Apart, perhaps, from the president-elect, there’s no one who’s not taking calls from (if not placing calls to) Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton writer, Pulitzer Prize winner, and odds-on EGOT favorite leads the country in artistic cachet. Until his Hamilton heat subsides, Miranda is the man who can create or collaborate on anything: Most everyone would want to work with him, and anyone who doesn’t would still benefit from having his name attached to a project. So it says something that Miranda’s next move, amid the Disney scores and starring roles, will be serving as creative producer for a multipronged adaptation of a fantasy series, The Kingkiller Chronicle.
Why did the creator who could have done anything choose to do this? For one, he really likes The Kingkiller Chronicle: He publicly begged for the job as early as last summer, and he’s credited the series for inspiring at least one Hamilton track. Miranda’s non-Hamilton output has bounced among his obsessions, from Star Wars to movie musicals, and now to Kingkiller. But as much of a passion project as Kingkiller may be, it’s also a commitment his accountant can endorse. Even before Tuesday’s announcement of Miranda’s wide-ranging involvement, The Kingkiller Chronicle was the biggest blue-chip prospect among cultural-touchstone contenders. Miranda’s role raises its floor, but its ceiling was already Rowling-esque.
The Kingkiller books, the debut work by Patrick Rothfuss, aren’t exactly obscure. The series has sold many millions of copies — the second installment of the still-unfinished trilogy was a no. 1 New York Times best seller — and its individual volumes sit toward the top of any crowdsourced list of the best-reviewed books on Goodreads. Every serious fantasy fan is familiar with 2007’s The Name of the Wind and 2011’s The Wise Man’s Fear, but the Kingkiller series hasn’t reached household-name status with the public at large, despite my go-to icebreaker for the past several years, “Have you read any Rothfuss?”
That’s going to change, because Kingkiller is about to be everywhere. Last year, Lionsgate won the bidding to the franchise’s rights, in part because the studio promised an all-out, simultaneous assault on our screens: a movie, a TV show, and a video game, with an option added this week for stage adaptations to accommodate Miranda. However Lionsgate decides to schedule the releases, the net result should be a Marvel-caliber barrage of Kingkiller content that only a production disaster could sabotage, and a shoddy adaptation seems less likely with Rothfuss and Miranda around.
The prospect of another high-concept fantasy series, with another new map and a boatload of lore, might sound exhausting. But for the following reasons, Kingkiller is both worth your attention today and uniquely well positioned to demand your attention tomorrow.
It Weaves Together Several Successful Strands From Other Sagas
The Kingkiller Chronicle is a story told in two time lines, both concerning a red-haired, many-talented warrior-wizard named Kvothe. In the present, he’s an incognito innkeeper who calls himself Kote (maybe not the least conspicuous alias) and holds himself responsible for the civil unrest that’s beset the Four Corners of Civilization (possibly due to the king-killing). In the past, we watch him make the name that we know will one day be infamous, and acquire the powers that his older self forsakes.
The young Kvothe is on a quest to track down a believed-to-be-mythical evil, which he knows not to be mythical because it killed his parents. The story unspools from the older Kvothe’s perspective as he narrates his history (perhaps unreliably) to a scribe called The Chronicler, with each Kingkiller book covering one day during the present. The missing middle years that Book 3 is set to explore — in which the brash Kvothe becomes the quiet Kote — are one of the many mysteries that save the series from the lack of suspense that sometimes plagues prequels and flashback-filled stories.
The saga is both a bildungsroman and a psychological study, a romance and a revenge tale flecked with both darkness and light. And it artfully appropriates Earthsea, Harry Potter, and A Song of Ice and Fire, among other classics, right down to the true names, seven kingdoms, and wizardry school (complete with colorful professors and a Draco-ish antagonist). For some readers, Rothfuss’s borrowing might push past “homage” into “derivative” territory, but if you’re not sensitive about sampling, you’ll enjoy Kingkiller’s “best of all worlds” approach.
It’s Genuinely Well Written
This one needs no genre-fiction qualifiers; Rothfuss has a way with language, and I don’t mean “for a fantasy author.” From the beginning, his books have been plastered with testimonials from fantasy luminaries who’ve hat-tipped his craft, George R.R. Martin among them. A Song of Ice and Fire is well written, too: World-building, plotting, and character creation count. On a sentence by sentence (by sentence, by sentence …) basis, though, Martin’s prose is pretty workmanlike — admirably clear, but without what Ursula Le Guin (in a book-jacket blurb for Rothfuss) called “true music in the words.”
Rothfuss, who employs a more modern-sounding, conversational style, free of much of the medieval jargon that often accompanies fantasy, writes sentences you’ll roll around in your mouth like Westeros residents savor the stuffed capons Martin is always describing, which helps make Book 2’s too-long interludes in the action more tolerable than ASOIAF’s sloggier sequences. For big books, they’re quick reads, which suggests that the disconnect and knowledge imbalance between readers and viewers may be less pronounced for Kingkiller than it was through the first several seasons of Game of Thrones.
