The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Ahhh…is there anything better than embarking upon a new fantasy epic? No, just me? Ah well, screw you guys. After polishing off a huge amount of Brandon Sanderson I decided to follow the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend and give The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss a go. The Name of the Wind is the first in the ‘The Kingkiller Chronicle’ trilogy, of which there are currently two instalments released. The Name of the Wind has a lot of buzz surrounding it, and it’s not difficult to see why; Rothfuss has clearly earnt his place alongside Sanderson as one of the new darlings of fantasy, and The Name of the Wind is an excellent book despite the feeling that it is saving the best stuff for future instalments.
The Name of the Wind takes place in a setting known as ‘The Four Corners of Civilisation’, an initially generic seeming fantasy setting which promises hidden depths in future novels. The locations which we are privy to in this novel aren’t necessarily particularly vivid themselves, a few backwater towns, the brutal and divided city of Tarbean and the University, the centre of all learning in the land. To be honest, the Four Corners doesn’t initially impress as a setting, and Rothfuss doesn’t show the world building talents of some of his contemporaries. The magic system is known as ‘Sympathy’, and is tied into the connections between objects, a combination between quantum physics and voodoo. The manipulation of one object affects the other, with the efficiency of this effect dependent on how similar each object is to each other. I’m a bit fuzzy about the details of this system, it’s certainly not as rigorous or well defined as Sanderson’s Allomancy, but it’s a poorly understood art in the narrative, so that’s entirely forgivable. Despite the somewhat vague world building in this novel, it all serves a genuine narrative purpose which stops this from being a problem. The average member of the population in the ‘Four Corners of Civilisation’ is incredibly ignorant about the world they live in, with no method of fast communication really existing in this world. The average citizens of Westeros look positively enlightened compared to those in The Name of the Wind, so the lack of definition in the setting only serves to heighten narrative immersion.
The Name of the Wind is entirely centred around one man; Kvothe. Kvothe is a nigh legendary figure, with many a great deed assigned to his name. He is now spending his years in anonymity as an inn keeper in a backwater town, hiding from his fame and his past. Kvothe is tracked down by Devan Lochees, a famous historian known throughout the novel as Chronicler, and persuades Kvothe to tell his life story. Kvothe agrees, and the story is told over the course of three days, with The Name of the Wind covering the first day. Kvothe’s narrative makes up most of the novel, although there are occasional interludes into the present day, which reveals its own story involving the recent surge in appearances of nightmarish demons in the countryside. Kvothe’s story covers his youth, taking him from childhood with the Edema Ruh, travelling performers of high repute, through to his time on the streets on Tarbean, with the bulk of the novel taking place at the University where Kvothe learns the secrets of Sympathy.
I do love me a good frame narrative, and The Name of the Wind excels in its use. The juxtaposition of the ferociously intelligent, witty and lively Kvothe seen in the past with the weathered, world weary Kvothe telling the story is incredibly compelling. The ‘interludes’ into the present never feel jarring, and take place at natural breaks in the story, avoiding the breaks in the narrative flow which frame narratives can sometimes bring. Rothfuss shares a clear interest in the art of ‘storytelling’ with Stephen King; this novel somewhat reminded me of Wizard and Glass, the fourth of King’s excellent Dark Tower series, the bulk of which is spent as the protagonist, Roland Deschain, relates his past to his companions. The Name of the Wind could almost be called a yarn, but with a dark undercurrent undermining the sometimes fairy tale nature of the story. There’s something curiously self aware about the whole thing; would it be pretentious to call in postmodern?
Rothfuss excels in both aspects of the narrative; the third person omniscient narrative of the frame as well as Kvothe’s story. There’s the odd weirdly anachronistic mode of speech that crops up, that can somewhat break immersion, but it’s never too bad, and considering that this is a debut novel these flaws can be easily forgiven. This is a much stronger debut than Sanderson’s Elantris for example, and Rothfuss’s writing is utterly competent and assured. Kvothe is known as an eloquent man, but it takes an eloquent writer to convey this, and Rothfuss most certainly succeeds.
I cannot think of another fantasy novel I have read which sticks it’s focus so firmly to one character; this work lacks the sprawling cast of POVs of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Malazan Books of the Fallen or The Wheel of Time, and benefits for its focus. Kvothe is a thoroughly likeable character, and a highly sympathetic protagonist. An interesting twist on the whole story is that we are being told all this by Kvothe himself, so it’s natural to wonder the extent to which this take on events can be trusted, and whether Kvothe is holding much back. When starting this novel, I must confess to somewhat expecting Kvothe to fit into the ‘lone badass’ archetype, but in reality there’s something much more interesting here. The supporting cast is full of interesting and vivid characters, although none feel particularly fleshed out. The professors of the University are the most interesting members of the cast, and I hope to find out more about them in future novels. One character who did not particularly impress me at first was Denna, the object of Kvothe’s love, who nonetheless seems entirely unworthy of it. Behaviours Kvothe seems to find endearing and mysterious seem simply cruel and obnoxious to me, so I was incredibly pleased when another character raises this in the interludes, showing a canniness to Rothfuss. I may have underestimated him; I don’t know if I was meant to like Denna. There’s a whole extra later to this story that makes everything more complex than it first seems. I’m suspect that Rothfuss has pulled off something masterful here.
The Name of the Wind is a fantastic debut, and well worth a read for any fantasy fan. Although it’s not enough to convince me that Rothfuss deserves to stand alongside the greats, if his future works are of this quality he’ll no doubt earn that position. The Name of the Wind is a better novel than it may seem at first glance, which may sound like a backhand compliment but I assure that it’s not meant as such. I thoroughly look forward to reading the follow up, The Wise Man’s Fear.