The Kingkiller Chronicle – A Review of Sorts

It is easier to understand if you think of it in terms of music. Sometimes a man enjoys a symphony. Elsetimes he finds a jig more suited to his taste. The same holds true for lovemaking. One type is suited to the deep cushions of a twilight forest glade. Another comes quite naturally tangled in the sheets of narrow beds upstairs in inns. Each woman is like an instrument, waiting to be learned, loved, and finely played, to have at last her own true music made.

Some might take offense at this way of seeing things, not understanding how a trouper views his music. They might think I degrade women. They might consider me callous, or boorish, or crude.

But those people do not understand love, or music, or me.

The Name of The Wind - Cover

Source – Wikipedia
Used under fair use.

That is what Kovthe, the protagonist of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle series has to say about women. It also sums up the how the series sees women – from the worst of the male gaze.

Is that a too harsh a judgement? I don’t think so. Our pop-culture reflects our patriarchal values. There are exceptions which are growing with time, but take any successful movie or a book and you’ll see the trend. This is even more so prominent in the sci-fi and fantasy genre whose traditional profit base have been men.

Given that background, it would be a big surprise if an author swims against the tide and risks upsetting his potential clientele. So in the two books of out of three released so far in the series you’ll find the baseline sexism and objectification and something beyond that.

The objectification is not casual, something you write down unthinkingly because of the setting of the story – in some old age in a different world where men rule the kingdoms and women exist to be wooed and won. That can be forgiven as lazy. You can’t expect an author to always pick up on the latest developments in ethics and factor them into their books.

But still, if you look at mythological paeans to patriarchy like the Ramayana, even after all the strict gendering of men and women, the women still manage to have far more agency than what you’d find in The Kingkiller Chronicle series which is a grand, epic story that spans a large many characters.

So the objectification is intentional. Whether it is because Rothfuss sees women that way or it is because Rothfuss wanted to write an old fashioned fantasy story with all the prejudices of its time is hard to say. Whatever it is, the end result is akin to you watching a beautiful scenery with someone sitting besides you constantly making a harsh, grating noise which you just can’t ignore.

The noise in the books comes largely by way of the metaphors used the by author. The full gamut of the patriarchal caricatures of women is put to use – beautiful, slender, frail, rousing, fickle, hard to comprehend, nagging, motherly, and powerfully destructive. These metaphors are found throughout the books and they can easily replaced with other non-sexist metaphors without losing any of the intended effect.

For example, to drive home the point that Kovthe’s inn was so clean, the author mentions that after Kovthe finished scrubbing it, the water in the bucket was so clear that a lady can wash her hands in it. The metaphor stands on the assumption that women are fastidious creatures who prefer tidy things (as opposed to men who are not so fussy and like to live uncomplicated lives). Even after conceding that the story was set in a time and place where women are expected to be like that, another metaphor could have been used that would still serve the same purpose. And it is like this throughout the book. Just when you thought the author hasn’t used one of those horrid metaphors in a while, he’ll drop another like someone who’s fastidiously punctual on deploying sexism and objectification.

And of course, there’s the crown glory quoted at the beginning of this post. It looks like the author anticipates that such a stark objectification of women will give rise to objections. So he uses the identification a reader typically develops with the protagonist while reading a book to explain away the objection; he presents an incontrovertible proof that such objectification is not really objectification. Because you, the reader, you who are Kovthe while you are reading, know how music is big part of your life. You know that though you can be a smartass at times, you really are a decent person. You know how you are kindhearted, just, reasonable and would never hurt another without reason. So the author asks you a direct question – are you a degrader of women? And you answer Of course no, I’m not that unethical. What a silly question! Okay says the author. Now you know that I don’t really mean to objectify women at all, right? All is well.

To sum up, The Kingkiller Chronicle series features some fine storytelling that is severely marred by the frequent resorts to sexism and objectification.


  1. says

    I don’t think Rothfuss set out to write something that deliberately aped old tropes; he was willing enough to break from them in other ways where it was convenient. It’s probably more that he’s either steeped in those tropes, or he’s playing to the crowd that he expects will read a fantasy novel about a young man’s ascent to god-hood. I’m guessing that’s probably slanted a bit toward a recently post-pubescent male audience, no?

  2. doublenerds says

    Patrick Rothfuss can turn a phrase beautifully, and from his blog he appears to be a truly decent guy. Having said that, I agree wholeheartedly that almost without exception, the depiction of women in both books makes my skin crawl. From the ridiculous, self-loathing behavior exhibited time and again by Denna to the propensity for every supposedly strong, fierce, independent woman he meets to inevitably find themselves utterly helpless in the presence of magical Kvothe-musk, the books feel like the prettily worded wish-fulfillment journals of a lonely 16-year-old.

    I hope that one day he writes women who aren’t an uncomfortable joke, ’cause he is capable of some truly lovely writing.

  3. says

    Yes, the passage you quote struck me as several kinds of wrong, too, but my overall asessment is a bit different:
    The story is also a coming of age story, and at that the story of a superhero coming of age, so while Kvothe is the hero and definitely likeable he is also very immature and a braggart. His views about women and how relationships between the sexes work get seriously challenged in Adem, he gets regularly beaten by a little girl and in the end he needs his magic to save himself.
    I also disagree with doublenerds characterization of Denna. I think she’s shown as somebody who has to live on the edges of an unjust world.
    In general, the book lacks women on all levels, just like most other books: authors who even think to include women in significant roles fail to write a substantive number of supporting female characters, from shopkeepers to Innkeepers, even plain thugs. This makes the women they do write stand out as the exception to the rule, not representatives of a broad variety of people of that gender.

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