Let's Read The Kingkiller Chronicle pt. 13: My Rival

Today, we're going to talk about rivals.

Giving your protagonist a rival--a character who isn't outright villainous per se, but who acts as a foil to them--is a time-tested literary tradition. It's a staple of the romance genre and of shounen manga aimed at young boys, and it shows up often in long-running or serialized stories of all kinds, so the writer can have a threat for the main characters to tangle with on a regular basis without wheeling out the actual villain every installment. 

Shortly after his admission to the University, our boy Kvothe gets a rival of his very own: Ambrose, a snooty aristocrat who Kvothe first bumps into on a trip to the library.

(As mentioned in a previous post, I'm skipping over large sections of Kvothe's university time because it involves snooze-inducing dialogue like this: “Fumbled my cipher,” Wilem said sullenly. “And Lorren asked about the influence of subinfudation on Modegan currency. Kilvin had to translate. Even then I could not answer.”)

Ambrose looked up at me, his expression growing suddenly amused. “Wait, let me guess,” he said, laying his hands flat on the table and pushing himself to his feet. “You were always smarter than the other children back in Clodhump, or whatever little one-whore town you’re from. Your ability to read and count left the local villagers awestruck.”

You're obviously supposed to hate Ambrose, but I kind of like him because he's one of the few people who consistently deflates Kvothe's ego instead of falling over himself to praise and sanctify him. Granted, he's doing it out of a nasty elitist streak, but Kvothe's own attitudes towards poor country folk isn't much better.

Kvothe and Ambrose clash for the first time when Kvothe toddles off to the University's great library to look for information on the Chandrian. The two have a m'lady-off over a girl Kvothe fancies (more about this in a future post) and Ambrose, seeing an obvious mark, tricks him into bringing a lit candle into the stacks, with the result that Kvothe is immediately banned for life. Thus, an enmity for the ages is born.

Ambrose's interactions with Kvothe are one of the stranger parts of the books. Their dynamic reminds me of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, and not just because of the whole "newcomer butts heads with snooty rich kid in wizard school" angle; if you removed all the times Ambrose uses the word "whore" or feels up a woman against her will, these scenes could be coming straight from a middle grade novel. The climactic scene of The Name of The Wind (or what passes for a climax, anyway) involves Kvothe finally summoning the wind to knock Ambrose around a bit in front of the assembled student body, which would be a perfectly decent denouement in a children's fantasy story but feels oddly low-key and immature in a work ostensibly aimed at adults.

(The Kingkiller books are frequently described as YA or even sold in the YA sections of book stores; apart from the ages of the characters, things like this go a long way to explaining why that is)

Most of the interactions between Kvothe and Ambrose amount to little more than bouts of reciprocal pranking (example: Kvothe pens an elaborate poem making fun of the fact that Ambrose's surname sounds kind of like "jackass" and posts it all over Imre), and like much else in these books, they quickly start to get repetitive. Apart from one or two instances with more plot relevance that we'll look at in greater detail later, most of them could be lifted out of the narrative without affecting anything else. It starts to feel as though most of his scenes were only written to remind you he exists, so he can be used in some more relevant way later (which is true of a lot of the things that happen in these books).

This may indeed be the case. It's mentioned a few times, as off-handed comments, that Ambrose is in the royal line of succession, and over the course of the books several deaths put him nearer to the throne. Thus, it's speculated that Ambrose may be the titular king who Kvothe ends up killing.

There are two strikes against this theory, however. First, it would be kind of stupid--even a lot of die-hard Kingkiller fans rolls their eyes at the idea of Kvothe's schoolyard rivalry escalating into the defining moment of his legacy--and second, as of the end of The Wise Man's Fear there are still something like fifteen people ahead of Ambrose, and unless the third book starts moving dramatically faster than the preceding two (or skips a lot of time), it seems unlikely that they're all going to conveniently die or abdicate in favour of him. As such, this might all be a red herring, although if that's the case then I wonder what the point of spending so much time on Ambrose was.

(While we're on the subject: a more intriguing idea, starting to gain traction in the fan community, is that Kvothe himself will become the king--we'll discuss how that could be when we get to the relevant plot point--and will symbolically "kill" himself by changing his name and leaving his old identity behind. This, I have to admit, would actually be a pretty interesting subversion of expectations).

Ambrose isn't the only enemy Kvothe makes during his early University days; as mentioned previously, he also falls afoul of one of the University's faculty members, Master Hemme. This, again, is a well-known technique for injecting tension into the protagonist's day to day affairs; a hostile authority figure can cause no end of trouble for the hero or heroine, even without life-or-death stakes. But this book squanders that potential, because Hemme really isn't much of a threat.

Take their first major encounter as an example: after his first lecture with Hemme, Kvothe goes to him and tells him (truthfully) that he's already mastered the basics of sympathy that Hemme is teaching, and that he'd be better off studying something more advanced; at the start of their next class, Hemme calls Kvothe's bluff by inviting him to get up before his peers and deliver the lecture in his place. But because this is largely a story dedicated to making Kvothe look awesome in as many ways as possible, he counter-bluffs, totally nails the lecture, and trolls Hemme with some impressive sympathetic magic while he's at it, making him look like a fool in front of all of his students.

This isn't how you write a character like Hemme. He should have the upper hand, totally humiliating and crushing Kvothe during their first stand-off so that the odds are raised for later encounters while making the reader savour the idea of Kvothe getting the upper hand. Now, yes, Hemme has Kvothe dragged to a disciplinary hearing on charges of malfeasance--but instead of being an example of a powerful authority figure abusing the system to menace our hero, Hemme once again is made to look like a fool. Kvothe is sentenced to a whipping for burning Hemme's foot with magic, but as we'll see in the next post, even this ends up being an excuse for Kvothe to look awesome. 

There is one way that Hemme poses a credible threat to Kvothe, which is by jacking up his tuition at the start of term admission exams, but since this ties into the topic of Kvothe and money I'll save it for when we get around to that particular subject in more detail.