I’ve been hearing about this book for some time. It’s a favorite of the Writing Excuses guys. It’s been mentioned in a few other places from time to time. So I decided when I got my Audible.com account I’d get it and give it a listen.
The novel is about a larger-than-life character named Kvothe living a very small life in the corner of nowhere with a mysterious sidekick who practically worships him. As the novel unfolds we’re given the beginnings of Kvothe’s life story which I assume will be told out over a series of novels. Rothfuss’ narrative is descriptive, even poetic at times, but also quite accessible. One can sense a great deal of weight to the world, even though we see so little of it. Details are dribbled out slowly.
The book lives up to the hype. Rothfuss has done an excellent job. He’s created a character in Kvothe that we like, care about, and cheer for, even though he can be a bit stupid at times. At least his stupidity is in line with his established personality. The story is actually a story within a story. The book begins and ends (and is interrupted by) a frame-story to explain why the main character is telling us his life story. It’s a master-stroke, since the question of “how did Kvothe come to this” is as burning a question as anything in his life story. Indeed, there are times when it’s the only story still pulling the reader along.
I say that because there are times when Kvothe takes too long on certain parts of his life. His life at the University gets tedious at times, as does his continual pursuit of a young woman who he connects with, but can never be with. Perhaps it’s because this particular aspect of the story is somewhat painful. Rothfuss couldn’t have more accurately described the romances of my teens and early twenties any better had he been riding around in my head all that time. But just because Kvothe behaves like me (I’d say “realistically”, but who knows if my experiences were typical or not) doesn’t mean I want to read half a book about someone else being the same breed of idiot.
Rothfuss has an interesting way of building tension and suspense. Most writers do so by hinting at a mystery to be revealed. Quite the opposite here: Rothfuss tells you well in advance what is going to happen. little asides, such as, “That may be part of the reason why so-n-so tried to kill me,” or “Soon I’d come to realize just how foolish I had been” are sprinkled liberally through the story. Knowing where things are headed then puts you on alert for it. The realization of those hints come sooner or later–or perhaps not at all. Or when they do come, you’re still left wondering “Was this what he was talking about, or is there something worse still to come?” It’s brilliant. You think you know what’s going to happen, and yet you don’t. Not really.
Kvothe is a lot of fun as a character. He’s a genius who can be totally clueless about some things. He’s got his quirks and foibles. He’s entirely moral, and yet a bit of a rogue nonetheless. He has a talent for finding trouble, and yet it all stems from either established weaknesses or circumstances that explain his temporary lapses in judgment. He doesn’t just “get a case of the stupids” like happens far too often in other works. He’s likable and believable, even while doing incredible things.
The praise for Rothfuss is well-earned. This story would have fallen flat in lesser hands. He’s taking significant risks with the story, and the risks largely pay off. Yes, I got bored at times, and I’m not in a hurry to rush out and get the next novel, but the story is compelling nonetheless, and I know I’ll be back once I’ve “rested up” a bit. I know it will be time well spent.