“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 fire itself.”
I had heard nothing but positive things about this book for a long time but for whatever reason it just never especially captured my interest… but after my sister pestered me for several months to read it insisting how much I would love it, even going so far as to buy me a copy (thanks Chelsea), I finally decided to give it a read, and I am so glad I did. The story begins when a worn down inn-keeper with fiery red hair named Kote crosses paths with the Chronicler, a widely respected story-teller. The inn-keeper soon reluctantly reveals that he is actually Kvothe: a man famed through-out the land for his tremendous intellect, power and adventures too numerous to count… known to some as “Kvothe the Bloodless”, “Kvothe the Arcane” and “Kvothe Kingkiller”. Despite all of this, he seems content to remain hidden from the rest of the world, but after much prying and insistence from the Chronicler, Kvothe agrees to allow the old man to record his epic story. What follow’s is Kvothe’s first-hand account of his life, starting from his childhood performing in a nomadic troupe with his family, to his years surviving on the streets, all the way to his admittance to the prestigious university where he expands his knowledge in various fields and hones his skills in this world’s magic. I absolutely loved this book from start to finish, from its beautiful writing to its compelling magic and mystery, and I seriously can’t recommend it highly enough.
The story wasn’t at all the sort of thing I usually gravitate towards in my fantasy literature, as the vast majority of the story consisted of lots of quiet moments rich with narrative content, emotion and lore, but very minimal in action. Usually this type of story-telling results in the reading experience feeling somewhat slow (at least for me), but this wasn’t at all the case with this novel… and I’m not even sure I can confidently say why or how exactly. Something about Patrick Rothfuss’ writing style just made even the most mundane and simple of events feel rich and engaging, and as a result the entire story felt extremely captivating. Which isn’t to imply that there isn’t a fair-share of epic content in this book, because there definitely is. Again, the general synopsis might not give off the impression that there is much excitement to be had in this story, but that is not the the case at all. By the end of this book you truly feel like you have gone through an epic journey and considering that this only a small fraction of Kvothe’s life, I can only imagine the adventures he will find himself in in the next installment of this series.
I think a large part of what kept the novel so engaging was the elements of mystery woven into the narrative. Many things pop in and out of the story without much explanation, and rather then being frustrating it simply just made me want to keep reading, desperate for some of the answers to my constantly increasing list of questions. I can’t tell you how many times I would go to my sister with such questions, guiltily seeking out spoilers despite myself, only to have her say something along the lines of “yeah I still have no idea either”. Again, I know this sounds annoying on paper but I promise, it was fantastic… and it was helped greatly by how in-depth Rothfuss went into explaining other elements of this story’s world, from its religion and legends to one of my favorite aspects of this novel: the magic. The intricacies and subtleties of this book’s magic are far too complicated to adequately explain in a review (which I can already tell is going to be way longer than I initially intended), but trust me when I say they were fascinating. They ranged from more familiar types of magic like alchemy and sygaldry (runes), to more unique forms such as the arts known as sympathy and naming. They operated and were treated more like a science that could be mastered than some cosmic force beyond humans’ comprehension or control, and this made Rothfuss’ setting feel very real and grounded without losing that spark of wonder that magic so-often provides to fantasy stories.
As far as characters go, this novel also excelled. Kvothe was an outstanding protagonist, which I think could have easily gone the other way were it not for the various subtleties incorporated into his character that made him so interesting and likable. It is made clear relatively early on that Kvothe has a natural unbelievable intelligence, and as a result lots of things that others may struggle with come very easily to him. Initially I worried that this might result in him becoming a bit of a Gary-Stu, but luckily Kvothe had plenty of flaws to avoid becoming such a character. Yes, he was brilliant, hard-working and resilient… but he was also impulsive, rash and a bit of a smart-ass, resulting in him getting into a decent amount of trouble. I also loved how Kvothe’s love of music and the lute was incorporated into his story and character. As a musician myself I felt it added such a charming element to this book. The supporting cast was also great! There were too many secondary characters to list here, but another aspect of this book that I loved was that every reader seems to have different favorite supporting characters from what I’ve seen online. They tend to come in and out of the novel very quickly, but for the very brief time that some of them occupy in the story they really make the most of it with charming, quirky and memorable personalities. My personal favorites would probably have to be Bast: Kvothe’s assistant/apprentice who works along-side him at the Waystone Inn, Abenthy: the snarky old archanist that first teaches Kvothe in his childhood on the road, Simmon: a fellow student that he befriends upon arriving at the university, and Elodin: the eccentric Master of Naming at said university.
Despite all of the glowing praises I have given this novel up until this point, its greatest strength by far is the writing style. I touched on this earlier, but Rothfuss has a true talent for injecting every line he writes with wonder, humor, beauty and emotion, and it made the novel as a whole feel very cozy and intimate, even during the more tense and frightening sections. He also manages to always adjust the writing style as needed to perfectly accommodate the mood of every scene without sacrificing consistency of tone. On more than one occasion I would be smiling as I read along with what I thought was a nice comfortable passage only to face an emotional gut-punch the following paragraph and nearly be brought to tears, and I absolutely loved it. These were just a handful of my favorite quotes that I happened to make note of as I was reading but trust me, there are countless others that stuck in my memory:
“Music is a proud, temperamental mistress. Give her the time and attention she deserves, and she is yours. Slight her and there will come a day when you call and she will not answer.”
“I wanted to tell her that she was the first beautiful thing I had seen in years. That the sight of her yawning to the back of her hand was enough to drive the breath from me. How I sometimes lost the sense of her words in the sweet fluting of her voice. I wanted to say that if she were with me then somehow nothing could ever be wrong for me again.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Especially in my everywhere.”
“Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can’t sing. Words have to find a man’s mind before they can touch his heart, and some men’s minds are woeful small targets. Music touches their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.”
I know this book hardly needs my endorsement at this point, as there’s a reason why it’s so widely critically acclaimed, but regardless, please go read it! Whether you are a fan of fantasy or not, there’s is so much to be enjoyed and appreciated about this novel. The characters are extremely likable, distinct and memorable, the magic is rich and complex, the overall story is surprisingly compelling given the somewhat basic premise, and it’s all held together by an outstanding quality of writing. I can’t wait to start “The Wise Man’s Fear” to see what comes next! 5/5