Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 8: First As Farce, Then As Farce Again

Note: the post that originally went up before this one was an unfinished draft that I somehow left in the scheduling queue. I didn't notice it on Monday because I've been on Powerful Brain Drugs. It's now been deleted.

Kvothe's parents have been killed by the Chandrian. His troupe is dead, his mentor is off...somewhere, having married a woman we never found out much of anything about. All alone, with nothing to his name save the clothes on his back, young Kvothe must bluff and impress his way into the University using only his intelligence and native wit. How he goes about this is by far the best part of either of the two Kingkiller books. There's stakes and tension and drama, Kvothe is an underdog facing a massive uphill battle...it's great stuff.

And it takes another twelve chapters to get there.

Of all of the Kingkiller Chronicle's flaws, this is the one that's the most consistently irritating. These books are very long and very, very slow, even by the standards of weighty fantasy tomes. Anything of plot significance takes a geological epoch to happen, preceded by chapter upon chapter of filler and extraneous fat. This multi-year interlude between the death of his parents and his admission to the University isn't the worst period of wheel-spinning the books make their reader trudge through (that would be the first half of The Wise Man's Fear, which is an endless black hole where time has no meaning), but it's frustrating because the final destination is so painfully obvious, but the book just. Won't. Get there. 

Unfortunately, just enough of note happens that I can't skip over the entire sequence by saying "Kvothe learns some survival skills that he could plausibly have just learned from members of his troupe, then he cries a bit and decides to try and get into the University". But damn, I want to.

So, going as quickly as we can: Kvothe spends several months wandering and camping in the woods, numb with grief and shock (I'll just about buy a twelve year old Kvothe surviving in the wilderness, since it is established that he knows how to gather food and make shelter at this point). He has a dream about Stone Henge-like waystones, which is something the books keep bringing up even though they have yet to be relevant in any way (the third book's title, Doors of Stone, presumably indicates that they will be).

Eventually, he gets a lift into the nearest city, the improbably-named Tarbean (yes, Tarbean) with a farmer and his son. The farmer doesn't buy Kvothe's story about why he's travelling on his own and clearly wants to help him out, but Kvothe's grief and discordant mental state makes him reject the offer, and he ends up alone on the streets of the big city.

I'm torn on this whole scene. On the one hand, it's pretty sad and does pull at the old heart-strings, particularly with how close Kvothe comes to getting a roof over his head and maybe even an adoptive family. But it's also contrived. Kvothe's reasoning for not taking the farmer up on his offer, even accounting for his grief, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The hand of the author is a bit too visible, dangling salvation over Kvothe's head before cruelly yanking it away at the last minute. The only way to make the sequence more tragic would be to have him befriend a dog, who then dies trying to defend him from wolves or something.

And keep in mind, this is happening months after the massacre. We are told, directly, that Kvothe exists in a kind of emotional stasis during his entire time in Tarbean, never processing his parents' deaths or even allowing himself to acknowledge that they're really gone, such that when he finally decides to escape and go the University his grief is still as raw as it was on the night of the event. 

Look, I know that people deal with grief in different ways, and that sudden bereavement can really do a number on people, particularly children. But this just doesn't seem plausible. What really gets me is the specificity of it: Kvothe is able to look after himself and see to his own survival, and function normally in pretty much every other regard. The only thing he can't do is face up to what happened or begin dealing with it.

For reasons I'll get into later, I've always suspected that there was a bit of jiggery-pokery around Kvothe's age when these books were being written. Specifically, much of his time in the University feels like it was originally written as a young adult or even middle grade novel, starring a much younger Kvothe undergoing a sort of Hogwarts-esque wizard school experience. At some point, the decision was made to age him up to fifteen years old, but this left a gap in time between the Chandrian massacre and the beginning of the University section. And since Kvothe dealing with his grief had already been planned (or maybe even already written) to occur after he goes to the University, his character development had to be put on hold for a few years.

As such, the Tarbean sequence basically functions like a cryo-stasis pod. Kvothe is pretty much the exact same at the end of it as he was mere hours after his parents' deaths, except older and a bit Grittier.

