The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
Daw Books, 2007
I was nervous when I first picked up Patrick Rothfuss’s book The Name of the Wind. It came highly recommended by critics, by newspaper blurbs, even by the bookstore clerk (Dan) who wrote the staff recommendation which hung on the shelf underneath the stocked copies. But the blurb on the back of the mass market paperback I held in my hands damned it in two ways. First, it set the stage of having the main character being an uber hero – something I have grown to dislike immensely. Second, and perhaps worse, it likened the book to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as had Dan’s recommendation. In my experience, comparing a novel to Tolkien is usually a desperate ploy to sell books – no one should be compared to Tolkien: the master stands apart.
However, Dan’s praise intrigued me – it’s one thing to write enticing marketing copy; it’s quite another to give an unabashed opinion with no commission in mind. Plus, the paperback quoted two fantasy authors on the back cover – Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Brooks – espousing Mr. Rothfuss’s writing. For me, author recommendations carry more weight than those from the media; you never know what may be influencing media reviews, but authors… well, authors are the ultimate source, aren’t they? So, even though Terry Brooks is not my favorite author, I have read his works and admire his imagination and style, so if he says that Patrick Rothfuss has real talent, I’m going to believe him.
Then I opened the front cover. More accolades from authors, more than I had seen for a single book before. Orson Scott Card. OMG, Tad Williams, and Anne McCaffrey…. and then the capper: Robin Hobb (one of my all time favorite authors), saying The Name of the Wind was well worth my precious reading time. That’s all I needed. I bought the book, cleared my calendar, and dived in.
I didn’t have to read any further than the acknowledgments to know I was holding something special. After thanking the obligatory family, editors, fans, etc, Rothfuss thanks his high school history teacher, because “In 1989 I told him I’d mention him in my first novel. I keep my promises.” Those two sentences told me that Patrick Rothfuss not only possesses a wry wit and a keen ability to say a lot in the space of a few words, but was also, well, a man of honor. I had a strong sense that I would be seeing a lot more of these attributes in the pages to follow.
I wasn’t mistaken.
The Name of the Wind does indeed deserve accolades. While I would not describe it as on par with Professor Tolkien’s works, it does stand out not only for its substance, but also its style, which is intelligent, witty, and entertaining. While the novel deals with such fantastical ideas as magic and the power of names, words and music, it does so with a footing in a realistic understanding of the workings of such things, rather than resorting to pixie dust and ancient incantations. No need to carry a healthy willing suspension of disbelief when reading The Name of the Wind, because Rothfuss makes it so easy to believe the story in its own right.
Written as the first of a series (the next one is still forthcoming), The Name of the Wind introduces us to Kvothe (pronounced similar to “Quothe”), a man who’s reputation over the years has been lionized as master magician and folk hero. The “real” Kvothe has retreated into the anonymous personae of Kote, innkeeper and tavern owner, for reasons that are not immediately disclosed. But when a famed biographer finds Kote tucked away at the Waystone Inn, he is determined to chronicle Kvothe’s story in the hero’s own words – and so the story is begun.
We learn about Kvothe’s beginnings with his family as part of a traveling Edema Ruh performing troupe. With a loving and talented mother and father, young Kvothe learns acting, stagecraft, recitation, music and poetry – and how to read a crowd, charm an audience, and respond nimbly to whatever situation arises. His quick wit and keen ability to soak up knowledge – both learned and perceived – brings to light a bright and eager child, whose education is nurtured by not only his traveling family but also the arcanist Abenthy, who hitches his wagon with the performers and teaches young Kvothe the sciences: botany, astronomy, psychology, anatomy, geometry and especially chemistry. “Ben” also fills Kvothe’s head with stories of the famous University, where the mysterious Arcanum teaches the ancient art of alchemy.
It is not too long after Abenthy leaves that troupe that disaster strikes, and the nefarious evil that is the shadowy Chandrian leaves Kvothe alone in the world. Forced to survive by his wits and his quickness, Kvothe eaks out an existence that eventually leads him to the University, where his acquired knowledge and thirst for learning allows him to become one of the youngest (and least wealthy) students of that revered institution. But life is not easy for Kvothe, and he must overcome many obstacles on his journey, including a lack of background, an unwillingness to participate in artifice, and an inability to settle for mediocrity. He has also vowed to learn what he can of the hated Chandrian, who most believe are simply “fairy tales” and superstition borne out of peasant ignorance, but Kvothe knows firsthand to be truly evil and very real.
