“There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”
I’d like to precede this review by letting you know I will be spanning the entire series with one article. I figure it best to disclose that knowledge walking in the door, so you aren’t confused or surprised. This means I will be covering content spread through both of the available Kingkiller Chronicle books by Patrick Rothfuss–The Name of the Wind and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.
These two books are regarded highly within the realm of contemporary epic fantasy, stealing the attention of millions of fans and daring to stand among other titans within the genre. It only seems appropriate, considering the series’ unwavering ability to shoehorn its way into so many hearts, that we take our own look at The Kingkiller Chronicle and put a Christian lens to it. For added flavor, I will be sprinkling quotations from the books throughout the review, and though I will refrain from being overly specific with my details, there are certainly going to be spoilers of a sort, so tread with caution.
Kvothe, a legend who isn’t interested in such acclaim, is waiting out his days in the lonely barkeep he’s erected in solitude. However, when approached by a man named “Chronicler,” he finds himself needing to look inside so that he may unveil the truth surrounding his name and notoriety. In doing so, he provides new light to the rumors that plague the Four Corners of Civilization, and debunks several myths about his own actions and motivations. It is the story of a man so powerful that he changed history… whether he meant to or not.
The Kingkiller Chronicle is ripe with vulgar dialogue, though not all of it would be considered an expletive in our language. There’s a trove of recognizable words used in abundance, such as “D***”, “S***”, “H***”, “B******”, “B****”, and various words that include “A**”, but I don’t ever recall the word “F***” appearing even once. Words that aren’t necessarily curses, but are often seen by some audiences as dirty or rough, are in there as well, such as “w****” and free use of various sexual organs. The Lord’s name is used in vain both as a general term and specifically regarding various in-story gods. “Oh my god,” “Dear lord,” “Merciful Tehlu,” and “Blackened body of God” are some examples. There are also a few instances where people flip each other the bird. Though the writing is often not straightforward about the action, the reader can pick up on these hints if they read between the lines.
“It was more like the two of us had entered into a business partnership in order to more efficiently pursue our mutual interest of hating each other.”
Violence is not overly abundant, but when it does occur, it’s deeply visceral. In the city of Tarbean, young Kvothe was subject to many forms of violence, from many different sources. Men, abusing their authority as guard patrol, would chase down and flog him in the open streets. Kvothe himself is not inclined to violence often, but he’s no stranger to it, either. He brutally slays a group of travelers in the second book, cutting open their guts, slashing their throats, and otherwise killing them in cold blood. There are a number of tavern brawls which never lead to death, but are not resolved without somebody getting thrashed.
“And then there was Abenthy, my first real teacher. He taught me more than all the others set end to end. If not for him, I would never have become the man I am today. I ask that you not hold it against him, he meant well.”
The most notable display of violence is also a spoiler. I’ll sum it up just by saying that a large group of people are manically butchered by the legendary Chandrian, and Kvothe stumbles upon the freshly dead, burning and bleeding. In addition to this, a story within the story talks of the demon Encanis, who is pinned to an iron wheel and immolated alive.
“Owls are wise. They are careful and patient. Wisdom precludes boldness. That is why owls make poor heroes.”
In Kvothe’s younger years, any allusions to sexuality are blurred through a lens of his childlike innocence. There are still mentions of it, but it’s very subtle and never a point of focus. Sexuality is largely absent until Kvothe reaches the University, and even then, it’s only mentioned in passing–a joke about a cute girl, or Kvothe’s naivety with women leading to him not perceiving sexual advances. Things like this. But make no mistake, as he ages, the author includes more and more suggestive content, if only because, with age and knowledge, Kvothe is finally becoming aware of such instances. A couple different ladies invite him to bed or something of similar stature, but nothing ever comes of it.
“We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them, too. That is rare and pure and perfect.”
