So what sets The Kingkiller Trilogy apart from other fantasy series? On the outside, Rothfuss’s trilogy looks like the average fantasy doorstopper series–three massive books, in which nothing much happens for long stretches of time.
Well, what’s in the actual average fantasy doorstopper series? Fantasy series are usually epic in a soap-operaish sort of way–the author introduces multiple characters, and the reader switches back and forth between character viewpoints, and then at the very, very end, all the characters that have managed to reach the finish line without perishing reach some sort of narrative resolution. The author usually tells the story through third-person limited perspective. First-person narrators exist, but are much, much rarer.
In addition, the characters are playing for high stakes. If the protagonists don’t commit to a certain action and succeed, massive consequences will ensue–society will fall apart, masses of people will die, worlds will explode. Sometimes the threat comes from an imbalance in the world’s magic system, or from the existence of an overpowerful artifact or deity, or from generic evil swarthy people, but the threat is there and it needs to be confronted or else.
The Kingkiller Trilogy is different. First, there’s one protagonist, and the tale is mostly told in his voice, and when it’s not it’s still focused squarely on what he’s doing. All we know about Rothfuss’s world we know through Kvothe, either because he’s speaking about it or because the third-person narrative is set in his inn, where everybody is busy worrying about Kvothe or pestering Kvothe or otherwise engaging in Kvothe-centric activities.
Second, there’s no Big Bad–certainly there are frightening things out there in the form of the Chandrian, but they’re scary because they killed Kvothe’s family, not because they threaten destruction on a massive scale. If Kvothe doesn’t find out what the Chandrian are, he’ll be upset because he can’t avenge his parents, but there’s no reason why everyone else can’t go on with their lives as usual. There are hints dropped that Things Are Getting Worse, but they’re not worse enough to interrupt Kvothe’s tales of how he saw some boobies once so I’m going to judge that they’re not really that bad.
What makes Kvothe’s story unique is that it is designed, point-by-point, to reflect back the experiences and desires of a young-ish male reader. Every point in Kvothe’s life is designed to appeal to a reader’s direct experience (going to university, dealing with the opposite sex) or appeal to the broadest spectrum of cool fantasies possible (living on the road, being super-smart, becoming a ninja in a society of super-ninjas, proving your cockmastery on a hot older lady). Kvothe’s hard-knock life on the streets? An American high school full of bullies. Kvothe’s money troubles? Envy of the guy down the street with a bitchin’ Camaro.
Rothfuss has stripped out the story elements that might in the smallest way keep the reader from relating Kvothe’s experiences back to his own. There are no other viewpoints, so the reader doesn’t have to consider the experiences of a person who is not a young-ish dude. And there is no big bad, so the reader doesn’t have to think about priorities other than himself and the emotional resonance of his own experiences. Anything outside of Kvothe that isn’t something that Kvothe can prove himself better than or bone is an inconvenience.
Publishers knew this book would sell because it’s not a story, but a funhouse mirror–or maybe it’s the literary equivalent of a self-portrait with all the imperfections Photoshopped away. And readers love it because it’s their story,* their lives told back at them only better and with fairies and elves and such. It shuts down the fun parts of the genre (the ability to play with a variety of human/nonhuman experiences, the adventure and quest elements) on the grounds that they’re “unrealistic,” then delivers an experience that is basically the Renaissance Faire in text. And just like readers love dressing up for the Ren Faire, they love what they’ve seen of Rothfuss’s writings.
Now, I have nothing against the Ren Faire, but really, when the highest point the genre can reach is the verisimilitude of the turkey leg tent, something has gone wrong. But, just like the turkey legs, it sells, so…
BONUS: If you’ve gotten this far, here’s an interview with Rothfuss in which he claims that he writes for people who are willing to look up words, but then decides that looking words up and learning their meanings might make him angry, so he won’t do it himself.
* It isn’t a female reader’s story, but female readers are conditioned to read themselves into male heroes and also Denna hasn’t been raped yet or something, so feminism. It also isn’t plenty of other people’s stories, even including older men (presumably the last thing our reader wants to be reminded of is that one day he will be old–not dead, just old, or even middle-aged).