Book Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

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I’d like to think everyone’s talking about this book. It’s probably not the case, but from the writing sphere of this world, this book is a very, very important read. It’s short, sweet, and most avid readers can finish it in, oh, two hours. If you read slow, like me, it’ll take you around four. With breaks to run to Facebook and quote random bits. Because it’s awesome.

Patrick Rothfuss is known for his hugely popular Kingkiller Chronicle, which follows the great gypsy bard/mage Kvothe as he brazenly fights through childhood trauma, homeless street-urchining, magical college, girls, royalty, and (hopefully) the Chandrian blue-flame demons with his own style of cleverness and stupidity, in turn. The books are brilliant.

But this isn’t that story. I spend a lot of time, in my writing, to extol the virtues of symbolic conversation. I call it speaking “cryptic,” or in heavy parable/metaphor. It’s something I’ve developed over many years of studying religion, magic, and fantasy writing, and is a vibrant way to explain something complex in a simple way. It is abstract pattern recognition in the most fundamental, feral, mystic ways.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is an entire novel dedicated to cryptic, to parable, and to telling the story of a thing by describing its impact on your observation. Before I go too far into the details, a quick overview.

First off this book can’t have spoilers. Crazy, no? It isn’t a normal book. The conflict arc is so soft, it nearly doesn’t exist.

It follows six days in the life of a girl, Auri, a character from the Kingkiller Chronicle, who lives beneath the magical university in a sewer system called “the Underthing.” Calling it a sewer system is not giving it credit: the university is built upon an old city, or an old university, or something. Like London Underground, this is a vast and unoccupied place of wildness. We follow Auri as she prepares for her meeting with Kvothe, and as she survives in the Underthing.

There are several reasons why this novel (can I call it a novel at 160 odd pages?) succeeds and even flourishes. I’ll start simple and step up the critique as I go.

First off, other than a single “camphor” reference on page 140 that is negated by a second camphor reference on page 142 (page 140 stating it was bottled up true, and page 142 stating she had none to use), and the fact the UPC’s final two numbers are switched (I call this: non service-effecting. haha), this book is nearly flawless. I’m also not a huge fan of the cover art (as exhibited above) because it seems to have nothing to do with the book. I’d rather see one of the countless symbols used throughout the book, or rooms, or even Auri’s hair.

So why does this book do so well in my eyes, despite being anti “novel” in almost every way? (I.e. having only one character, a powerfully slow/nearly nonexistent conflict arc, no dialogue, and very little backstory as to seem nonexistent) Here are my reasons:

1. This novella is written like a children’s story, but jam packed with so much more information. I spent a little time reading this to my brother, and he loved the rhythm it contained. He loved the images it conjured. He loved the flow. It uses simple ideas with complex words. Even though this novel was so short, I had to look up four words. And that’s a first in a long time for me. YET, despite this, it’s a children’s story first. It isn’t riddled and slowed by history or backstory. It creates a magical realism to all the inanimate objects around Auri in an homage to Beauty and the Beast. Finally, Auri is child-like in thought. She exists with her own complicated set of rules while existing in the Underthing, yet for her it is simply how she lives.

2. Rothfuss wrote this novella to flesh out a very difficult-to-understand character as a form of world building. He refers to this story as a “trunk” story, or a story one writes and then drops to the bottom of a trunk, never to think about again. It’s an oddity in this, as so seldom does a story like this get published. This technique is, in my opinion, gold for any writer interested in creating his own world, fantasy or otherwise: do you see what Rothfuss does to a secondary character, in the great big scheme of Kvothe’s scope? The detail is phenomenal. The perspective shift from Kvothe to Auri is near opposites. And to have this be available for anyone willing to buy it? Mmm.

3. This is a novella about self-sufficiency in nature, and transcendentalism. The added, beautiful twist is the “nature” Auri exists in is made entirely from humanity. Given Ralph Waldo Emerson’s love of Walden Pond, a similar environment where Thoreau experimented on Civil Disobedience and studied alone, this story echoes Emerson’s statement of, “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.” With a profound weight put on the balance of the individual in the world she lives, Auri is a perfect representative of the wholeness present in transcendental beliefs. The fact that self-governance and the lack of outside governmental influence on Auri also reinforces this idea.

4. Tying into point 3, Auri exists in a State of Nature similar to what humanity would be before society existed. Extending an idea posited first by Thomas Hobbes in the 18th century, she is a person in balance with mind and body, while also being at war with everyone else she meets (while she doesn’t actually meet anyone, the threat of humanity is a constant fear of hers, and she tries to prepare accordingly). She is a perfect example of survivalism.

5. This literature is keenly post-apocalyptic. Who doesn’t want to read about a perpetual explorer who hunts relics of history out, only to leave them as intact as she can? This is the story of a girl who survived an apocalypse (albeit possibly an apocalypse only for her), who learned to thrive in a place where no one else would touch. She is a survivor, and she is dangerous, and she is a herald of humanity.

6. This literature is specifically gothic in design. I don’t refer to black lipstick and studded choker necklaces, but the movement dedicated to understanding the mind. Auri symbolically walks through her subconscious mind, and as a metaphor, she taps heavily into her subconscious to survive. I would argue the lines between conscious and subconscious are so blurred for her, she doesn’t know where one stops and the other starts. This morbid complexity is artistically mapped out as a series of rooms she visits when she needs to accomplish a specific task, and the only room where her life-training before the apocalypse is the black metal door she tries to keep closed. Instead of closing off her subconscious, as most do to live, she closes her conscious.

7. Tying into point 6, Auri is a metaphysicist at heart. The philosophy of metaphysics is the study of how people understand the world through questioning “existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility.” (Yep. Quoted Wikipedia. Cuff me, Research Police.) She ultimately spends much time studying not only objects in space, but how they change when she pushes her intent onto them. Most of this book is spent studying said things on such a fundamental level, Auri divines seemingly unrelated truths from movements.

8. The idea that a “simple,” broken, unarmed “girl” can accomplish so much, alone and unhindered by men and mankind, is a hot topic these days. She should have died. She shouldn’t be able to survive in such a hostile environment. She barely wears clothes! Yet she has power that rivals Kvothe, and most likely turned her unstable by her understanding of the complexity of the world.

So. While this book doesn’t focus on the tenants of most “accessible” literature, it follows several complex narrative arcs that stay true to each other while developing a powerfully simple survival story. It reveals aspects of the Kvothe series the average reader would not find otherwise, shedding new light on stories, while also hinting at something new to come, in the as-yet unreleased third book.

I recommend any writer-type (or artist-type) read this book. I recommend anyone with a spiritual or philosophical background read this book. I recommend anyone with a child read this book.

I need more of this kind of story in my life. Much more. I prize my signed copy.

*Quick side-note. I could be wrong about anything I wrote above. I apologize if my grasp of philosophy isn’t as developed as some, and I apologize if I “get it wrong.” This is what I took from the book after the first read-through.

Chris

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