That is the pattern, at least until one particular arc of the story found in the second book. For sake of not revealing spoilers, I won’t name anybody, but Kvothe meets a character who almost literally forces him to mature in this aspect of his life. From this point onward, Kvothe is much more familiar and free regarding sexuality, not shying away from meeting new companions. Also, this aforementioned section involves everyone being nude for about ten chapters. Sound strange? It is, but it makes sense within the story, for whatever that’s worth.
“I’ve waited a long time to show these flowers how pretty you are.”
But I’d like to take a moment to defend Kvothe–not for being sexually loose, if you will, but because, despite all of this, he still maintains a heart that strives for romantic pursuit. This is most prominent in his relationship with Denna. If I had a tenth the charm and grace of this character, I’d be the most romantic person I know. Everything he says and does is either a stirring, heartwarming gesture, or witty enough to knock down a house.
“You are the taste of sweet wine on my lips, a song in my throat, and laughter in my heart.”
Where do I even start? Spiritual material is everywhere in this story. Probably our first major exposure to organized religion is through the Tehlin church, who worships and upholds Tehlu as the supreme lord and judge over mankind. This religion is most prominently practiced in the Aturan Empire and The Commonwealth. The mythos of Tehlu’s divinity and message changes depending on which followers are sharing the information. To some, he manifested himself through birth by a virgin with a message and goal not entirely unlike that of Jesus Christ, though with a few key differences–one being his self-destruction as a sacrifice to destroy the demon Encanis. Others perceive Tehlu, not even as a deity, but as a being of legendary acclaim and power, likened to an angelic hero warrior.
“Only priests and fools are fearless, and I’ve never been on the best of terms with God.”
The Amyr are a holy order of survivors of The Creation War, which legend heralds as having occurred centuries before Kvothe’s story begins, but they’ve long since disbanded and been stamped out by the deteriorating memory of history, with scarce details to their exact order of conduct or existence. They are said to be one of the only things the Chandrian fear, and as such are more regarded as figures of fairytale rather than people who once existed. This begs the question: did they exist? If so, what happened to them? Nobody really knows.
Demons exist within The Kingkiller Chronicle, but this term acts as something of a catch-all for anything supernatural the Tehlin followers don’t have a frame of reference for understanding. Tehlu birthed himself into the world to fight demons and save humans from their corrupting powers. Folklore holds that demons may be repelled or destroyed with iron and fire.
Basically anything that exists of the Fae is worthy of mention. These are basically the most fantastical creatures of existence and may be perceived as influenced by demons, angels, and numerous real-world mythologies. At the same time, they are cut completely of their own cloth, having a world with its own political order, storybook heroes, traditional songs, and relational paradigms. The Fae is a place where everything exists naturally, nature itself is something of a god (though not exactly), and most of its inhabitants demonstrate some form of magical quality, such as omnipotence, the ability to manipulate shadows, or manipulation of the mind.
“The red ones offend my aesthetic.” (Quoted by a vaguely evil fae creature, referring to certain butterflies from which it tears off the wings).
The Adem have strange cultural perceptions, some of which outright challenge the moral standards of Christianity and other religions. Some of their beliefs straight-up spit in the face of conventional logic, such as the uniform understanding shared by their entire population that sex does not lead to children. This is a conversation that, while brief, Kvothe gets very heated over. The Adem are guided, not by a god, but by a convoluted philosophy known as the Lethani, which, while creative, can lead to frustration on the reader’s behalf. This is only made OK by Kvothe’s mutual frustration and confusion. The Lethani is complicated.
“It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most.”
Then there’s magic. So many dimensions of magic. The magic of “true” names, which give men power over the world and others. The scientific “magic” of Sympathy, which Kvothe actively practices and learns from The University. Mind you, Sympathy is not truly magic, at least not in terms of the in-book world, but it is sometimes stigmatized as such by more superstitious folk. Everything about the Chandrian is surrounded in mysterious, powerful, dark magics. Those who practice Sympathy–arcanists–are neither common nor rare in the Four Corners of Civilization.
“Their eyes went to the flickering fire, then back to me. I was one of those. I meddled with dark powers. I summoned demons. I ate the entire little cheese, including the rind.”
