Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 12: The Good Part

Just a quick scheduling note up front: the twice-weekly updates I was keeping to previously have turned out to be untenable given my current medical issues. As such, until further notice this series will update on a strict schedule of "whenever". Carry on.

I'm going to skip over several chapters where Kvothe gets a free pair of shoes, demonstrates his amazing linguistic abilities (which, of course, lets the book show off its wide variety of utterly fascinating invented languages), embarks on a long wagon ride away from Tarbean, and rediscovers his musical prowess. We meet an important character during the trip, but I'm saving her for later.

Eventually--after yet more language-exposition and an exploration of the culture of Cealdish caravan-drivers--our hero reaches Imre, the wealthy city that houses the great University. The story picks up some steam once again, as Kvothe now faces his greatest hurdle yet: talking his way into a University admission, even though he knows he can't possibly afford the fees.

The fee structure of the University is this bizarre situation where students take an oral test before the assembled faculty, and their fees are determined by how well they do. It it isn't a case of earning a scholarship; it's not like students who do well enough get a reduction in fees and everyone else pays a flat rate. Instead, someone who bungles their entrance exam could literally end up paying three times as much as someone who aced it.

Supposedly, this is because it will cost more to educate the dunces who go in knowing nothing, compared to those who demonstrate a firm foundational knowledge, but unless all the students are getting persoanlized, one to one coaching (and they're not) then this makes no sense. Even more nonsensically, students have to go through this whole rigmarole every year, with their fees for the next year decided by how well they do--but they still get quizzed by the entire faculty, including the ones whose subjects they're not even taking (this trips Kvothe up severely later in the story).

Obviously, this nonsense is only in the book to first give Kvothe some plausible way of gaining admission to the University to begin with, but then providing a steady string of challenges to his staying there.

The University lay at the heart of a small city. Though truthfully, I hesitate to call it a city at all. It was nothing like Tarbean with its twisting alleys and garbage smell. It was more of a town, with wide roads and clean air. Lawns and gardens were spaced between small houses and shops.

In other words, we have now exited the grimdark George RR Martin part of the book, and have  entered the Wizard School Adventures part of the book.

As I approached the Archives, its grey, windowless surface reminded me of an immense greystone. It was hard to believe after all the years of waiting that I was finally there. I circled around it until I found the entrance, a massive pair of stone doors standing wide open. Over them, chiseled deep into the stone, were the words Vorfelan Rhinata Morie. I didn’t recognize the language. It wasn’t Siaru…maybe Yllish, or Temic. Yet another question I needed answers for.

A startlingly large number of Kvothe fans in the real world have gotten this phrase tattooed onto themselves, a fact that I share without commentary.

After a brief tour of the University, Kvothe toddles along to his admission exam, where he impresses the masters with his precocious knowledge and intelligence--except for one of them, who takes an immediate and irrational dislike to him.

Like I said earlier, this part of the book is actually quite good. The exam is a real nail-biter in terms of how many obstacles it throws in Kvothe's path at the last minute, and if the Tarbean section accomplished anything at all, it demonstrated just how little Kvothe has to fall back on and how dire the consequences for failure will be. The fact that our hero is such a natural genius that he convinces the masters to not just waive the fee for his first term but actually pay him several talents as a stipend--becoming the first person in the University's history to be so accommodated--feels like a fitting reward for the amount of trouble and difficulty it took to attain, unlike a lot of the other seemingly-impossible things Kvothe accomplishes throughout the story.

This chapter is also the first moment in the story that examines how Kvothe turned into a legend. Because see, while Kvothe is a well-read super-genius, and will gain a reputation far beyond the reality of his real intelligence, he reveals in his narration that he actually snuck into the exam room while other students were being questioned and listened to a bunch of them, thus giving himself a head start.

This is clever and entertaining as far as subversions of expectation go, especially since Kvothe only tells us this after we've been impressed with several of his answers--mirroring the way the characters in the story are impressed by him, see. 

I felt Master Elodin look at me. Actually felt it, I suppressed a shiver. “Soheketh ka Siaru krema’teth tu?” he asked. How well do you speak Siaru?

“Rieusa, ta krelar deala tu.” Not very well, thank you.

On the other hand, we still have to wade through this stuff.

Eventually, Kvothe is permitted to study in the University and is given a few talents to get him started, although he knows that this money won't last long and that he'll have to stretch every talent to the breaking point.

So. Now we come to a problem.

Up until this point, I've been tackling the story in chronological order, as I did the first time I blogged about these books. Kvothe's time at the University goes on seemingly forever (it's well over a third of the currently published material), is bogged down by a profusion of pointless side-plots and meandering digressions that don't contribute to the overall story in any way, and is incredibly repetitive, with the story revisiting the same plot points and repeating itself over and over again ad nauseum. As such, trudging through it all in order would be as dull for you to read about as it is for me to write about.

With that in mind, we're changing up the strategy somewhat. From this point on, each post will pick out a particular topic or subject of Kvothe's university time and then discuss it in its entirety, isolated from everything else that happens around it. When we've covered everything there is to cover, I'll talk about the circumstances that lead to Kvothe leaving the University halfway through The Wise Man's Fear, and then we'll switch back to chronological mode for the rest of that book.