There are things you will have already heard about this book. You will have heard—because who does such a thing?! oh my! oh scandal!—that Patrick Rothfuss prefaces The Slow Regard of Silent Things (DAW, 2014) by telling you that you probably aren’t going to like it, that you should probably go read something else. You will have heard that it isn’t the third Kingkiller/Kvothe book for which you have been waiting so patiently for so long. You may have even heard that this book is a little weird.
But there are things you probably haven’t heard—because no one seems to be saying them (yet) (on the sites I read). So here we are. Even though this is a book blog that aims to put the spotlight on women and PoC and diversity in authors and books, and reviewing Patrick Rothfuss, a best seller and a white hetero dude, doesn’t really play into that. But you know what? This book needs a Feminist Geek Review. Because it’s beautiful and I loved it, but fucking hell, Pat, issues.
Pass not this line, ye who fear spoilers
I need to pick apart the nitty gritty details of this book, and so I am going to need to talk about those details. Though, granted, nothing actually happens in Slow Regard (aaand there was your first spoiler), that will be essentially spoilerly. So get the hell out of here and come back when you’ve finished the book. You’ve been warned.
Though The Slow Regard of Silent Things felt shockingly small in my hands (I knew it was short, but was still surprised by just how small it was), there is a lot to love. This is Auri’s book (Auri being a mysterious, shy, twee woman who lives in the tunnels under the university that Kvothe attends in the Kingkiller books), and Rothfuss tells readers that if they want to learn more about her, this might be a story for them after all. I like Auri, and while I was disappointed at just how little we ultimately learn about her in Slow Regard (and some of what we learn), I enjoyed reading a story that focuses on her life.
Being Auri’s story, Slow Regard uses Auri’s language—a very different style to the language you will find in the Kingkiller books. The prose attempts to mirror the character herself. It is poetic, winding, pregnant with meaning, sometimes with magic. Sometimes the meaning is only hinted at, the rippling surface of water whose depth we can’t measure. It might be a puddle pretending to be something deeper, but maybe beneath those words lies a lake, deep and dark and wide and filled with unspeakable wonder. We’ll never know because Rothfuss ain’t telling. At least not in Slow Regard. Take this passage, for example:
“Opening her eyes, Auri saw a whisper of dim light. A rare thing, as she was tucked tidily away in Mantle, her privatest of places. It was a white day, then. A deep day. A finding day.”
I enjoyed the style. It was often beautiful, and it felt a proper mirror of this strange person, even when it made little sense (especially when it made little concrete sense). But it also tended to repetition and in my reading notes I scribbled: “I’m glad this isn’t longer.” Doing in the Wizard (who is doing very detailed posts about their reading experience and doesn’t seem to like this book or any of Rothfuss’ other work) has some very good points in favor of this sort of writing being a detriment rather than a boon to the story. From a style-mirrors-content perspective, however, it works.
Speaking of Doing in the Wizard, their post brings me to my first point of contention with this story, something that came to my attention through their comments. In one of Slow Regard‘s first scenes, Auri skinny dips in a murky pool, searching for objects at the bottom. Exhibit A: instead of describing Auri as “naked,” Rothfuss opts to use the word “nekkid.” Why? The word is a stumbling block. Why are we suddenly speaking in slang? Rothfuss usually isn’t one to go messing about with existing language like this, inventing where inventing would serve no purpose or offer no further beauty.
Exhibit B: The chapter goes on to describe Auri’s nudity as such: “There was nothing peppermint about the cold stone edge. It was a dull, blunt bite against her tender altogether hindmost self.” Every time that Rothfuss attempts to describe her nudity, he just can’t seem to do it with a straight face and straightforward words. “Hindmost self”? Just say that she’s naked, Rothfuss, my pod. While Doing in the Wizard interpreted this as bad writing, I had the feeling that Rothfuss was not comfortable with her nudity. Every time he was required to look at Auri’s naked body and describe it, he couldn’t. Instead he blushed, held his breath, looked away, and typed with eyes closed until it was over and she was dressed. He seemed incapable of describing her as the adult woman that she ostensibly is. Auri may be one of Rothfuss’ favorite characters, but is she a mystery still, even to him? Does he have a crush? Is he uncomfortable in a room with her? Is he as afraid as Kvothe of scaring her off? I’d put money on all of those horses.
When she is clothed, Rothfuss seems to feel more comfortable with Auri, describing the flow of her days in the tunnels of the Underthing (basically the service tunnels beneath the university where Kvothe is busy learning magic). She is compelled to set the world right in a way that sounds like an intense case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OR IS IT MAGIC?! One later moment in the story makes it unclear, though what I gather from interviews with Rothfuss on the subject, he means Auri to come across as a deeply broken soul.
