Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 7: My Parents Are Dead

Note: the following consists of two posts edited together after the fact. I decided I wasn't happy with what was going to be part seven, so I deleted half of it and combined it with post eight to make up the difference. Please enjoy this one-time offer of 50% extra Kvothe for the same great price.

Skipping over a few more chapters of sympathy lessons and an interlude back to the framing story that I'll talk about later, we're almost at Kvothe's tragic orphaning. But first, his wise mentor Ben needs to exit the story. He does so in an odd way.

She was a widow, fairly wealthy, fairly young, and to my inexperienced eyes, fairly attractive. The official story was that she needed someone to tutor her young son. However, anyone who saw the two of them walking together knew the truth behind that story.

She had been the brewer’s wife, but he had drowned two years ago. She was trying to run the brewery as best she could, but she didn’t really have the know-how to do a good job of it…

As you can see, I don’t think anyone could have built a better snare for Ben if they had tried.

After an extensively-described going-away party, complete with some songs and yet more world-building mythology, Ben gives Kvothe a note wishing him well at the University (something that Kvothe at this point has not consciously decided to pursue) and then takes his leave. He hasn't shown up again since.

I say that this is odd, because I wonder why Ben makes this rather abrupt departure rather than getting caught in the Chandrian attack that will occur soon. The most obvious answer is that he was going to come back at some point, but as of the end of The Wise Man's Fear that hasn't happened, and it's hard to see where Doors of Stone could fit him in as anything other than a brief cameo.

Several months later, Kvothe goes off for an evening wander and comes back to find his parents and the entire troupe murdered. I'm going to quote a few sections of this chapter, because parts of it are quite well done:

I hope they spent those last few hours well. I hope they didn’t waste them on mindless tasks: kindling the evening fire and cutting vegetables for dinner. I hope they sang together, as they so often did. I hope they retired to our wagon and spent time in each other’s arms. I hope they lay near each other afterward and spoke softly of small things. I hope they were together, busy with loving each other, until the end came.
Let us pass over my return to the camp just as the sun was beginning to set. The sight of bodies strewn about like broken dolls. The smell of blood and burning hair. How I wandered aimlessly about, too disoriented for proper panic, numb with shock and dread.
It was in the darkest hours of the night when I found our wagon. Our horse had dragged it nearly a hundred yards down the road before he died. It seemed so normal inside, so tidy and calm. I was struck by how much the back of the wagon smelled like the two of them.

Like I said, it's pretty well done. But it's let down by Kvothe's massive self-importance (and since he's the one telling us the story, the self-importance of the story itself).

I would pass over the whole of that evening, in fact. I would spare you the burden of any of it if one piece were not necessary to the story. It is vital. It is the hinge upon which the story pivots like an opening door. In some ways, this is where the story begins.

So let’s have done with it.

If this was a Star Wars-esque Bildungsroman taking place in a whimsical fantasy world, it would be easy to buy that Kvothe, as the tale's protagonist and narrator, is the center of the universe and that the murder of his family is The Most Important Thing That Has Ever Happened. But these books only sporadically present themselves as adolescent fantasy adventure; most of the time, they want to be serious, deep literature taking place in a gritty, grounded setting that subverts the tropes of high fantasy.

In the war-torn, unjust world that Kvothe lives in, children must be traumatically orphaned by violence every day of the week (Kvothe himself meets two young women who suffer a far worse fate in similar circumstances). The only reason Kvothe's story is different is because his parents were murdered by the Chandrian and not soldiers or bandits. And as I've explained already, the Chandrian are barely a factor--this is their only direct appearance, they don't seem to be active at all in the plot as of the end of The Wise Man's Fear, and Kvothe only sporadically bothers to put any effort into looking for them. 

But the death of his troupe is treated as The Most Tragic Incident Ever. His sorrow and pain are The Most Important Sadness. Everything in the story is like this--the unrequited crush he spends way more time and energy on than the Chandrian is A Most Tragic and Lamentable Tale of Woe, rather than two awkward teenagers making moon-eyes at each other for years on end. In the framing story, when he gets depressed over (essentially) not being famous anymore, this too is treated by both the narrative and the other characters as hugely important.

But enough about Kvothe's parents. What about the Chandrian, the supposed villains of this whole trilogy? What are they like?

His sword was pale and elegant. When it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breathe and everything is still.

He was two dozen feet from me, but I could see him perfectly in the fading light of sunset. I remember him as clearly as I remember my own mother, sometimes better. His face was narrow and sharp, with the perfect beauty of porcelain. His hair was shoulder length, framing his face in loose curls the color of frost. He was a creature of winter’s pale. Everything about him was cold and sharp and white.

Except his eyes. They were black like a goat’s but with no iris. His eyes were like his sword, and neither one reflected the light of the fire or the setting sun.

