As a genre, Fantasy isn’t generally known for beautiful prose, generally focusing more on plot and worldbuilding. With his first two novels, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss went some way towards reversing that trend, and now with his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things he has proven once and for all that great Fantasy can be beautiful as well. Set within the world of his Kingkiller Chronicles, this explores the character of Auri, the shy, semi-feral woman who lives deep beneath the University in a place known only as the Underthing.
Firstly, this is not a traditional story. Filled with stunning, evocative illustrations from Nate Taylor, and written in beautifully poetic, vivid (and at times made-up) language, it paints a picture at once melancholic and quietly joyful, all the more powerful for the unusual style and structure it takes. As the author says in his foreword, it ‘doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.’ He’s absolutely right; it has no dialogue, or much in the way of action. Not only that, it doesn’t feature Kvothe, or indeed any characters other than Auri, and doesn’t move the overall Kingkiller story forward. What it does is grow the world in which these stories are set, expanding our understanding of it even from just this tiny little look into one shadowed corner, and offering a haunting glimpse into this strange and wonderful place.
In the novels we see Auri as a fey, ephemeral presence, flitting in and out of Kvothe’s story and offering tantalising glimpses of the Underthing. Here, she blossoms into a complex, layered character, wise and insightful but also strangely naive and achingly lonely, deliberately shying away from the wider world while remaining deeply connected with her own environment. There is depth that’s only hinted at, in how she sees Kvothe, and the tiny flashes of her history we get to see. More clear is her relationship with the Underthing, at once strange and somehow understandable, and completely in keeping with the tone of the world that Rothfuss has built. As for the Underthing itself…it’s the sort of setting that most writers would kill to have built for their characters, a Gormenghast-esque hidden landscape of depths and shadows and secrets. Filled with places whose names reveal themselves only in time, such as Ninewise, Mantle, The Twelve and Tumbrel, and seen through the lens of Auri’s twisty, flickerling mind as she goes about her inscrutable business, it’s a never-ending source of wonder.
Fans of Rothfuss’ work are undoubtedly waiting with bated breath for the next novel in the series, and some may be disappointed that the latest release should be this strange, short, unconventional story. That is completely understandable, but at the same time seems a wilfully short-term view to take. While this offers nothing in the way of forward motion, it’s an absolute joy to read, the kind of book that will only get better each time it’s read. As he says himself in the afterword, it simply wasn’t written for the kind of people who won’t understand it. It was written for the people who, like Auri, are a little bit broken; those of us who understand what that’s like will treasure this.