Honestly, there’s too much to unveil it all here, but these are some of the biggest elements of spiritual content within the chronicle.
Alcohol appears in many forms throughout both books. In his life at the University especially, Kvothe and his friends are known to go to Imre, the city across the river, to drink and merrily listen to music at the esteemed Eolian. While cast in casual light, the chronicle does nothing to suggest the glorification of alcohol. It aids them in a good time, but there are no alcoholics (except maybe Simmon… maybe) and nobody drinks themselves to the point of stupidity. This isn’t to say they don’t get a little tipsy sometimes, and alcohol is used as an escape from daily stresses.
“Beer dulls a memory, brand sets it burning, but wine is best for a sore heart’s yearning.”
Mentioned above, there are various benevolent and malevolent alchemic and medicinal drugs administered to characters throughout the series, such as the plum bob. These are used mostly as modest story devices, or as methods for healing wounds, but one drug stands above the rest–an insidious and addictive substance known as denner resin. This drug causes euphoria, disorientation, and loss of feeling, the latter-most making it a highly sought painkiller. However, its addictive nature makes it viciously dangerous. In Tarbean, Kvothe bears witness to a teenage girl dancing naked in the snow in exchange for some of the substance. Denner addicts, also known as “sweet eaters,” are easily recognized by their frighteningly white teeth, a side effect of the resin. Denner resin is mostly a subject of The Name of the Wind, with bare mentioning thereafter.
“A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”
Though there might be some concerns that will turn off readers, there are many redemptive features in The Kingkiller Chronicle as well. Loneliness teaches the value of friendship, pain teaches the importance of protecting the helpless, poverty grants appreciation for the little things, music can stir hearts into weeping or release chains on the soul, open-mindedness grants us the capacity for learning at great lengths, vengeance is a poison, respect for women is one of the greatest cornerstones in demonstrating manhood, weaknesses can be made into strengths–all these and a hundred other lessons may be learned, all without the reader feeling like they’re being taught to or preached at.
Simply sit down and read.
The narrative breaks in the reader with an unconventional first chapter–a chapter in which literally nothing happens and no characters are named. Instead, author Patrick Rothfuss commences his grand tale by familiarizing the reader with its nature and tone, by focusing all his effort into describing one thing with exhaustive detail–a presence and an absence: silence. He begins and ends both books in the same manner, with only aesthetic changes to each of the four chapters. All of the chapters are titled “A Silence of Three Parts.” This element of the narrative, alone, sets it apart from other similar stories, as it always returns to that sobering, cut-flower feeling before each installment concludes, giving a profound sense of meaning to what is otherwise little more than pretty prose. My appreciation for these chapters was significantly greater my second time reading through the chronicle. In truth, I could say that’s probably true for everything in these books. While enjoyable the first cycle, they really start to shine when experienced again. Many details that seem dispensable at first glance are very intentional and reveal things about the narrative I didn’t originally catch.
“With slow care, rather than stealth, we must approach the subject of a certain woman. Her wildness is of such degree, I fear approaching her too quickly even in story. Should I move recklessly, I might startle even the idea of her into sudden flight.”
The Kingkiller Chronicle is, in large part, a metanarrative. It is the recounting of protagonist Kvothe’s life story, told from his own voice, in order to record the truth of it for the legendary Chronicler, keeper of stories. Because of this, both novels alternate between a third-person perspective–in which the reader follows Kvothe and company in a present, where he is an unassuming, lonely innkeeper–and a first-person perspective, where Kvothe is actively unfolding his life, starting from the ripe age of 9 and moving forward from there. In doing so, you learn the bones and blood of his story, the origins of his many glorified titles (“Kvothe the Bloodless,” “Kvothe the Arcane,” “Maedre” (Meaning “The Flame,” “The Thunder,” or “The Broken Tree”), and many others. The point of this is to hear the story from the man himself. Many of the notorious tales surrounding Kvothe, while containing of truth, are aggrandized or somehow transmuted by word-of-mouth, expressing the power and fallacy of rumor and legend. Things are not always how they appear.
