An Open Reply to Fantasy Author Patrick Rothfuss


In your most recent blog post, you replied to an article that I wrote for Sequart, “Six Reasons Why the Kingkiller Chronicle is the Next Game of Thrones.” You wrote:

“Over the years, I’ve been described as the next Tolkien, the next Scott Lynch, the next George Martin…. And while it’s flattering, I’d really rather be the first Pat Rothfuss. I have much more experience being that. Now that I post up these three links, I realize they’re all lists of some sort. Which makes me feel kinda awful. My only saving grace is that I didn’t find these by clicking through horrible clickbait websites. (You’ll never believe what these authors did! Number 5 will surprise you!) Speaking of, have you seen The Onion’s new parody site? Clickhole?

Since I see that you’re reading, I’d like to reply to a couple of points.

First, you wrote: “I realize they’re all lists of some sort. Which makes me feel kinda awful.” Then you (pretty much) compare my article and the two others to Clickhole.

Really now? I get what you’re saying—we all know vapid clickbait when we see it, and there are truly a lot of substance-free listicles clamoring to be clicked. But surely there’s a difference between, say, “Six Juicy Celebrity Asses” and—if you were to revise my title a bit—“Six Detailed Reasons The Kingkiller Chronicle Will Be a Colossal Multimedia Success.” Though it comes in the form of a list, all lists are not equal, nor equally substance-free.

In terms of serving an audience, lists have one important function that I was counting on here. It’s one reason they’re so popular that people often use them cynically to accumulate clicks. Namely, a list serves as shorthand for: “The following is not a rambling rant. It has organization and focus; it is not a directionless swamp. If the topic looks interesting to you, you will encounter X number of hopefully interesting examples.” This is useful in the bizarre fever dream that is much of the internet.

“I didn’t find these by clicking through horrible clickbait websites,” you acknowledge. No indeed: I put it on your Facebook page myself! I called your attention to it because not only is it very favorable towards your work, but as just discussed, it has something specific and organized to say.

You say you don’t want to be the “next Tolkien,” or Martin, or whatever, but rather “the first Pat Rothfuss.” That makes sense. I can see where using the phrase “next Game of Thrones” could mislead readers (including you) from what I’m saying about your work in particular. So I’ll clarify.

First, the primary comparison I wanted to draw is in the vast scope of success I predict. The Kingkiller Chronicle will be the “next Game of Thrones” only in the sense that it will be that big a household name, even among people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider themselves fantasy fans. Mark my words: like GoT, Kingkiller will have lots of people who might not otherwise give fantasy a chance exclaiming at the water cooler over last night’s episode.

Kingkiller is not the “next GoT” in the sense of being derivative, “more of the same.” Reading your work causes much less anxiety than reading Martin’s, for one big thing. Who will the author will kill next? Who will be tortured and/or raped? Exactly how graphic will these scenes be? Then, too, there are considerably fewer family trees to either memorize or look up in the appendix constantly. Your epic is on a more personal, individual, manageable scale; it’s the difference between a history book (Martin) and a personal journal (you).

One key way your work is unique in fantasy is that articulates the joys, challenges, and frustrations of live performance—of doing music and theatre for an audience. Most fantasy fiction never even brings up this aspect of life; Kingkiller captures it in fine detail, better than most performers’ memoirs. The performance scenes are every bit as suspenseful and gripping as the battle scenes, particularly the scene in which Kvothe performs an ultra-difficult song with Denna, with a magically sabotaged lute string, to earn his Pipes. They constitute an integral part of the story and the protagonist, not a mere afterthought.

Kingkiller also takes several ultra-familiar elements of fantasy literature and makes them fresh and plausible. Certain tropes (the Chosen One, the Spreading Evil) and stereotypes (the Wise Old Wizard, the Damsel in Distress) have been used so many times in fantasy fiction that they’ve lost their power and meaning. Kingkiller avoids this giant trap.

Kingkiller uniquely offers sheer variety, too, a fairly uncommon commodity in fantasy epics. Among its familiar elements—magic, education in magic and life, dragon-slaying, rooting out evil—the narrative weaves a Dickensian bildungsroman, an unpredictable romance, live performances, and clever narrative self-consciousness.

In any case, you can’t blame readers (including me) for thinking in terms of “the next X.” Readers have always read associatively—“That book was great! I want another author like that, another book like that.” And now, accustomed as we are to predicting and recommending algorithms, we read and think this way more than ever., for one, has some amazingly effective, prescient software designed to calculate such things quite exactly: “If you liked X, then you might like Y.” Sometimes they chill my blood just a bit with their accuracy. Your first book, The Name of the Wind, was first marketed to me after this fashion—the mini-book sample I received with Realms of Fantasy directly compared you to Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan.

It’s a natural association to make, if only based in on genre. You’re a fantasy author—that is, you write fiction that prominently features magic, as opposed to technological/scientific powers, which are characteristic of science fiction. Obvious, I know, but that’s the most natural and useful way to separate your story from other kinds of story. That’s how we find your work in the bookstore. You yourself have said, on your Amazon author page: “Patrick Rothfuss always wanted to be a fantasy author when he grew up.” Elsewhere, if memory serves, you described being stuck quite sick in bed for several days, reading fantasy, and becoming badly hooked by the time you were well. You had found your vocation. Our categorizing brains can’t help seeing other fantasy writers next to you in your genre compartment, but don’t worry, we can see that you’re the first and only Pat Rothfuss.

Now get back to work! Don’t leave us hanging like that Martin guy!

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Brian Cowlishaw grew up in rural Idaho, then earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Oklahoma in 1998. He has taught and published on many areas of literature and popular culture, especially science fiction and fantasy. He is a Harper Voyager Super Reader, reviewing advance reader copies for the publisher. He is a professor of English at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is an avid gamer and a big fan of all things related to India. Email: Twitter: @BrianCowlishaw. Blog:

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