Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle Pt. 1: A Silence of Multiple Themes

I remember reading somewhere (Stephen King might have said it) that the opening of a book is a promise, and that the extent to which a book succeeds--the extent to which the reader comes away from it satisfied--depends largely on whether it upholds that promise. 

This isn't just a matter of quality or a book being well written. You can promise one type of story and deliver another and get away with it, but you need to be very, very good and, crucially, the story you give the reader must be at least as interesting as the one they signed up for.

So. With that in mind, let's take a look at the opening to The Name of The Wind, the first book in the Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. This is a book that weighs in at just over 200,000 words, whose sequel is nearly double that--almost 1000 pages depending on the typeset used. It's the opening of a gigantic trilogy whose concluding volume has been incognito for nearly six years. A reader turning the first page of The Name of The Wind is standing on the brink of a significant time investment (not to mention the inevitable emotional investment that comes with being a fan of anything long-running and serialized).

Here, in its entirety, is the prologue to The Kingkiller Chronicle:

IT WAS NIGHT AGAIN. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint.

The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.

The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.

The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

Our friend with the true-red hair is Kvothe, the strangely-named protagonist of this whole shebang, introduced here in a framing story that weaves throughout each book. The majority of the plot will consist of extended flashbacks showing how Kvothe came to be a simple innkeeper in an anonymous village.

Because you see, Kvothe is secretly the most famous (and infamous) person in the world. One of Kingkiller's over-riding themes is how myths and stories grow, and the complex intermingling between truth and fiction, and so the books chart Kvothe's rise to fame, from a humble travelling performer to a world-class magician and doer of various epic deeds (his eventual downfall and escape into hiding will presumably be covered in the last book).

One of the trilogy's major failings so far is that it doesn't actually handle this theme well at all, which we'll discuss later, but for now I have a quick question: what age do you think Kvothe is?

The poetic narration never describes him beyond his hair, but we get some clues, don't we? There's a tone of weariness to the writing, a feeling of winter approaching and of a process reaching its end. Kvothe is "a man waiting to die." This is clearly someone whose most signficant years are behind him. He has done great and terrible things, but those times are over. Are you picturing a grizzled man of later years, preparing for his old age in a pre-industrial society where support and comfort for the elderly isn't as common as it is today? That's the image that immediately came to mind when I first read this prologue.

Well, adjust your mental image, because Kvothe is--at most--in his late twenties here. His age is never given concretely at any point in the story, so he could be even younger. This world-weary, seen-it-all man waiting to die might be all of twenty-five.

Okay, to be fair, there's a bit more going on here under the surface: much later, we discover that Kvothe has lost his magical powers for some unknown reason, which seems to have also robbed him of his will to live. That could account for the grim, doom-laden tone. And I guess it's conceivable that the book is doing something a bit clever by portraying a young man over-reacting a bit to the idea of entering his thirties and well and truly leaving his childhood and adolescence behind, which is something I think a lot of people tend to do (and which Rothfuss as a university lecturer would probably be familiar with).

But even with these caveats, there's a severe mis-match between the epic feeling the book is aiming for and the actual events being portrayed. This will be a continuous problem going forward, as the Chronicle constantly adopts a dramatic, mythical tone despite telling a story in which not a whole lot of note actually happens. I opened this post by talking about the promise a book makes, and in one sense, the Kingkiller Chronicle breaks the reader's trust right off the bat with a clutch of opening chapters that are much more exciting and action-packed than most of what follows; but it also begins as it means to continue: with a whole lot of pomp and circumstance that's at odds with what's actually happening below the surface.

Things get a bit more interesting in chapter one, "A Place For Demons", with an opening that makes a strong argument for why the prologue should have just been skipped:

IT WAS FELLING NIGHT, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

Old Cob was filling his role as storyteller and advice dispensary. The men at the bar sipped their drinks and listened. In the back room a young innkeeper stood out of sight behind the door, smiling as he listened to the details of a familiar story.

Yes, the "young innkeeper" is Kvothe, having shaken off his old-man grumps and adopted a persona more similar to the one he'll take on for the rest of the story.

Old Cob tells a story of Taborlin the Great, a heroic figure in Kvothe's world roughly analogous to Robin Hood or Merlin, and his run-in with beings called the Chandrian. Kvothe (using the ingenious alias Kote) steps in to correct some inaccuracies when tinkers come into the narrative.

This is as close as either of the books ever really get to being clever about myths and storytelling in the way they're frequently claimed to. Kvothe, unknown to Old Cob and the audience (or the reader) has first-hand experience of both the Chandrian and tinker's song that Cob quotes, and is able to separate the fact behind the fiction.

The other thing to note about this opening section is how very Standard Fantasy it is, in that it concerns a bunch of dudes with descriptors like "Smith's prentice" sitting around an inn that is basically a contemporary English pub, except that it doesn't have electricity. This, too, will be a running theme going forward, despite how often these books are praised for the depth of their world-building.

Anyway, Old Cob's storytelling hoedown is interrupted when a man named Carter stumbles into the Inn, covered in blood and in shock, having just been attacked by a gigantic spider.

The innkeeper frowned. “They can’t have made it this far west yet,” he said softly.

The framing story of the Kingkiller Chronicle uses the well-worn technique of bringing up a series of mysteries and unexplained circumstances, which the action of the main flashback-plot gradually fills in. Just in this opening chapter, the story poses several significant questions: what are these spiders? Where did they come from? Why does Kvothe know about them? What's the deal with the big war that's implied to be taking place in a neighboring kingdom, and why does Kvothe blame himself for starting it? 

A few pages later we're introduced to Bast, Kvothe's assistant/apprentice, who is later revealed to be one of the Fae. How did they meet, and why does Bast hold Kvothe in such high regard? As the book goes on, it becomes clear that fairies in this world are not something that people encounter on a stroll to ye olde cornere shoppe--in fact, Kvothe spends most of the currently published books not believing they exist--so there's got to be an interesting story there, right?

Well, don't get too invested in any of these mysteries, because as of the end of The Wise Man's Fear literally none of them have been resolved; several of them haven't even been mentioned again. The closest that the trilogy has even come yet to justifying its title is a few off-hand comments and coy hints; Kvothe in the flashback story has not actually killed, or even met, any kings.

Because of this, even many die-hard Kingkiller fans are getting a little nervous about the third book (tentatively titled The Doors of Stone), since it's going to have a whole lot of heavy lifting to do in order to bring the story full circle and wrap everything up in a satisfying way. To give just one example: flashback-Kvothe has yet to even meet Bast, so either Doors of Stone will spend most of its page-count detailing the intimate history that the framing story implies occurred between the two, or that element of the plot will just be skipped over. Neither seems very satisfying.

As both the framing and flashback stories go on, they keep introducing new questions, plot mcguffins and other story threads in a Lost-like fashion, furthering the reader's inevitable anxiety over whether any of this is ever going to be resolved. I bring all of this up now as advance warning.

But if the flashback story doesn't explain all of this, what does it spend its time doing? Before we answer that question in more detail than you ever wanted or needed, we need to meet one more main character, in our next installment.