Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things may be the least epic fantasy ever published. This year, as the story reaches its fifth anniversary, let’s take a look at why that distinction matters.
In his defense, Patrick Rothfuss does warn us on the first page.
“You might not want to buy this book,” he writes in the foreword to The Slow Regard of Silent Things. “It doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.”
Though I have great respect for Rothfuss as a storyteller, I have to disagree with him, here. Beneath the seeming simplicity of the slim volume that is Slow Regard lies a meditation on everything that makes all fantasy great—classic or otherwise. This supplemental tale set in the world of Rothfuss’s beloved Kingkiller Chronicle is the kind of polished, perfect pocket watch of a story we might more readily expect a beloved literary master to produce toward the end of an illustrious career.
On top of that, it’s so distinctive—such a singular bolt of lightning in the genre—that hardly anything like it has been published before or since. So, five years after its publication in 2014, I thought I’d take some time to reckon with Slow Regard and perhaps gain a new appreciation for its uniqueness.
The Proper Way
The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a novella, written by Rothfuss and illustrated by Nate Taylor, that takes place parallel to the events of the second Kingkiller novel, The Wise Man’s Fear. Set over seven days, the story follows Auri, the ethereal waif who lives in the tunnels below a magical university and who befriends the series’ main protagonist, Kvothe. In the main story, we’re given tantalizing hints that Auri is intimately connected to the trilogy’s myth arc, but Slow Regard—while it develops a few fascinating details about Auri herself, such as her skill with alchemy—is not about answers.
In fact, it’s not technically necessary to have read The Wise Man’s Fear to appreciate Slow Regard, though it helps. One of the story’s many layers is the reflection of Kingkiller obsessions—with names, for example, and the moon, and alchemy—through Auri’s slantwise gaze.
On the surface, what this book is about is Auri spending seven days searching for three appropriate gifts for Kvothe, as part of an exchange (one loyal readers will know they’ve done several times before). Complicating Auri’s mission is her continuous duty to put the Underthing—her subterranean world of tunnels and rooms—into “the proper way” by finding the right places for every object she encounters, largely by listening to what the objects themselves tell her. She is so dedicated to this that when her favorite blanket suddenly becomes wrong on her bed, Auri chooses to sleep without it.
It’s not hard to put a mundane-world term to this behavior: Auri is living with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. But that’s as limiting as labeling Hamlet “indecisive” and thinking you’re done with his story. One of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s most prominent themes is the importance of names and naming, and “OCD” is not a name that tells the whole story of Auri. Her personality, like that of any person with atypical mental health, is far too changeable to be summed up in a diagnosis: From page to page, she can be romantic, petulant, enlightened, determined, cautious, or so broken that she at one point loses an entire day to crying.
Yet neither is she a cipher. What makes Auri one of the most indelible narrators in fantasy is that her whole spectrum of behavior comes directly from her off-kilter worldview. She’s wrestling constantly with her brokenness, finding joy in it rather than passively accepting it. On the one hand, not very much “happens” in this story, yet with just a tilt of the gaze, it’s a tale told at the breakneck pace of a young girl’s thoughts. I can hardly think of its likeness anywhere else in fantasy.
“She knew exactly where she was,” goes one of her regular refrains. It’s exactly where she is that makes Slow Regard more than just a well-written supplement to a larger story.
The Stark Hollowness of Enough
Auri is the only human character in The Slow Regard of Silent Things, unless you count the unnamed presence of Kvothe, or a girl briefly glimpsed from afar in a farmhouse window. Yet scores of “inanimate” objects are given personality and agency through her eyes. Foxen, her alchemical lantern, is a supporting character, while much of the action is driven by Auri’s need to find a home for a bronze gear that’s almost as changeable as she is.
Ultimately, by its characterization through a series of dark moments for Auri, the “brazen gear” is revealed to be “a pivot… truthfully it only seemed to turn. In truth, it stayed. It staid. In truth the whole world spun.”
Not only are mute objects characters in Slow Regard, they receive character development. On one level, the objects are just reflections of Auri’s psyche, but we come to care about them just as much as she does.
