking professor of language and literature. Sorry Yanks, but it’s particularly risky for you guys - one “Mom”, “candy”, or “aluminum” will poison fifty pages of thees and thous. Sadly for Yanks (who write many of the most popular series’), the alternative isn’t much of an improvement, e.g. token lukewarm medieval backdrop plus modern American dialogue, dotted with half-arsed anachronisms like mouse poo on formica. Think Buffy Goes Time Travelling and you’re pretty damn close to Goodkind, Eddings et al (and that’s not even the worst of it - for that you need franchised fantasy crossovers like the Dragonlance saga, deftly disembowelled by penny arcade as the “Song of the Sorcelator Saga”). With respect, research, and a bit of effort, this blend can be made to work - Feist & Wurts managed to evoke a parallel medieval Japan-slash-Europe in the “Empire” & “Riftwar” books - but recently I found myself wondering why no fantasy author has hit on having characters act, talk and react to their surroundings and experiences THE WAY NORMAL HUMANS WOULD. And this is what Rothfuss achieves. He does it through the style of his writing - neither affectedly old nor colloquially new, and he does it through the quality of his characters, particularly the main one, Kvothe.

Kvothe is a corker. As I said above, it might take a few pages to make your mind up - the humble enigma is a bit of a clichÄ, then there’s some initial boasting (which unfortunately made its way onto the back of the book) that didn’t endear me either. Kvothe’s childhood and early education is more fun, but the character really locked in for me when he arrives at university. Oh yes, half of this book takes place in a magic university, it’s like Harry Potter for adults and/or people who don’t like reading stiffly engraved planks of solid oak. Rothfuss makes so much of the character that it’s hard to summarise his enjoyability. Once again, there are elements of his story that are familiar (I was reminded of Feist’s upwardly-mobile urchins on more than one occasion), but I can honestly say I’ve lived in a world like this, with a character like this. He may cheek his masters by day and run the rooftops by night, but he’s also constantly worrying about money - tuition fees, dodgy loans, expensive magical materials, cover charges, beer, it all adds up, and he can’t fall back onto the family ties of his co-students. His dangerous lifestyle is constantly threatening his health- he’s always either recovering from an injury, stitching himself up, or off to risk his pasty bloodnut complexion in a new and frightening way. He’s also a muso, and music is another surprising element in the book. Again, this leads to a few hoary passages - the bad Folke lyrics and cod-Shakespearean couplets that not even Tolkien could pull off pop up with depressing inevitability - BUT there are also moments of genius, such as when Kvothe pens an insulting pub song about a rich wanker from the university and spreads it far and wide. More importantly, for the purposes of this example AND the purposes of the book itself, music becomes another element in the character of Kvothe and his relationship with and understanding of the world around him. As with his prodigiousness in other areas, it never feels like a tacked-on excuse to buff up the character, but a natural extension of the personality of a fictional individual I really came to like spending time with. For that’s another very intelligent aspect of Rothfuss’ careful setup - Kvothe himself is relating his story directly to the Chronicler, e.g. the audience, e.g. us. This allows the author all sorts of tasty tomfoolery with the standard narrative POV - digression, embarrassment, distraction, bemusement at his own younger self, and the ability to step out of the main plot into the “present”. I can honestly say it’s been a long time since I got as much un-ironic pleasure out of a novel as I did from Kvothe’s retelling of his university years. I laughed, I gasped, I got a bit moist-eyed, I boggled, I mouthed words like a yokel, I read passages aloud like a crazy person, I had the book glued to my hand for a whole weekend and I missed it as soon as it was gone. If that’s not what fiction is supposed to do to the reader then I don’t know what fiction is supposed to do to the reader.

Kvothe is far from all there is to recommend The Name of the Wind, but he just happens to be an excellent example of what Rothfuss brings to the fantasy genre - a hugely, shockingly enlivening force. There’s more than one trope and clichÄ here, but it’s a rare one Rothfuss can’t inhabit, bring us inside along with him, then, when we’ve just re-imagined the enduring truth of the situation, he’ll change it, sometimes just enough, sometimes by flipping it, and us, right on our arse. How many times have you read about the hero fighting the dragon while trying to keep the princess safe? Sure. But what about if the hero was an unarmed fifteen-year-old and the princess was a gold-digging groupie of loose morals? And what about if she AND the dragon were whacked off their heads on drugs?

The bad

OK, it could have been slightly more original. I won’t dissect the plot because I don’t want to ruin it. I’m trying to think of an analogy that doesn’t involve some gay pie recipe or something...hmmm...look, there are plenty of classic books and films that are far from perfectly original. Tarantino lifted the plot of Reservoir Dogs pretty much straight from Ringo Lam’s City On Fire (not to mention Kansas City Confidential, The Big Combo, six decades of gangster and heist films, etc), but the movie’s greatness was all about what he did with the characters, the storytelling, and the style. Fantasy stories have to start somewhere, and a tavern, for instance, makes as much sense as a bar, starting point of a thousand movies in every genre. Fantasy isn’t about originality, it’s about power that comes at a great cost, the high wild places of the mind, and swords that go “ting”.

Rothfuss, according to the T-shirt he’s wearing on his wikipedia page, is a fan of Joss Whedon. Like Whedon, he’s young, and he’s still learning. They both have an inimitable grasp of the genres they work in, and, most importantly, haven’t forgotten exactly what they would want to experience at the other end of the process. Yes, like Whedon, this doesn’t mean that Rothfuss never missteps - they both occasionally fall into the Kevin Smith traps of over-earnestness and self-satisfaction - but there’s a truth to the characters they create and the relations between them that maintains the strength of the story no matter which strange dimensions they find themselves in.

According to the same wikipedia page, Rothfuss wrote the entire Kingkiller trilogy as one (massive) novel, the somewhat shitly titles “Song of Earth and Fire”. Fortunately the publishers earned their cut for once, killed the old title, and split the book into three. That means that this is not only a rare chance to step into a brand new fantasy at the ground floor, but that, for once, the rest of the edifice has already been built, and thus won’t succumb to Robert Jordan syndrome. If his next two books are as good as this one, then Rothfuss will soon have more in common with Whedon - a massive freaking fan base, for one thing, with me up the back, squealing like a girl.

What I learnt

That there’s still room in this kooky old world for fantasy which is A- actually fantastical, and B- fantastic. Seriously, after the Sword of Truth wheelbarrow squelched to a halt in a mud of libertarian proselytising, self-inflation and slow-motion anticlimax, I thought I’d given up on fantasy altogether. Then, just when I think I’m out...they pull me back in again. I can safely say then, that if you like fantasy, you obviously ought try this, and if you liked fantasy once, long ago, this might remind you why. This is so good, so user friendly yet so well-written, it might even convert someone who couldn’t tell you Tolkien from the Keebler elf. Get into it!

In short

Title: King Killer Chronicles, Day One
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: DAW
ISBN: 978-0756404741
Year published: 2008
Pages: 736
Genre(s): fiction, fantasy
Review Type: