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Book Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things

By (November 2, 2014) No Comment

The Slow Regard of Silent ThingsUntitled-14

by Patrick Rothfuss

Daw Books, 2014

Bestselling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss starts off his new novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things with a frank enough disclaimer:

You might not want to buy this book.

I know, that’s not the sort of thing an author is supposed to say. The marketing people aren’t going to like this. My editor is going to have a fit. But I’d rather be honest with you right out of the gate.

The disclaimer – simultaneously true and manipulative – arises from the fact that Rothfuss’s millions of devoted fans have been waiting impatiently for the third volume in his Kingkiller Chronicle series of massive fantasy novels starring his at first enigmatic and then plain annoying main character Kvothe, and The Slow Regard of Silent Things is not that third volume. Not only is it, at 140 pages, less than the length of a single segment of The Name of the Wind or The Wise Man’s Fear (at a shameful $18.95 US, that means you’re paying a little more than 13 cents for every single page), but it doesn’t advance the storylines of that series at all. Rather, it’s a novella devoted to the mysterious, neglected life of a young female character namd Auri, who lives in the tunnels underneath the sprawling old University of Rothfuss’s first two books, collecting pieces of junk and investing them with elaborate histories (imagine The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel living in the tunnels under Columbia University instead of Under Da Sea and you’ll pretty much have it).

That’s almost entirely the sum of not only what The Slow Regard of Silent Things is about but also of what happens in it. We follow Auri around for a little while and watch her do things. We learn next to nothing about her. We learn next to nothing about her world. It’s as if Jane Austen had decided to give us a novella following Mr. Gardiner around on an ordinary business day long before the events of Pride and Prejudice.

The key difference being, of course, that Rothfuss is no Jane Austen. In fact, in this novella he’s not even Patrick Rothfuss. Gone is the intelligent depth and twisting complexity of his conceptions, and gone too – in fact very conspicuous by its absence – is the strong rhetorical talent that so easily sets his two big novels apart from the general run of the fantasy genre. Instead, no doubt under the pretext of taking us into Auri’s mind frame, we get unbearably simplistic and twee reflections scattered everywhere:

Some places had names. Some places changed, or they were shy about their names. Some places had no names at all, and that was always sad. It was one thing to be private. But to have no name at all? How horrible. How lonely.

If the flat, elementary monontony of such a passage seems vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s been sitting at the top of the New York Times bestseller lists for many dreary years now: it’s YA fiction, these days the preferred reading-candy of the thousands of fully-grown adults who’ve made primary-color garbage like Twilight and Divergent into multi-million dollar industries. It doesn’t take many pages of The Slow Regard of Silent Things before it becomes clear that the novella is not a private vanity-project or (as that manipulative Preface implies) a shift in storytelling style; it’s an attempt to colonize a different genre, a syrupy genre in which navel-gazing passages like this one are virtually mandatory:

Heading back to Mantle, Auri took the shorter way. All draggled and smirched she took a moment to dunk herself in the pool at the bottom of The Silver Twelve and felt a little better for it. It was no kind of proper bath. A dip. A rinse. And chilly. But better than nothing, if only just. The moon peered faintly through the grate above. But she was kind and distant, so Auri didn’t mind.

Rothfuss knows perfectly well that his fans and his obsessive completists will buy anything printed with his name on it, and he knows there are thousands of adults busily turning their brains to mush by reading at levels a full fifteen years below their current ages – adults who would never dream of picking up the kind of 800-page adult novels he usually produces, but who very well might buy a novella about a lonely little girl written in tenth-grade English. So The Slow Regard of Silent Things is win-win for him, although its arrant cynicism ought to stand as a mark against him for the rest of his writing career.