I signed up to Audible nearly a year ago now.
I was interested in trying audiobooks and had been for a while : I drive. Lots. Daily. And whilst I like the Today Programme in the morning, I’m less keen on PM in the afternoon.
But I’m also a skinflint and object to paying £20 plus for a book.
Which left me with PM…
Until I discovered Audible. So now I have one credit a month to spend on one book. And I find it particularly hard to make that decision: what if I get the wrong book? It might be too thoughtful to cope with at the end of the day! It might be too distracting! It might be narrated by a voice I’d struggle to listen to for an hour a day without wanting to veer off the road!
I can spend hours clicking links and contemplating new releases and reading what’s recommended and browsing best sellers.
It is a trauma.
Now, this book had popped up as a recommendation a couple of months running so, doing what my Granny would hate, I judged it on its cover. A mysterious hooded man; a tangle of vines and trees framing it like a Blake engraving.
And the narration by Rupert Degas is fantastic: he has a great range to his performance, able to give a voice to each character without it turning into poor, silly and childish squeaking and gibbering. As a father and a teacher, who frequently reads aloud to his class and sometimes to my kids, I hope I manage to achieve the same range.
One of the irritations I had with Simon Slater’s reading of Wolf Hall was the high-pitched camp voice he adopted for Cardinal Wolsey.
Right, back to the book.
It is a poorly kept secret that fantasy, especially high fantasy, is my guilty reading pleasure. Looking at the list of books on this blog, this probably isn’t a surprise! It was The Hobbit that was the first ‘grown up’ book that got me into reading and since then it has always been a familiar, comfortable milieu. Tolkien, Eddings, Canavan, Donaldson, Goodkind, Kerr, Nix, Pullman, Pratchett, Gaiman and more latterly Sanderson, Erikson, Martin, Weeks and Miéville.
And now Rothfuss.
Golly that list makes me sound like SUCH a geek! But then, the geek shall
inherit the Earth.
Rothfuss has attracted a lot of positive reviews with this book; and some equally negative ones.
It certainly does not have the linguistic playfulness that Miéville brings to the genre but there are some features here that set it apart from the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy.
The first is structural. This is a story about stories as much as anything else. And it is a story of a story.
Rothfuss creates a world that is very credible and real in the opening chapters: an inn named The Waystone in a quiet, rural village named Newarre frequented by farmers and blacksmiths and run by a self-effacing innkeeper name Kote and his assistant Bast. It seems to be a world untouched by magic, prophecy or politics; a world removed from the usual milieu of high fantasy!
But “Kote” is in reality the semi-mythical, legendary magician Kvothe, the eponymous Kingkiller. And Bast is far more than an innkeep’s assistant; far more than even a magician’s assistant; possibly the most interesting character in the book. When Devan the Chronicler arrives in the inn, the stage is set for the true book to begin as the contemporary Kvothe relates his life history to Chronicler.
The device is a good one: the voice we get through the majority of the book is Kvothe’s. And he is an engaging narrator. But a tricky one to pull off: he is a really rather precocious and talented member of the Edema Ruh – a band, no a race, of travelling players, performers and poets – and his skill with words and performance are constantly referred to. But personally I don’t think his narration matches up to the skill he claims for himself. There are flashes of power in his language. The opening paragraphs of his narrative are powerful, muscular and mythic
My first mentor called me E’lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them.
But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant “to know.”
I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.
I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
Because this is his story, it becomes more of a Bildungsroman than is usual for fantasy: certainly on this book, there is no prophecy to be fulfilled or tyrant or evil emperor to be overthrown. There’s just a boy’s journey to manhood covering about three or four years of his life.
And his journey is painful: just as he looks set on happiness, settled with his itinerant family and considering a life at University, his world is literally ripped apart by seven creatures known as The Chandrian. This is the closest Rothfuss gets to providing a traditional enemy: The Chandrian are fairy tale creatures who turn fire blue, cause all things around them to entropy – metal rusts; wood rots – and appear once for a dozen pages before Rothfuss removes then from our sight!
But, having destroyed his world, Kvothe vows vengeance.
Which would be easier if any right minded person in Rothfuss’ world believed they existed!
It is in this chapter, which runs with an air of inevitability, that Rothfuss’ writing shone again for me: the tenderness of the description if his parents’ love for each other; the bitter-sweetness of Kvothe’s imagined happiness that he hoped they shared before The Chandrian attacked; the quietness of the present-day Kvothe’s grief were all extremely well depicted. Again, very powerful and moving for fantasy.
One feature of this Bildungsroman approach is that it is necessarily slow and a bit – dare I say it? – repetitive. Kvothe has had three – possibly four – sections to his life thus far:
1. happy itinerant childhood with the Edema Ruh;
2. appalling street life as a homeless beggar and thief in the city of Tarbean;
3. tenuously happy and successful life as a student at the University in Imre; and perhaps, as a jaunt within his University life,
4. a successful albeit brief career as a monster hunter and dragon slayer in the town of Trebon.
In Tarbean, he was beaten so regularly that one simply got tired of his having broken ribs! There are 206 bones in a human body that could be broken. Ribs every time?!
In Imre, he excelled in every class; misdemeanours landed him in front of the disciplinary board and he argued his way out of trouble – or at least the most serious trouble – every time; he failed to get the girl on every date! Even when a girl wearing only a see-through sheet inadequately wrapped over her naked body asks him in! Seriously?! And he’s 15!? At 15, in the presence of an all-but naked girl, one does not say “hmm, wanna go to the library?”
There is a slightly addle-pated child who lives in the sewers but that would be wrong! So so wrong! And unhygienic!
Each of these three sections is great! The stitching between them is a little clumsy. It is literally within a space of 12 hours that street-urchin-Kvothe – who has suppressed the memory of his troupe’s death – recalls it and decides to hop on a cart to University. That, I felt, needed a gentler more real transition.
What I do like here though are the narratives. In addition to the framework structure, characters gossip and tell tales; sing songs; and perform plays. Whole chapters are given over to mythology and the story of the very Christ-like Tehlu, a God who allowed a mortal form of Himself to be born of a virgin to save mankind from sin and demons and who sacrificed himself to defeat the most powerful demon.
This is, perhaps, Rothfuss’ strength: his myth building. Whereas George R. R. Martin builds worlds, Rothfuss builds mythologies. I am fully confident that the various myths that have been told, of Lanre and Lyra, of The Chandrian, of the Amyr and of Selitos will resolve into a consistent and coherent whole.