Finding some way to stick him in a literal stasis pod would have been preferable, as the Tarbean section is where I came extremely close to giving up on the book during my first read-through. It just goes on and on, making you think "Is he going to go the University now? Is he going to go the University now? We know he's going to go there eventually, can we please just read that part already?" for chapter after dull chapter. The book also goes to a really ridiculous extreme in making Kvothe's life on the mean streets dirty and dangerous and miserable, but then ignores obvious ways he could get out.

For example, if the city is such a hellhole, why not go back out into the woods? He survived there for months on his own, so is there really any need for him to stay in Tarbean? Why not try to find Ben? Kvothe himself brings up both of these possibilities, but waves them away with extremely flimsy excuses. 

I'm becoming increasingly tired of the mode of criticism that treats books and movies as logic puzzles to be solved, where the reader's engagement consists solely of asking "well why didn't the characters just do x, y or z?" (Behind these questions is the implicit statement, "If I was the main character, I would have totally made the rational, logical choices and Solved The Story!"). But when the book itself brings up obvious alternate paths the characters could be taking, and then doesn't give very convincing reasons for why they don't take them, you can't help but ask the question. 

Obviously, the reason Kvothe stays in Tarbean for three years is because the author wanted him to. That's the reason why anything in a story happens the way it does. But that's not the idea the reader should come away with. Tragedy should seem like the inevitable consequences of a character's actions or some confluence of events beyond their control, not like something they were forced into because every other option was arbitrarily denied to them.

Before we wrap up, I want to segue into a little discussion on something that's been bugging me lately: the book's cavalier attitude when it comes to injuries.

At one point in his Tarbean adventure, Kvothe gets stabbed with a piece of dirty glass. He never worries about the possibility of infection. Later, in the framing story, he receives a broken rib during a fight and shrugs it off as though it's little worse than a scraped knee (broken ribs can puncture your internal organs and kill you). 

Now to be fair, this is not a problem unique to the Kingkiller Chronicle by any means. Most fantasy stories have characters getting stabbed or having limbs hacked off with nary a mention of sepsis or gangrene, apparently forgetting that most people in the developed world don't have to worry about those things only because of several centuries of scientific progress and advances in sanitation and health awareness. And broken ribs are routinely treated as a sort of manly badge of a character's badassitude, rather than a potentially life-threatening injury.

The thing that really resonated with me personally, though, is the fact that Kvothe receives two head injuries within short succession:

I was dizzy and nauseous when I moved my head too quickly, probably a concussion.


This had earned me such a tremendous blow to the side of the head that today I was dizzy when I tried to stand or move about quickly.

In case anyone reading this isn't aware, concussions are serious business and can signal potentially fatal brain injuries. If you ever experience concussion symptoms after a blow to the head--even a minor one--get yourself to a hospital emergency room immediately.

But the second example is even more alarming--Kvothe received such a bad blow to the head that he's still dizzy the next day

I've mentioned several times that I'm currently dealing with a chronic medical condition. Last year, I was in a minor car accident. I did not hit my head during it, and walked away from the incident with no pain or other signs of injury. Two days later, I started to develop persistent dizziness and problems maintaining my balance.

I won't go into all the ins and outs of it, but this has developed into a fun tapestry of debilitating symptoms that--as of the writing of this blog post--have only improved very slightly with time and multiple treatments. And this was from a minor incident, that didn't even involve a blow to the head directly. 

All of this has drastically changed how I view action scenes in movies and other media. I can't watch a grizzled protagonist getting repeatedly punched in the skull (something that can absolutely kill you in real life, by the way) or thrown down a flight of stairs without wondering how many months of physical therapy they're going to need afterwards.

To be clear: I'm not saying I actually want Kvothe to develop a fatal aneurysm or be disabled in a tousle with some street urchins, nor do I expect action movies to adhere strictly to realistic human biology. But I'm now more aware than I was before about how fiction makes its characters far more resilient than people are in real life.