“Teccam claims it is better to have a mouthful of poison than a secret of the heart… Given enough time, they cannot help but crush the heart that holds them. Modern philosophers scorn Teccam, but they are vultures picking at the bones of a giant. Quibble all you like, Teccam understood the shape of the world.”
Patrick Rothfuss is often criticized for utilizing many staple fantasy tropes in his stories. The ultimate enemies of his world, the Chandrian, are cast in a relentlessly sinister light, with not a scrap of sympathy to be shredded for any of the members. There’s a school of magic, which Kvothe eventually attends. Kvothe has a cool, wise old mentor. Several of them, actually. There’s magical power in “true” names. So on, and so forth. These are all things you’ve heard of or read in many other fantasy books. While there is some merit to this criticism, it hardly detracts from the other common opinion that, even though Rothfuss plays on these age-old ideas, he does it exceptionally well, and twists things just enough that they don’t seem much of a bother while reading.
“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.”
Pacing is perhaps one of the largest complaints people have about the chronicle, especially The Wise Man’s Fear. The narrative is a casual progression through Kvothe’s life, not a tightly rendered story. Patrick Rothfuss, while clearly knowing his way around a plot, regards characters with far more attention. This leads to several chapters in both books that do nothing for the story but develop character traits or relationships. To some, this is an unnecessary burden, to others it’s a golden thread weaving through the narrative. These segments, while hardly productive, are often some of the most memorable. Because storytelling is such a prominent past-time within Kvothe’s world (referred to as “The Four Corners of Civilization,” but that’s only the known world as far as Kvothe understands it), many chapters are dedicated simply to characters telling stories. Double-metanarratives? Meta-metanarratives? Some tales are more meaningful than others. One character might tell a story that fleshes out history and the rise of some of the most prominent characters in their mythos. Others speak of stranger things–the man who fell in love with the moon, the boy with the golden screw in his belly-button. You know, the works.
“She didn’t scowl exactly, but it looked like she was getting all the pieces of a scowl together in one place, just in case she needed them in a hurry.”
From a completely personal standpoint, I did not struggle overly much with this problem, and appreciated the secondary chapters for their attention to characters that might otherwise risk being neglected. In my second reading, some arcs I originally thought might have been too long weren’t as bad as my memory had me believe (Kvothe’s encounter with Felurian), but others were far longer than I remembered (Kvothe’s service under Maer Alveron). Lengths aside, you can sense Rothfuss’s plan under your skin. Even when you feel like complaining about something in the story, you have a hard time doing so because you know that whatever is happening, it’s important. At least, it feels important, as Rothfuss has crafted his prose in such a way that everything carries significance, or at least an illusion of significance. If nothing else, this is an impressive feat on its own.
“She also made several none-too-subtle invitations that I could join her in the water. Needless to say, I kept my distance. There are names for people who take advantage of women who are not in full control of themselves, and none of those names will ever rightfully be applied to me.”
Even accounting for the extraneous details given to his side characters, Pat still pours most of his heart and time into the development of Kvothe. The transformation of the child into the man takes more turns and tribulations than most would endure in twice their lifetimes. Kvothe maintains several character flaws, some of which he overcomes, others which amplify throughout his trails. Pride and impatience have a particular hold on his soul, but no hero would be lovable without traits to support their good character, and Kvothe harbors many of those, as well–a knack for making and returning gestures of kindness, an attitude of sympathy and acceptance for outcasts, a respect for various arts, especially music… His social skills are somewhat sore earlier on, but he always falls back on his training as an Edema Ruh to navigate unfamiliar social situations and retain his mind in extremely stressful situations. Eventually, though, he’s forced to mature in more ways than one. Years of homelessness in the cruel city of Tarbean wisens him to the conflicting natures of men, as well as transforms him into an expert thief. The University empowers his mind and magical capacities. Several other large-scale dilemmas churn the waters of change, increasing his political authority and mystic authority, as well as his ability to physically dominate others. Kvothe is a student of many teachers.
