The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
DAW Books Inc., 2014; 176 pp
Reviewed by Elise Matthews
Patrick Rothfuss opens the foreword of his novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, with a warning not to buy the book. Then, in the endnote, he apologizes to anyone who may have found the book "disconcerting, off-putting, or confusing." While some fantasy readers may find the book to be those things, I found it breathtaking. Rothfuss is right that it's not for everyone, though. My brother, for instance, who reads mostly fantasy and nonfiction, loves Rothfuss' other books as much as I do and was also excited about the release of The Slow Regard. But my brother couldn't finish this book. He'd never read fiction that lacked plot and characters, and it confused him.
The foreword and endnote are rife with Rothfuss' anxiety about this book, which is understandable. He's a fantasy writer, and his first two books, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, fit snuggly into the genre. These books—which are also the first two books in his trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicle—established his career well, showed Rothfuss to be a master of character, world building, and plot. These two books fulfill the expectations of fantasy readers. But The Slow Regard is not your typical fantasy book. It's set in the same world of the trilogy but is distinctly separate from it.
The Slow Regard has only one character: Auri. Fans of The Kingkiller Chronicle will recognize her as Kvothe's friend, the young woman who lives in the abandoned tunnels and passageways (which she calls the Underthing) beneath the university. Though she's the only person in the story, the different parts of the Underthing and her few possessions are characters in her eyes. Each room and each item has a specific personality, specific needs and wants, a name. For Auri, everything is alive.
At some point in the past, Auri was a student at the university but had a mental break and sought shelter beneath the school. We have no real details about her past, only hints. She appears infrequently in The Kingkiller Chronicle. While The Slow Regard gives no new details about her past, it captures who she has become: a person absolutely disabled by anxiety. And it's all in the language, which is stunning:
Foxen[*] was frightened and full of mountains. [. . .]
She didn't blame him. She knew what it could be like. Some days simply lay on you like stones. Some were fickle as cats, sliding away when you needed comfort, then coming back later when you didn't want them, jostling at you, stealing your breath. (79)
It's such a simple observation of how some days the darkness feels external, as if the day itself is inherently bad, and there's beauty in way Rothfuss condenses these huge, complicated emotions. His language is this succinct throughout, consistently packing large emotion into few words.
The most striking parts of the book are Auri's panic attacks. They explode off the page:
She looked down at her shaking hands. Was she all full of screaming now? Again? No. No no. It wasn't her. Not just. It was all everything. All everything unravelding and thin and tatter. She could not even stand. The light was jagged, scraping like a knife against her teeth. And underneath it was the hollow dark. The nameless empty everything was clawing at the fraying edges of the walls. Even Foxen wasn't even nearly. The stones were strange. The air. She went looking for her name and couldn't even find it flickering. She was just hollow in. Everything was. Everything was everything. Everything was everything else. (116)
The writing throughout is just so beautiful. While reading, I kept stopping to share bits and pieces with whomever was nearby—my cats, my boyfriend, strangers at the coffee shop—because so much of it just blew me away. It won't blow away readers who need plot in order to engage with a story, but if you're a fan of Rothfuss' trilogy and if lovely language is enough for you, this book is for you.
*Foxen is never explained but seems to be some kind of magic source of light that is perhaps alive in some way.