The Narrow Road Between Desires by Patrick Rothfuss

The last time there was a new book by Patrick Rothfuss to write about, The Frumious Consortium was a new project,and Laura reviewed The Slow Regard of Silent Things faster than the rest of the crew. She had strong ideas and took issue with common views coming out of fandom. She set the naysayers straight:

The Narrow Road Between Desires by Partick Rothfuss

This is not a book about doing; this is a book about knowing, about being aware of all the small things in your life and how important they are. When Auri takes the time to deeply contemplate exactly where an object should be placed and which direction it should be facing and how it should be touched, she is understanding that object, and through it, herself. In essence, how it should fit into the world, just as we all must fit into the world.

Laura found her ways to fit into the world, and now the rest of us have to find ways for the world to fit without her in it. I would love to know what she thought about The Narrow Road Between Desires, not least because it is another novella that’s skew to Rothfuss’ larger works, both in its characters and its time. The main character of The Narrow Road is Bast, a male fae who also appears in The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. His name was familiar, but that was about all because I’ve only read the other two books once each, and that about a decade ago. So the beginning of The Narrow Road felt like it was aimed at readers with much more recent experience with the world and the characters, or who were already deeply invested in the setting and hungry for anything fresh from Rothfuss. While I could admire the writing and the construction, I was not, initially, all that caught up in the story.

On the one hand, The Narrow Road is the story of a day in Bast’s life, from the time in the early morning when he tries to sneak out of the inn where he works and gets caught through midnight when all of the day’s plots have been wrapped up and he returns to the inn, only to be quizzed by the keeper on the day’s events. On the other hand, it’s not just any day; it’s midsummer, the longest day, when this fae strikes several bargains and keeps up his end of them, to various reactions from the humans with whom he has bargained.

Bast has a special relationship with the children of the village where he lives. There is a tree on a hill not far outside the village, and there is a large horizontal stone protruding from one side of the hill. “The Lightning Tree” is the name of a previously published story from which The Narrow Road grew, and the titular tree is where the bargains between Bast and his counterparts are solemnized, after being hashed out and agreed to by the tone. This is an ongoing practice that all the kids seem to know about, and midsummer is an auspicious day for bargains, although it was not clear to me from the text whether it is the only day of the year when such bargains are struck. Rothfuss also writes as if this practice has been going on for a long time, but none of the parents seem to be aware of the possibility, so maybe it is a more recent development.

The deals that Bast likes to strike concern favors and secrets, and the advice he offers concerns things like getting even or getting out of trouble, getting a parent to accept a kitten, or — indirect advice by the power of example — getting a fair bargain from a mischievous fae. There are lots of bits about ongoing village stories, who is having an affair with whom, which teen is sweet on another, and references to stories, proverbs and legends from the village’s world. None of these are resolved, and none of them need be, adding to the day-in-the-life character of The Narrow Road. Bast also gives some partial explanations of how magic works in this world — a distinction between glamourie and grammarie — but again this is just a glimpse into an ongoing world.

Eventually some of the bargains and tasks start to connect to each other, particularly with the appearance of a boy named Rike, who was mentioned in the very first chapter. It appears that Bast and Rike have something of a history, and at the beginning of the book are angry with each other. Over the course of the rest of the midsummer day, Rothfuss adds more and more to this story, eventually bringing it to the center of his narrative. Revelations go back and forth, casting new light on events of earlier in the day until by midnight the most pressing concerns have been resolved. The dialog with his boss when Bast returns to the inn shows that this has been just another day, however remarkable, and that tomorrow village life will continue much as before.

I think I am a bit outside the main intended audience for The Narrow Road Between Desires. I am not deep enough into the fandom for Rothfuss’ works — though I certainly liked them and would be happy to re-read, if only there weren’t quite so many other books at hand — that I rejoice at any view of things that happen in that world. Without that kind of attachment, the tale of Bast’s day felt slight to me, interesting enough to observe but not something I felt very invested in.

Rothfuss writes in both his introduction and his afterword about how obsessively he re-wrote this novella, and in the end I think that explains part of my distance. The amount of effort put into ensuring that this tale is properly wrought is more weight than the story itself can really bear. There’s a bit early on about how Bast is an artist of sneaking out because he realizes that perfect silence is something that would be as attention-grabbing as too much noise, so he is careful to make just a few noises that someone used to the normal sounds of the inn would think that nothing unusual is happening. It’s some gorgeous prose, but it’s also a bit overwrought, and I think that’s emblematic of The Narrow Road Between Desires. It would be a better day-in-the-life story, and its drama would have more punch, if it were not polished to a fare-thee-well. It’s probably also a bit unfair that the book bears the burden of being a beloved author’s only release in 10 years or so, but it is, and it’s a slight (though pleasant and charming) thing that has a hard time carrying that weight. I have no special into Rothfuss’ writing, but I suspect that a version that came out soon after The Slow Regard of Silent Things might have been good enough, and might even have been more charming for being less weighty.

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