Vashet: “I will admit, I’ve never had a student offer himself up for a vicious beating in order to prove he’s worth my time.”
Kvothe: “That was nothing. Once I jumped off a roof.”
But it’s not just Kvothe. As stated above, the author understands the importance of finding other characters interesting, and not just as foils for the protagonist. Bast, Kvothe’s apprentice in the present, is a vastly fascinating character harboring far more secrets than the reader knows how to handle. Then there’s the topsy-turvy relationship chaos that is Denna. Devi, the curious girl with the pixie face who should never be crossed. Everything that is Elodin. Tempi, one of Kvothe’s greatest companions. The numerous University students who love Kvothe in spite of himself, and whose tremendous friendship has been known to make Kvothe cry himself to sleep and laugh himself to tears. The eternal rivalry that persists with Ambrose. The Masters. Abenthy. A loving mother. Cinder, the man with the nightmare smile. Auri.
“What did you bring me?” I countered.
She grinned. “I have an apple that thinks it’s a pear. And a bun that thinks it’s a cat. And a lettuce that thinks it’s a lettuce.”
“It’s a clever lettuce, then.”
“Hardly,” she said with a delicate snort. “Why would anything clever think it’s a lettuce?”
“Even if it is a lettuce?” I asked.
“Especially then,” she said, “Bad enough to be a lettuce. How awful to think you are a lettuce, too.”
The known world in which Kvothe travels is called The Four Corners of Civilization, or just the Four Corners. The Four Corners are rich in lore and history, with every area and culture having their own time-worn tales and songs to sing by the fire. Currencies change, politics change, music passes through the generations, and things are to be gained from the many cultures found within. The chronicle also does itself the service of not predictably having the main character travel everywhere on the supplied map. The author himself has stated that Kvothe has never in his life been to Modeg, despite it consuming a large portion of the Four Corners.
Each location in the Four Corners is given distinct character, whether on a national or metropolitan scale. Tarbean is a mashed up metropolis of innumerable districts and various socioeconomic castes. Haert is so closely entwined with the mountains they’re carved from that you can hardly tell you’re even standing next to the houses when they’re beside you, and the inhabitants are considered “quietly prosperous.” The University has a small township which caters to the specific needs of its local students, such as various metal shops, bars, and apothecaries. Every single town and village is different and distinguishable in the flesh of the Four Corners.
“Okay,” I cleared my throat, “There is a place not many folk have seen. A strange place called Faeriniel. If you believe the stories, there are two things that make Faeriniel unique. First, it is where all the roads in the world meet. Second, it is not a place any man has ever found by searching. It is not a place you travel to, it is the place you pass through while on your way to somewhere else.”
The Fae is a mystical realm that runs parallel to the Four Corners and is home to infinite mysteries and supernatural activities. Creatures of indeterminate power and agenda roam its beautiful, odd realms. Time is distorted within the Fae, and day and night are completely reliant on where you’re standing. Most folk discard the Fae and its inhabitants as little more than the fancies of children. To most, the Fae does not exist, nor do the Amyr or the Chandrian, just as we, the readers, might chastise anybody who believed in pixies, the Easter Bunny, or the Boogieman. Such is the way of things.
Many mysteries lie in the folds of the world. Some of these things go without explanation, and others are imperative to the tale being told, but with a painfully small amount of detail given to their nature or function–the Four-Plate Door, the Thrice-Locked Chest, the Waystones, gateways to the Fae, Yllish Story-knots, and the existence of the Amyr and the Chandrian. The world is big, and its secrets are deep. So secret, in fact… that you might wonder if the answers weren’t just lost, but intentionally rooted up and destroyed.
“It was the same scolding any child receives. Stay out of the neighbor’s garden. Don’t tease the Bentons’ sheep. Don’t play tag among the thousand spinning knives of your people’s sacred tree.”
