Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This was originally going to be just part of a “What I’ve Been Reading” post, but it turns out I have a lot to say about this book, so now it’s just its own review post.

Cover courtesy of DAW

The Name of the Wind is the first book in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, and it describes the early life of the first-person narrator and alleged Kingkiller, Kvothe. To describe the plot generally would paint this novel as clichéd. I guess that’s because it is, in its broad strokes. An exceptionally talented, fast-learning child lives a comfortable life as a player in his father’s troupe of traveling performers. When the troupe takes on an arcanist, young Kvothe is mentored by him in Sympathy—a kind of magic based on intense concentration and mental gymnastics. Eventually the arcanist leaves, and soon after the Kvothe’s father begins work on a ballad involving the mysterious Chandrian—mythical superhuman superevil beings, probably just fables. Then the Chandrian murder the entire troupe, leaving only Kvothe alive. For years Kvothe survives by the skin of his teeth, hitchhiking, begging, stealing, though he eventually determines to go to the University, to utilize its massive archives to research the Chandrian. Demonstrating exceptional intelligence and knowledge of sympathy, Kvothe is admitted to the University, where he spends the remainder of the book having adventures and misadventures, and trying to gain access to the archives.

Yes, with the exception of a few creative flourishes, the book traces a familiar arc. Where it stands out, or at least justifies its position as one of the most popular fantasy novels in the past decade, is in the execution. The book reminds me of a 19th-century serialized novel, like Great Expectations or Count of Monte Cristo—both of which, in their broad strokes, also rely on clichés, despite being terrific works. The pacing is tireless, each chapter lurches into the next as new dilemmas arise and Kvothe sets his sights on new goals. There’s a large cast of characters, but they’re all memorable, and you love to love the ones you love, and love to hate the ones you hate. Name of the Wind manages the great trick of being long and reading fast.

Before I move on, I do want to point out what those creative flourishes are that I mentioned. One that instantly jumped out at me was the fact that Rothfuss has created a magic school which requires tuition, and for which the main character has to take out what are, essentially, student loans. Fantastic. The other major twist is the biographical format. It’s not third-person, nor does Kvothe’s story just start right when he gets to the University. Again, this is part of why books like Great Expectations and David Copperfield come to mind—there’s an ease, a confidence in taking time to describe Kvothe’s upbringing that is uncommon in fantasy novels, which mostly try to sprint through this part of the protagonist’s life as if hounded by impatient readers. Not so with Name of the Wind.

Now, I don’t mean to portray this book as an incredibly detailed, in-depth examination of the protagonist. It’s not, the pacing doesn’t allow for it. Like many a 19th-century novel, there’s necessarily not a great deal of depth to any of the characters. This book is not a character study, and truly this is most evident in the character of Kvothe. He’s got personality, he’s got emotions, and of course he’s got backstory, but examining him closely doesn’t reveal anything that isn’t abundantly obvious on the surface. Why does he care so much about his lute? Cause it was his dad’s, duh. Why is he unwilling to back down from a bully at the University? It’s not because, during his life as a beggar, he was conditioned to project strength for his own safety—it’s because he learned that you need to project strength for your own safety, so it’s a strategy, not a character trait. It refuses any further speculation about how this mentality is manifesting in Kvothe’s life by explicitly stating that it’s not a mentality, it’s a conscious decision—and it’s the correct decision, because Kvothe is always right about these things. Maybe it’s that constant correctness, that flawlessness or I dunno, lack of flaws, that makes Kvothe no fun to explore. He’s a kind of Indiana-Jones- or Sherlock-Holmes-style hero, inexplicably talented in whatever he sets his mind too. But this is essentially the conceit of the book, so it’s easy enough to accept it, and then enjoy seeing how Kvothe will triumph over all the obstacles thrown at him, rather than seeing if he will triumph over them—and Rothfuss continually manages to devise surprising, delightful solutions for Kvothe to pull off.

Another note on characters—which again, I want to say, are all terrifically characterized and fun to follow—is that the book disappointed me with its women. I could accept that a book set in a patriarchal medieval society, which mainly occurs at an academic institution, will not have many female characters. What felt so strange to me was how alone the women in this book are. To my mind, there’s precisely one moment of female friendship in the book—or, two women interacting in a friendly way—but otherwise, they’re always alone, or attached to men. Kvothe’s main love interest in the book is specifically described as being ostracized by women because she attracts so many men … what? Why? Because women are so jealous of her good looks and singing, they can’t stand to befriend her? Implying that competing for men is the primary concern of women? Kvothe is obnoxiously talented, an yet he has friends—his talents don’t drive away men the way the talents of Denna (the love interest) supposedly drive away women. I get that this is part of Denna’s character, but christ, can’t she have a relationship with anyone that isn’t romantic?

To be clear, the women in this book aren’t tokens or stereotypes, they’re all well-developed characters, they all occupy interesting societal positions, but they feel unrealistically isolated. On the same note, there’s a surprising lack of familial ties in this book, with the exception of Kvothe’s parents. And again, overall the characterization is stellar. This is just the big weak spot for me.

Now, on to the plotting. For the most part, it’s great. After a kind of creaky, disjointed frame-story beginning, the book is constantly moving. However, it ends up falling into a fairly predictable pattern, most obvious to me during Kvothe’s time as a beggar: Someone will be surprisingly and devastatingly cruel to him, and he will deal with it as best he can, but still end on the brink of hopelessness, at which point someone will be surprisingly and bountifully kind to him, and he will use this boost to start working toward some greater goal, and just as he nears reaching it, [return to beginning.] This, obviously takes a lot of the punch out of the cruelty, and a lot of the joy out of the kindness.

However, this is mostly just a problem near the beginning of the book. Later on, as Kvothe has multiple simultaneous goals he’s pursuing, the pattern  falls into the background, as the crests and troughs of these different pursuits overlap to create more nuanced arcs. This is another similarity to great serialized novels—Rothfuss does an excellent job balancing various arcs—Kvothe’s money troubles, his love life, his school life, his musical pursuits—never abandoning one long enough for the reader to forget about it, but not switching back and forth between them constantly to the point of literary whiplash. The book is at its strongest in its latter half, when it deftly weaves these storylines together, pulling the reader forward ceaselessly.

Until it ceases, that is. The book ends pretty abruptly, without coming to anything. It’s part of a trilogy, of course, so I suppose you have to get the next book if you want it to come to something. I’m certainly going to. It’d be nice if Name of the Wind gave the reader some sense of a resting point at the end, but I can’t say I feel cheated. I got hours and hours of enjoyment out of this book, so if it needs to end abruptly, I can’t complain too much.

Overall, I’d absolutely recommend reading this book. It’s popular for a reason, and that reason is, it’s just great storytelling. And, also like 19th-century serials, this is a great book to listen to over a long period of time. I listened to the US audiobook of it read by Nick Podehl, and he does a terrific job.

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