by Patrick Rothfuss
The Fantasy genre comes in many different flavors, much of it aspiring to the label, “Epic”. For many of these books, Epic comes to mean long, spread out, and poorly paced. Usually it means enough p.o.v. characters you need a primer or signpost chapters to keep them all straight. When it’s done right, you can really enjoy this kind of book. You can get lost in those big multi-volume stories; the kind of experience only books can provide. Examples such as George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and Steven Ericsson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen spring to mind.
Fantasy can also deliver shorter, sleeker stories that blend convention and technique. Stand-alone novels in all types of settings with all manner of cross-genre blending. I’m a big fan of such books. I like being able to pick-up a novel and know the story will come to a reasonable end after 300 pages. Some recent examples here include: Territory by Emma Bull and the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher.
With The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss provides a taste of both flavors. It’s long (700 pages in paperback), with a deeply developed sense of history, and obviously the first of several such volumes. So epic. It’s also told chiefly in 1st person p.o.v. and tightly written. So shorter non-conventional fantasy. Of course a comparative structure like this is artificial and eventually breaks down, but it can give you a glimpse at the strength of this novel. For me this is an epic feel that’s also intimate. It’s a a long book in 1st person.
Usually I don’t like 1st person for novels. Love the technique for short stories, but for books I often find it to be limiting. I end up disliking the narrator too much, finding they lack (or have too much) self awareness. For The Name of the Wind this isn’t a problem. It’s a testament to Rothfuss’ craft and skill that after 700 pages in his protagonist and narrator’s head, I’m looking forward to the next installment. The book uses a frame of 3rd person in the ‘present’, with protag Kvothe retired in obscurity as an innkeeper. As the book progresses, it become’s Kvothe’s recollection of his story. Kvothe wants to get the story right, move past the embellishments, set the record straight.
Initially, the reason his story is so interesting is because he is a certified genius, a legendary figure in his world, and the greatest wizard of his age. It’s sort of like Merlin sitting down to pen his own story, or Spiderman, or Robin Hood. And when we say wizard, we don’t mean Harry Potter or Gandalf, either. The magic in Rothfuss’ world is less overt and more subtle. There are two types we see in tNotW: sympathy, which allows the practitioner to perform simple bindings and move potential energy around (transfer heat, find things, etc.), and older true magic, which we barely see in this book, that has to do with the true names of people and things. If you were to give this book a Hollywood logline, it might read: “a Doogie Houser-type whiz-kid ovecomes great obstacles to become his world’s greatest magician (Volume I: the early years).” That’s a pretty good hook, right? Many of us who read Harry Potter often found ourselves wondering, what if a certified IQ 220 genius went to Hogwarts?
So you have an intriguing premise. But what really draws you in are the characters. Kvothe, as your narrator, and the other important people in his life, past and present. It’s very well-written, with a wistfulness and implied sense of regret that not only piques your curiosity but makes Kvothe seem less like Superman and more like that really smart kid you knew in high school. The way he reacts to challenges and obstacles, his cleverness, toughness, and sensitivity, make him very appealing. At its heart, the book is a love story as well, and Rothfuss does very well with those moments and icky feeling parts. Sure, there were places that made me cringe a bit, and I really could’ve done with a little more action and little less constant longing, but these are probably my own alpha-type issues.
Criticisms of tNotW mostly relate to pacing and closure. Simply stated: I wanted more to happen in 700 pages. At the same time, you might not develop the same appreciation for Kvothe and Denna, Tarbean and the University, with a tempo increase. Again, testament to Pat Rothfuss’ storytelling skills, that this didn’t really annoy me more. The book also ends abruptly and frankly isn’t much of an ending. From a narrative standpoint it doesn’t make much sense, seeming more like the editor or publisher saying, “OK we’ve reached big fat book status and we’re ending this sucker here, so we can go market the next book…” Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it went down. Rothfuss does manage to skillfully add a 3rd person ‘present’ frame as the setup for the next volume at the close, and that’s it. You’re kind of left scratching your head. If you’re not a fantasy reader this might really bother you, but I accept this as a convention of the form.
Any other complaints are personal nitpicks. In an interview, the author reiterates his desire to avoid certain overly familiar tropes such as dragons, fireballs, elves, and dwarves, but he had no problem using the tried and true orphan-on-the-path-to-greatness, or artist-musician cards. Not to mention the gypsy and street urchin cards. Also Kvothe in retrospect seems awfully mature for a kid who’s essentially in his early to mid teens for most of the book. Sure he’s exceptionally bright, but… 13-15 year olds do stupid stuff, no matter how smart they are. Also, boys that age are incredibly horny. Trust me, I can remember… Just a nod to this by the author, just a glimpse of Kvothe’s inner Beavis & Butthead would’ve gone a long way.
But again, these are minor nitpicky comments and in the grand scheme they don’t matter too much. What you really need to know is this: The Name of the Wind is a great read, whether you’re a fantasy fan, advanced young adult reader, or just someone who likes good books. It’s an Epic tale that’s also intimate. And having given me second thoughts about my aversion to 1st person in longer fiction, I’m now eagerly awaiting Book II in Kvothe’s story.