2020 was perhaps most notable, however, for a fantasy book that did not come out, perhaps because it couldn’t: the third and final chapter of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, at one time the most promising trilogy in a generation. Technically, it hasn’t come out every year for the last nine—book two, Wise Man’s Fear, was published in 2011, four years after the legendary debut, Name of the Wind—but this year, whatever hopes remained that Rothfuss was making at least some progress, however slight or in secret, were shot to pieces. “I’ve never seen a word of book three,” his editor complained on Facebook, in July. “I don’t think he’s written anything for six years.”
Fans were, predictably, outraged. They cursed and screamed at Rothfuss on Twitter, fantasy forums, Goodreads, as if by force of invective they could will some sense of closure into being. Good luck with that. Also, there’s nothing shocking about Rothfuss’ incapacitation. Just look at the working title of his as-yet-unpublished book three: The Doors of Stone.
Doors! Again! And these doors operate, sure enough, on levels literal, metaphorical, and supermetaphorical. Literal, because they exist for the hero, a young wizard in a distant land. Metaphorical, because to get past them, he’ll probably need to discover something about himself. And supermetaphorical, because Rothfuss has an evident case of writer’s block. For nearly a decade, he’s been standing before his own doors of stone, as stumped as Gandalf at the Doors of Durin.
Gandalf didn’t stay stumped, of course. He tried every language he knew, which was a goodly many and took all day, until he finally realized he was saying the wrong word. This may comfort Rothfuss, and if it does not, there’s always the example of Dumbledore, who, at the rocky mouth of Voldemort’s cave, simply sliced his hand open to reveal the path to the underground lake. Basic tenet of wizardry, that: The greater the wizard, the more passages he can find a way through.
So is Rothfuss a great wizard? Almost everybody says so—fans, fellow writers, Lin-Manuel Miranda—on the basis of his books, his bearing, his magnificent beard. In 2020 and beyond, though, that may not be enough. Wizards draw their strength from the world, and the world is changing. It’s moving away from the ancient sources of power, the traditional ways of doing magic, the European metaphors and medievalisms of Rothfuss’ brand of otherworldly, boy-genius, save-the-girl fantasies.
All of which Rothfuss knows. He once said of Jemisin, by way of a compliment, that she’s “stomping all over the genre.” Meanwhile, he seems to be retreating to its edges, or up against the stone doors of his mind. If he looks very closely, he might even glimpse a little writing on the rock. It’s hard to make out, some lost Elven script, but it seems to say this: The age of the wizards will end. Dumbledore is dead. Gandalf has sailed far away. On them—these old white men in hats—the doors of power are slamming shut.
The Best Fantasy Books of 2020:
A Luminous Republic, by Andrés Barba
Tender Is the Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke
Surrender, by Ray Loriga
Network Effect, by Martha Wells
Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi
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