Dan says it pretty much exactly how I wish I could.
There may be spoilers?
I think the best way to respond to this book is by naming as many ways that I thought it could have been improved while reading it.
Firstly, this book is, in essence, structured through a frame narrative: We are introduced to an innkeeper, Kote, and several local villagers. They aren’t important (although two show up at the very, very end so you need to keep track anyway). Mysterious bad things show up that the incredulous locals do not believe in, but Kote goes out and slaughters the not-demons anyway, because he knows better. Unfortunately for Kote, a famed storyteller (or something) shows up and announces he knows of Kote’s secret past as Kvothe, the Hero who is so Heroic most people don’t believe he really existed, despite the fact that his heroics took place not even five years ago.
Don’t ask me.
So Kvothe gives in to the storyteller and agrees to tell his story. For some reason this skinny guy with no particular prowess or even equivalent intellectual power still outmaneuvers the hero. Well, the reason is otherwise we wouldn’t have the story, short of it being written entirely in first person. Turns out Kvothe was born a genius–a proper genius, not just smart, but literally brilliant–into some kind of travelling entertainment troupe. His parents loved him and he ended up with a tutor in magic who is put on a bus and as yet not heard from again. He gets a lot of page time for such an abrupt dismissal, but there you are. Then the parents and the rest of the troupe are murdered by the Chandrian, which is ostensibly Kvothe’s driving motive. Except the 11-year-old Kvothe instead runs away to the forest for a year, then to the city for three more.
At which point we reach a major theme of the novel which is, if you aren’t poor like Kvothe, you can never have any idea what it means to be poor like Kvothe. Though since this is a fiction book, I rather expect it to teach me what it means to be that poor, rather than simply insisting I don’t know what it’s like. Especially since Kvothe doesn’t particularly seem to suffer from being poor. Seriously, he’s an urchin in an urban medieval-type city, that should be awful.
Anyway, Kvothe finally decides not be be desperately poor anymore and goes to the magic school, where he is just so brilliant they let him, even though they have absolutely no reason too: no money, no recommendation. He’s just That Good. And he makes friends with a few other guys who are kinda at the bottom rung as well (maybe: they all get names and a bit of page-space, but not much and I kept forgetting who they were). And then he antagonizes the queen (king?) bee of the school, Ambrose, whose father is uber-rich and powerful and crushes anyone who doesn’t like his son because he has nothing better to do? Kvothe is supposed to be astute and good with people and a super genius–I have no idea why he couldn’t not be stupid about this or stand up to him in any other way: suffice to stay it’s a stupid conflict that really doesn’t match anything else and comes up too fast and lasts too long.
At this point the novel goes on: Kvothe is an incredible, transformative musician, great at magic of both types (I’m not sure what the difference is), builds perfect devices that even when illegal or ill-advised are still allowed, meets girls whole love him for no good reason and goes places and does things none of which made much impression. Go read Dan’s article again, he does a much better job overall. I’m just bored remembering it.
So how could this have worked?
1) It would have been awesome if Kote the badass innkeeper was 50-60 years old rather than his mid-twenties. For one thing, it would have been a lot more impressive, and make his world-weary ennui far more understandable and even heartbreaking. (Rothfuss handles his prose skillfully, if not his subject matter).
2) What if young Kvothe hadn’t been born a genius? A good third of his problematic characterization would have been solved right there!
2.5) Young Kvothe’s storyline would be far more effective it had taken place over, say, a minimum of twenty years. Again, because he’s not a genius, his school takes longer and he has to undergo actual struggle to learn proper magic–he could have still had a unusual flair for creative spellcasting or something that makes his work Better Than Yours, but he wouldn’t be infuriatingly precocious and get away with all that he does. He might have actually learned and grown while on the streets of the city, rather than unaccountably simply deciding he doesn’t want to be a street rat anymore. His school years (because it would have taken years) would mean he’d have to actually figure out how the system worked and how the master’s related to each other and what the back stories of the school and characters are before he could a) figure out how to manipulate it all to his advantage and b) without simply being told just because. Also, again: he’d have to expend actual effort.
3) There wouldn’t be the slightly skeevy romantic relationships. Kvothe isn’t supposed to know how to deal with women (although after living such a distrustful life on the streets during such a crucial point in his development, how does he know how to deal with people at all?), and yet, he’s got at least three who ‘admire’ him. There’s Denna, who’s his One True Love, which we know because he meets her first, at which point there’s nothing at all to indicate that they have chemistry, and they never do, but he finds her sexually exciting: very Nice Guy syndrome, no one else could treat her as well, they have conversations! etc. There’s the blonde (?) girl who’s a money-lender, who breaks her own lending rules for him just ’cause. And then there’s the psychologically damaged girl who lives under the school and for some reason will only trust Kvothe, because he plays the best music. But I can’t forget the one Ambrose is lusting after, but who has to look to Kvothe for protection because, despite being presented as perfectly competent (other than later setting herself on fire) won’t stand up to Ambrose’s father. She’s the damsel in distress. It’s exceedingly depressing.
Conclusion: If Kvothe wasn’t a genius the story would have had to take much longer and time-wise wouldn’t be so compressed. Old Kote would be old and a lot more impressive. And he wouldn’t be such a Stu that while reading I wouldn’t be twitching right out of my chair, which is so terribly undignified.
I have NO IDEA why I liked this book. None. But the prose was pretty. So the pacing must have been pretty good too, since never got so much of Kvothe that I couldn’t finish, which by any normal laws of the universe, shouldn’t have happened.