Kvothe is an extremely intriguing character, and he teeters on the edge of being what I consider an “uber” hero – one who excels inexplicably in everything he touches. But in Patrick Rothfuss’s treatment, Kvothe refuses to become a caricature of legend – this is much of what makes the writing in The Name of the Wind memorable. Kvothe’s journey is not an easy one, nor is he successful in everything he does. He endures beatings, poverty, hunger and powerlessness, and more than once trips himself up by being impulsive, naïve, or by underestimating the circumstances in which he finds himself. But rather than settling into revenge or strength of arms, Kvothe learns from his losses through observation and humbling himself, even while he continually seeks ways to bring the advantage of a wide spectrum of experience to achieve his goals.
Rothfuss’s skill with character is not limited to Kvothe, however. He plays close attention to all his characters, whether they be major players or only appear on a few pages. Every one of them rings true, whether you like them or not! For example, the enigmatic Denna, Kvothe’s infatuation, provokes my own sensibilities. She is lovely, charming and coquettish – the sort of woman I tend to dislike (probably because I’m female). I don’t trust her, and I think she’s manipulating Kvothe, even though there is nothing overt to support that belief. (He, of course, is besotted by her.)
It’s that reaction of mine that validates Rothfuss’s skill. Denna as written has every appearance of being perfect, because we see her through Kvothe’s eyes. However, other characters, while agreeing about her beauty and charm, let slip that she is not perfect. She’s pretty, but has a slightly crooked nose, says one friend (something at which Kvothe bristles). Another counsels Kvothe to beware falling for her, acknowledging her charm but also her quicksilver nature (which Kvothe attributes to a spurned overture to the lady). Yet another points out inconsistencies in what she has told Kvothe (which he, of course, rationalizes away). These are not overt warnings, and are not heavily painted foreshadowing; instead, Rothfuss reinforces that perfect love only exists for the very young and the infatuated – and Kvothe is both. But Rothfuss also has created in Deanna a character that will cause many readers pause, simply because we are familiar with such people in our own workaday world, and we don’t trust them. Therefore, even though we as readers may not have made up our minds about Denna – is she truly manipulative, or will she turn out to be worthy of Kvothe’s estimation? – Rothfuss’s characterization of her rings true.
Even lesser characters receive this treatment. Kvothe’s instructors at the University are not cookie cutter intellectuals nor pompous buffoons – they feel authentic, even those that show pettiness. His main adversary in this book, the rich and spoiled Ambrose, is slimy yet believable, and it’s understandable why the conflict between him and Kvothe escalates (some of the cause of which can be laid at Kvothe’s feet). The regulars at the Waystone Inn set the stage for our sense of place – the “here and now” of the story – effectively, because it actually does feel like we are watching from a corner table. Even an unassuming priest who crosses young Kvothe’s path in the big city of Tarbean is a gentle foil for the inhumanity that otherwise awaits unwanted street urchins in the back alleys and dirty streets of an unforgiving city.
And amongst all these wonderful characters is a fantastic story. Rothfuss takes elements that other writers attempt – magic, fantastic creatures, unconventional heroes – and give them not only a voice, but a foundation. Let’s take magic, for instance. Kovthe’s magic is actually a complex mixture of the sciences (specifically alchemy and chemistry) and process who’s effects are explainable yet nevertheless make it appears as if the wielder is calling down lightning and fire (hence the reputation). But we learn that the true magic is in understanding how elements, knowledge and situation combine to create a manipulated effect (not as easy as it sounds). There are indeed mystical elements of Kvothe’s world, such as the power that exists in knowing the names of things, but these elements are patiently explored, with wonder, not merely stated as a given that we must accept. We experience Kvothe’s struggles to understand, and therefore we are drawn inside this world in a very intimate way.
Likewise with the fantastical creatures in the story. There are dragons, but unlike any dragons you have ever run across in your garden variety fantasy fiction (and after reading this book, you may think twice about going out camping for a while). The Chandrian are shadowy figures, so mysterious that most don’t believe they truly exist, but even with any lack of empirical evidence they are still considered the boogymen that haunt children’s tales and peasants’ nightmares. We know they are real because of Kvothe’s experiences, however, and that sinister knowledge casts a pall throughout the entire book and beyond.
Yes, there are a few weaknesses in The Name of the Wind, or at least there are some areas with which I struggled, such as how someone as young as Kvothe (even with his life experiences) should be so worldly, especially when it comes to his interactions with Denna and her suitors. And sometimes situations – or resolutions of situations – are mighty convenient. But these cases are few, and more quibblesome in nature, rather than genuine lacks.
Bottom line – this is a great book, one I would recommend to anyone who likes a good read, fantasy fiction or not. Rothfuss is a wonderful new talent – it’s hard to believe that this is his first published work! (Plus, he’s a great person as well… check out his blog at www.patrickrothfuss.com and read about his WorldBuilder fundraiser for Heifer.org, and enjoy more of his wit and humor.) I’ll join the legion of fans anxiously awaiting his next book chronicling Kvothe’s journey. I pretty much can guarantee if you read The Name of the Wind, you will be, too!