Either way, the descriptions of her struggles with day-to-day functioning were one of the novella’s strongest points: they way the world shatters beneath her feet when something off kilter sets off her OCD and the way she feels compelled to find the perfect place for every object. Is Auri really capable of talking to objects? Of listening to what they say? Is she a master namer who has been driven to the brink by her power? Or is this a pleasant way of thinking (hoping) about an unpleasant mental condition? Rothfuss never tells us, and the text supports both readings.
Outside of her OCD, Auri is motivated by only one thing: the impending implied arrival of Kvothe. This is Slow Regard‘s most blatant feminist fail. We finally get to learn more about this mysterious, magical person, and her entire life revolves around the white dudebro storyhero?!? AGAIN? I would love to argue that Rothfuss didn’t mean it, that he is a better feminist than that (and he is a good feminist in many ways, but hey, we’re all at different places in our journey on that road), but Kvothe’s presence in Auri’s story as motivation and savior is made pretty clear by the fact that her thoughts on his arrival take up the first five sentences and the beginning of almost every chapter thereafter.
“When Auri woke, she knew that she had seven days.
“Yes. She was quite sure of it. He would come for a visit on the seventh day.”
Can you hear my sighs across the internet? Can you see me putting my head in my hands? Rothfuss promises a story about Auri, and gives us a story about Kvothe: savior, motivator, shaper of poor, broken Auri’s life. Rothfuss was worried that readers would be disappointed by Slow Regard because “It doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.” He shouldn’t have worried about that. He should have worried about portraying the life of a female character, in the frame of her own story, as being driven by the male character who this book wasn’t even supposed to be about. I love this book, but this is a serious fucking problem.
How much better would it have been to show a woman—yes a broken, struggling-to-survive woman, you don’t have to remove those aspects to make her strong, to remove the strings that attach her to Kvothe on every page—who was getting through shit, not on her own because interdependence doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but not just because savior dude has come into her life. How much better would it have been, from a feminist perspective, to see what Auri’s world without Kvothe is like? How much would I have liked to read a story about her life before the tunnels, or her life when she first moved into them? It wouldn’t have included Kvothe, it wouldn’t have made Auri feel like a damsel in distress, and it would have shown us a hell of a lot more back story than Slow Regard gives us. I mourn the death of the possibility of that story, and then I think: maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that Rothfuss has still left so much of her back story out. To the fan fiction mines! This can all be so easily corrected.
Next serious fucking problem: one of the few things we learn about Auri’s past is that she was probably raped. The event is barely mentioned, just a sentence, a memory of being held down and wine on a repulsive man’s breath, the classic “look this character was raped but I’m not going to come out and say it” signposts. This is the only thread we are given to explain her current state. This is a pretty old, tired trope, and here it feels like a cop out. Auri is weird, Auri is broken, Auri can’t function in society because…Auri was raped. This is such a over-used trope it has its own entry on tvtropes and is something that apparently needs to be discussed again and again. While I don’t feel that Rothfuss hints at it lightly or as “a cheap effect for drama,” I do feel like it was a decision he didn’t have to make. The man has invented a universe that has its own fucking currency, and he couldn’t come up with a less tired back story? He has already proven that his imagination is capable of better. Can you hear my echoing sighs? CAN YOU?!
You know what else? Auri eats acorns without processing them. This is barely notable in comparison to my last two points, but I just…how can Patrick Rothfuss be one of those people (or all the dozens of beta readers he says he uses, or his editor and proofreader and copy editor) who doesn’t know that you can’t eat fucking acorns without processing them?! (Sorry, incoming reviewer pet peeve.) They are full of this bitter shit called tannins, and you need to leech them first, else risk limited ability to absorb nutrients, for one. The man describes the process of making soap in pages of detail, and then he feeds Auri unprocessed acorns. Geezus fucking fuck. Don’t do this to me, Rothfuss, just don’t.
So, you ask, how is it that I still think fondly of this story, a story that fucks up pretty badly more times than it should? For one, the tunnels. I have this thing about tunnels. First there was Neverwhere (Gaiman) and then there was every book ever written about real people living in the real tunnels beneath the skin of every modern city. I love that shit. It’s one of my things.
Second, the illustrations. Nate Taylor has provided wonderful illustrations for Slow Regard, and when I heard another blogger speculate as to whether this story would have been more successful as a graphic novel, I had to wonder myself. But though many might celebrate the loss of prose this might entail, I would mourn its absence.
Third, and most importantly, is Auri herself. Even a problematic telling of her story can’t make Auri any less magnetic as a character. If Rothfuss is capable of inventing a character like her, he must be capable of telling her story…though apparently not today.
In lieu of my usual nonsensical numbered rating, I offer you this parting question: WHAT THE FUCK IS A FOXEN?
Where I got it: Hugendubel, Frankfurt
I want to talk about this book with all the people. So I’m including a link up here for you to add your own reviews of this book (an any you have read and found interesting). I’ll be adding the reviews I have read as I come across them. For a slip of a book, there is a lot to discuss.