This is Book One of a very popular fantasy series (“The Kingkiller Chronicles”) recounting the story of Kvothe, a self-effacing innkeeper not yet thirty, currently going by the name of Kote. His saga is told by the literary device of the “frame story” or “Mise-en-abyme” – a story within a story. (Compare, for example, One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), a story about stories told by Scheherazade, tales which occasionally include other stories narrated by characters within the stories.)
A historian, called the Chronicler, comes to the inn and recognizes Kote as Kvothe, and asks if he can record the truth about Kvothe. The Chronicler argues:
“…you of all people should realize how thin the line is between the truth and a compelling lie. Between history and an entertaining story. … You know which will win, given time.”
Kote recognizes the Chronicler’s ploy, countering, “Nothing but the truth could break me. What is harder than the truth?”
But Kote decides to do it, telling the Chronicler it will take three days. (Thus, this book is called Day One of the Kingkiller Chronicles.)
The telling of the story is central. As Bast, Kote’s assistant and student, explains to the Chronicler:
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
Kvothe (“pronounced nearly the same as “quothe”) came from a family of traveling performers, so he learned early how to act, how to pretend, and how to make music. He associated music with his family so much that when his family was gone, music became his grounding, his identity, what kept him sane. But as the story begins, we learn that now his life is filled with a silence, a silence that is all the deeper for being absent of music.
Kvothe was always an intellectual prodigy, and was mentored as a young boy by a traveling “arcanist” or scientist/magician who accompanied his troupe. Kvothe was fascinated by his teacher’s magical ability to call the wind by naming it, and later went the University to develop his own skills in “sympathy,” or magic. But he had a broader agenda as well: his whole family was massacred while he was out gathering herbs, and he desperately wants to find those who did it and exact revenge.
Discussion: There is so much going on in this saga that it would be impossible to summarize. In fact, there is a chapter-by-chapter interactive exegesis online conducted by author Jo Walton. I have read this also (the index is here) and was astounded at all the layers and nuances I missed. I would recommend that anyone who reads the book consult Walton’s analysis afterward.
Some aspects of this fantasy I particularly liked:
- This is a medieval sort of world, and yet it is one in which there is knowledge of “germs” and the theory of conservation of energy (energy can neither be created nor destroyed: it can only be transformed from one state to another); popular but expensive treats are coffee and hot chocolate; there are problems with drug addiction; and there is a wonderful mix of fantasy elements tempered by skepticism about their very existence. Running through the story also is a commentary on the means by which stories – both good and bad, true and outrageous – get broadcast and changed in the retelling. This practice also easily allows for the weaving of prejudices into the tales, such as the biases in this book against the Edema Ruh. The Edema Ruh are traveling players, like Kvothe’s family, who clearly evoke the Romani people.
- The theme of the criticality of naming, and the importance of the accuracy of names, underlies the plot and serves as a motif for many of the stories told. It is significant that some of the central characters keep changing their names as the story progresses; they are no longer who they were before, or maybe they are just changing who they want to be.
- Rothfuss makes the characters come alive, even when it is not always clear whether they are altogether “human.”
- The world building is extensive and full of fascinating arcana about chemistry, physics, medicine, languages, religion, poetry and mythology.
Evaluation: This is only “day one” of the story of the life of Kvothe, but if you are like me and hundreds of other rabid fans in the readosphere, you will not be able to wait to start the next book, The Wise Man’s Fear, which picks up with day two of Kvothe’s story. Can this one be read as a standalone? Sure, but I bet you can’t read just one….
Published by Daw Books, 2007