There’s a Manageable Amount of Material
To this point, Kingkiller encompasses two (lengthy) novels, two tangential novellas, and a short story, none of them padded by appendices with long lists of lineages and noble-house who’s-whos. Book 3 of the trilogy is in (excruciatingly slow) progress, as is another novel-length digression. That’s enough to tell a rich story and hint at many more untapped plot deposits that haven’t been mined, but not so much that catching up is prohibitively time-consuming. Nor does the series pose any particularly tough problems from an adaptation perspective. Kingkiller isn’t quite as sprawling as the in-development Dune or Foundation, whose events unfold over thousands of years, and its tale isn’t told by a large cast of POV characters, as is A Song of Ice and Fire’s. It’s a single protagonist’s story stretched over a decades-long span, which should mean fewer screenplay pitfalls.
It’s Pure Wish Fulfillment
Kvothe is a prodigy at pretty much everything, the type of person for whom “I work too hard” and “I care too much” might actually be the best interview answers to the “What are your weaknesses?” question. He repeatedly breaks rules but gets away with it, because no one can outthink, outduel, or begrudge someone so obviously skilled. That formula feels tired at times, but it’s saved by the glimpses we get of a less confident Kvothe. Because we knew him when he had nothing and we also know a comeuppance is coming, the intervening power fantasy is fun.
It Nails the “Secondary World”
Kingkiller fills all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prescriptions for an immersive fictional setting, from geography and language to internal consistency — and, most adeptly of all, music, which is all the more remarkable because Rothfuss doesn’t have much of a musical background. Miranda’s musical talent and affection for the material makes him the best possible person to make sure Kingkiller’s music sounds as great as it reads.
Its Magic Makes Sense
As much as magic ever does, that is. For readers who find magic off-putting if it’s not explained or bound by clear rules, Kingkiller’s compromise with reality strikes a satisfying balance. Sympathy, the series’ most common form of magic, is a semi-scientific power that relies on manipulating objects by linking them to other objects and transferring energy from an adjacent source.
With that constraint — no power source, no power — every encounter becomes a brainteaser, which sets Sympathy apart from the Harry Potter–style “wave wand and say words” solution. While most magical heroes seem to have access to an unseen answer key, Kingkiller’s arcanists actually show their work.
It Lends Itself to Deep Dives and Speculation
Kvothe is kind of the original Reddit commenter; as he says in Book 1, “If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.” His search for clues that might take him to his parents’ killers mirrors the modern subreddit of every mystery-driven show, and statements such as “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most” are right up the alley of internet sleuths.
The Series Isn’t Over
The third book’s limbo has been a source of frustration for Kingkiller’s fans and, in turn, friction between Rothfuss and the Kingkiller community, especially because Rothfuss ill-advisedly said before the first book came out that the entire trilogy was finished. (Recently, Rothfuss accidentally — CONSPIRACY SIREN! — leaked an unpublished page while streaming a writing session, then threatened to stop streaming forever when spectators screenshotted and shared it.) Readers have been waiting for The Doors of Stone, the follow-up to The Wise Man’s Fear, longer than ASOIAF fans have been waiting for The Winds of Winter. And while Rothfuss has published more pages than Martin in the interim, he’s been even less forthcoming than Martin about the book’s status.
That’s a bad thing for book readers, but not necessarily a negative for the franchise, now that it’s set to expand beyond books. Not only will the adaptation publicity lead to bigger book sales, but not knowing how the story will end should sustain the tension and reduce the risk of spoilers for spectators. Better yet, Lionsgate is neatly sidestepping the hurdles HBO encountered when the show surpassed the book series by pegging the Kingkiller films to the books but the show to new stories set in the same universe and overseen by Rothfuss and Miranda. And best of all, while Rothfuss’s beard is even bushier than Martin’s, he’s not nearly as old. At 43, the actuarial tables are considerably kinder, and Rothfuss has said, “I think I could write stories in this world forever.”
Rothfuss Is an Active Ambassador
Although the pressure that comes with being a best-selling author has been hard on him at times — Rothfuss has acknowledged his experiences with anxiety and depression — his public persona is personable and self-effacing. When he’s not being asked anything, he’s tweeting, he’s streaming, he’s Facebooking, he’s blogging, and he’s touring. His nerdy bromance with Miranda is the best thing on Twitter for fans of both artists’ work. While his sensitivity to being asked about Book 3 can be as grating as the “When’s it coming out?” question itself, his charitable efforts more than make up for the occasional curt response or scathing imitation. To the extent that it helps a series to have an author who’s open to promotion and transparent about process (after publication, at least), Kingkiller couldn’t be in better hands.
It’s Got Good Timing
No release dates have been announced for any of the adaptations, so it’s safe to assume that we’re years away from seeing something on-screen. With Thrones scheduled to end in 2018, it’s likely that Lionsgate will launch its Rothfuss offensive just in time to fill the Thrones-sized hole in our hearts (which probably isn’t an accident). Just don’t think of this thing as Thrones methadone; Kingkiller supplies its own high.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.