Because dialogue is so closely linked to the nature of characters, this is arguably one of Rothfuss’s strongest suits. Each character has a distinct voice and method of displaying themselves in social situations. Language is also a large aspect of the world, and as such acts as a tool and counterpoint in many interactions. Wilem is a student at the University, for example, who is still learning the native tongue of Aturan, so sometimes he’ll say things that are off-key or completely incorrect, which will goad gentle correction from his peers. Every interaction Kvothe has with the Adem is a stroke of life in the dialogue, as the Ademic culture regards conversation and communication with refreshingly unconventional patterns and consequences.
“When someone tells you a piece of their life, they’re giving you a gift, not granting you your due.”
Humor is largely more situational than it is dialogue-oriented. At one point, Kvothe consumes an alchemic agent known as plum bob, which obliterates his inhibitions regarding right and wrong, especially in social matters. Obviously, this becomes a tremendous issue in terms of storytelling, but it also makes for many hysterical moments which wouldn’t make much sense out of context. Most of the humor of the chronicle is as such–great while traversing the book yourself, but not as interesting when removed from its pages or without knowledge of the characters involved.
“Anker stared at me from behind the bar, as did everyone else in the room. ‘That was not my fault,’ I said, pointing at the door. ‘She went crazy on her own.'”
Because the brunt of the book is told in first-person, specifically as an oral presentation to another… in a sense, it’s all dialogue. Kvothe makes in-story commentary regarding what he’s speaking about, and because he’s already lived through everything he shares, he takes the liberty of being generous in his foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing. Let’s talk about that for a second, because it’s very important. Narrative applications aside, Kvothe knows the beginning and end of his journey; he knows everything that happens and has the convenience of hindsight to tell him why. This allows him to be cryptic regarding certain matters, as he will sometimes break from his normal pattern of speaking and switch into a brief form of first-person omniscient. This sort of insight plants heavy seeds into the mind of the reader. It plants secrets–things you know have an explanation, and that you know Kvothe knows but simply refuses to discuss because it’s not time for that to be revealed in the story. His young self didn’t have the convenience of knowing the future, and neither does the reader, so he plays with the minds of his in-book audience as much as he plays with the readers themselves.
“And that is how Kvothe spent his last night before he came to the University, with his cloak as both his blanket and his bed. As he lay down, behind him was a circle of fire, and before him lay shadow like a mantle, gathered. His eyes were open, that much is certain, but who among us can say they know what he was seeing? Look behind him instead, to the circle of light that the fire has made, and leave Kvothe to himself for now. Everyone deserves a moment or two alone when they desire it. And if by chance there were tears, let us forgive him. He was just a child, after all, and had yet to learn what sorrow really was.“
Perhaps one of the greatest reasons for its popularity is that the chronicle itself behaves much like a puzzle for the reader. Now is perhaps the best time to begin reading this series, as the third and final book has not yet surfaced. The sheer amount of detail and mystery wrapped around every element of the story is enough to drive millions of fans to the end of their nerves over the endless theories and possibilities for what has happened in the remainder of Kvothe’s past, and how that has lead to his current, broken present.
Read the books once. Read them again. Look at what people are saying on internet forums, and do some imaginative thinking for yourself. When I began this review, The Kingkiller Chronicle was already my favorite series of books, but it’s doubly moreso now that I’ve begun realizing that this story is more than just a pretty face. There’s something deep and fierce hiding in its characters and narrative. I feel as though I’ve unearthed one of the oldest kept secrets in the world.
If you’re impatient, then wait for the third book before subjecting yourself to this gentle torture. Meet the rest of us at the Doors of Stone. We’ll be waiting to welcome you.
God bless, look for secret things, and always remember to smile.
(For those interested, we also have a review on the related novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, which focuses entirely on Auri. You may read it, here.)
*All art (fan-made and otherwise) was taken from the Kingkiller Wikia and patrickrothfuss.com, except the pictures of Pat himself. Google served me well on those.
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