At least since Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, nostalgia for a plausible fantastic universe has been a major component of the fantasy genre’s appeal. Finishing a fantasy novel causes a subtle feeling of loss, as access to the novel’s world is curtailed, abruptly, with the turn of the final page. Fantasy writers strive to engender this feeling in their readers, to leave them with the desire to re-enter (and repurchase entry) into the universes writers create. Completing volumes of Patrick Rothfuss’ bestselling Kingkiller Chronicles leaves one with the absence of such nostalgia, but the series nonetheless provides immense entertainment.
Rothfuss, a transcendently-bearded Wisconsinite, burst onto the genre scene when he won the prestigious “Writers of the Future” short-story competition in 2002. That victory led to a book deal, and to the subsequent publishing of The Name of the Wind, the first book in the Chronicles, which went on to become a success with fantasy critics and readers alike. The second book, A Wise Man’s Fear, was a number one New York Times Bestseller. The third book, The Doors of Stone, will probably be released in 2016.
The books are set in a generic fantasy universe called “The Four Corners of Civilization.” The usual made-up words and alphabet-soup names are in evidence, but Rothfuss keeps the jargon to a minimum. His narrator and protagonist, Kuothe (pronounced quothe, we are told) is an innkeeper and retired adventurer living incognito in a nameless rural town.
The foremost scribe of the era, called the Chronicler, stumbles upon the main character’s inn and a narrative of Kuothe’s tragedies and triumphs ensues, conveyed with the conceit that he is talking to the Chronicler and the Chronicler is taking down the story in shorthand. The structure is a nicely complex approach to what is otherwise a very traditional heroic fantasy.
If a retired adventurer and an opening scene in a tavern strike even casual readers of fantasy as familiar, that’s because they are. But one attraction of Rothfuss’ work is his ability to execute shopworn fantasy set-pieces in fresh ways. When Kuothe arrives at a school for magic, we are not exactly on original subject matter for the genre, but Rothfuss’ version of the school, called the “Arcanum,” feels new.
The author spent nine years getting his undergraduate degree, and it seems that he is putting his extensive familiarity with the operation of the academy to good use. Magic’s presence in the books is realized with a pseudo-scientific plausibility that many fantasy writers struggle for but often fail to achieve. This is important—in Rothfuss’ chapters, magic’s role in plot resolution never acquires the deus-ex machina cast it has in other, lesser works.
Rothfuss is also a superior prose stylist, in the vein of a George Martin or a Neil Gaiman, but without the latter’s irritating tendency towards twee humor. Dialogue missteps—ever the bane of fantasy fiction—are entirely absent. His descriptions are rich, and contain the occasional gem. A shambling university complex “has the look of an architectural breed of lichen that was trying to cover as many acres as it could.” The author has a deft hand with archaisms, deploying just enough to give the text a historical flavor without sliding into cliché.
Ultimately the series’ generic trappings keep it out of the first tier of adult fantasy, but that’s far from a fatal deficiency. The Kingkiller Chronicles succeeds via a nontraditional (for fantasy at least) path: a gripping plot, good writing, and compelling characters.