And as for why she does it, it’s not only that she’s lonely, or not right in the head. Nothing encapsulates her motivations so well as her thoughts on why she bothers adding scent to her soap when plain tallow would work fine: “How terrible to live by the stark, sharp, hollowness of things that were simply enough?”
The question of soap is one you could just as easily ask about all fantasy, and all the mythology that came before it: “Why imagine more? Why add things to the world? Why bother adding fragrance to your soap?” The Slow Regard of Silent Things was, on one level, written as an answer to that question.
From the earliest moments of human consciousness, we have given names to things. We animate the world around us, make gods of mountains, stories of standing stones, postulate scientific theories about things so small we’ll never see them. Auri is a repository of every single one of these impulses, these sparks of inspiration. She proves that even if we’re enclosed in an underground labyrinth and burdened with the weight of our past trauma, we’ll set about the work of naming. It’s about fighting back the darkness, as she does with her spirit lamp and alchemical light every day.
Auri herself understands this—it’s strongly implied that she began to conjure the vibrant world of the Underthing after Kvothe first gave her a name of her own. “It was one thing to be private,” she thinks at one point, “but to have no name at all? How horrible. How lonely.”
The importance of animating objects in Slow Regard is fascinating to me: It’s a vastly more oblique approach to the power of names than the Kingkiller novels ever take, yet I believe Auri gets closer to the heart of it than Kvothe does. Readers might remember the scene from The Wise Man’s Fear (set just after the events of Slow Regard) when the memorably mad Master Namer Elodin talks as easily with Auri on her own terms as Kvothe does. This is why.
I could go on for hours about my love for this work, these 147 pages. Rothfuss is at his peak when it comes to the power of language, here: Auri’s narration is intricate without ever being dense, requiring a careful yet enjoyable reading of each paragraph. He borders on the Homeric—especially with his repetition of certain key phrases and passages, such as Auri washing herself, or the routes she takes through the Underthing—and creates a memorable contrast by describing Auri using imagery of the sky and the sun despite being perpetually cloistered underground. These images are enhanced by Nate Taylor’s beautiful black-and-white illustrations of Auri and the Underthing.
The language serves a purpose other than simply being beautiful: It’s what draws us into Auri’s world, and forces us to accept this world on its own terms. For example, Auri describing her butter as “full of knives” probably means it’s gone rancid, but Auri wouldn’t think of it that way, so we are invited to think of it in her terms. The butter, like everything else in her world, carries secrets within itself.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a microcosm of everything fantasy is about. When an author invites us into a world they’ve constructed, it can start out as a limited space. They guide us through it, illuminating our way like lit-up Foxens, but the ultimate work of animating it falls to us. I think that’s why we keep coming back to fantasy, because at its core, it gives us a chance to do what Auri does every single day. Strip away all the dragons, the wizards, the great mountain ranges—much as I really, truly love all of those elements—and what’s left is the chance to bring something to life.
Toward the end of the book, Auri anticipates a reaction to the story she’s telling: “[S]he knew she wasn’t right. She knew her everything was canted wrong. She knew her head was all unkilter. She knew she wasn’t true inside.”
Just the same way, we know Temerant—or Middle-earth, or Narnia, or Westeros—isn’t a true world. But that doesn’t stop us from loving it.
High fantasy is, by its nature, concerned with huge things: epic quests, world-shaking events. When an author has built an entire world, they naturally want to tell a story that fills all its corners. And that’s fine: I wouldn’t trade that massive scale for anything. But I’m also eternally glad that, even just this once, one of our greatest working writers dared to tell a tale this small.
[A quick note: I want to be clear that the five-year anniversary is used in the essay as a milestone to appreciate the work’s lasting impact. It’s not intended as a complaint about the author’s release schedule, in any way, and hope that we can discuss the novella on its own terms, keeping in mind the spirit in which this essay was written.]
Samuel Chapman is a writer who lives in Portland, OR with his girlfriend, a lot of smoked fish, and a perpetual drizzle. His short fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis, Buckshot, and the anthologies Terra! Tara! Terror! and Score, and more of his thoughts can be found on his blog, “To Find the Colors Again.” He also accepts freelance jobs on his professional website, and tweets Christmas crossover crises and unsolicited Sly Cooper quotes at @SamuelChapman93.