This is Cinder, the Chandrian who Kvothe latches onto the most strongly as the target of his revenge-quest. He's the one who (sort of) makes another appearance in The Wise Man's Fear, and he's the closest that any of the Chandrian come to being an actual character, rather than a mostly-incidental background detail.

Cinder is about to kill Kvothe with his ice sword, but he's stopped by his master and the leader of the Chandrian, Lord Haliax.

Yes, that name is distractingly close to "Lord Halifax".

“Cinder.” A cool voice came from the direction of the fire.

His black eyes narrowed in irritation. “What?” he hissed.

“You are approaching my displeasure. This one has done nothing. Send him to the soft and painless blanket of his sleep.” The cool voice caught slightly on the last word, as if it were difficult to say.


“Refresh me again as to our relationship, Cinder,” the shadowed man said, a deep sliver of anger running through his patient tone.

“I…I am in your service…” Cinder made a placating gesture.

“You are a tool in my hand,” the shadowed man interrupted gently. “Nothing more.”

A hint of defiance touched Cinder’s expression. He paused. “I wo-”

The soft voice went as hard as a rod of Ramston steel. “Ferula.”

Cinder’s quicksilver grace disappeared. He staggered, his body suddenly rigid with pain.

“You are a tool in my hand,” the cool voice repeated. “Say it.”

Cinder’s jaw clenched angrily for a moment, then he convulsed and cried out, sounding more like a wounded animal than a man. “I am a tool in your hand,” he gasped.

“Lord Haliax.”

“I am a tool in your hand, Lord Haliax,” Cinder amended as he crumpled, trembling, to his knees.

(I can't get Squarespace's quote feature to portray it properly, but all of Haliax's dialogue is in italics for some reason)

Reading this again knowing what the rest of the books are like, I'm struck by how out of place all of this is. It feels like it came from a different series entirely. Villains like Haliax haven't shown up again in the nearly 1500 pages separating this scene from the end of The Wise Man's Fear; Kvothe instead runs afoul of bandits and people who hate him out of petty jealousy, and the handful of Fey beings who do make an appearance are a lot more mysterious and not prone to villainous monologues. The fact that Haliax even exists in a story that's mostly about the intricacies of student finances and low-stakes political maneuvering (unfortunately, that is not a joke) seems absurd.

But the best thing about Haliax is his appearance, which, if you stop to think about it, makes him look utterly absurd:

Though the sky was still bright with sunset and nothing stood between the fire and where he sat, shadow pooled around him like thick oil. The fire snapped and danced, lively and warm, tinged with blue, but no flicker of its light came close to him. The shadow gathered thicker around his head. I could catch a glimpse of a deep cowl like some priests wear, but underneath the shadows were so deep it was like looking down a well at midnight.

Haliax's face is constantly in deep shadow. This comes off appropriately menacing when he's sitting around a spooky camp-fire at dusk, but his face is always like that, even when he doesn't have a flappity hood on, even in broad daylight. Can you imagine this guy walking around in the noon sunshine, or, I don't know, sitting in a well-lit house? 

To be fair, this is a problem with most menacing fantasy bad guys. Picturing Darth Vader or Voldemort going to the toilet (or even just sleeping in a bed) immediately makes them seem ridiculous. But Haliax takes this a step further by being a villain who only works in one very specific setting, as though he was invented solely for this one scene (which he very well might have been, since he hasn't shown up again).

After Haliax finishes villain-ing at Cinder, Kvothe is once again mere moments from death. However, Haliax senses something and declares that they must flee, sparing Kvothe's life. We won't get an explanation for what this is about for some time, but Haliax drops a clue in his big monologue to Cinder:

“Who keeps you safe from the Amyr? The singers? The Sithe? From all that would harm you in the world?” Haliax asked with calm politeness, as if genuinely curious as to what the answer might be.

I don't think we know yet what "the singers" are or why the Chandrian fear the Sithe (a faction of faeries), but we do find out who the Amyr are later on. 

In case it wasn't clear: the Chandrians' sole known activity consists of hiding from people. They're being hunted by the Amyr and threatened by whatever the singers are, and the fairies seem not to like them for some reason, and so they hide. Somewhere. If people look too deeply into their identities, they show up and blast them, and then they vanish and hide some more.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this--there's no rule of good writing that says your villains can't just be trying to save their own lives--but it's not terribly interesting, and it contributes to the growing sense that the Chandrian really aren't all that big a deal. By the end of The Wise Man's Fear, it seems as though they've been supplanted on the villain stack by an honest to god evil tree.

With that brief interlude over, Kvothe is now orphaned and ready to start his grand adventure at the University. Unfortunately, it takes him three years to get there.