The Name of the Wind: Patrick Rothfuss

I don’t read as much fantasy as I did when I was a teenager, but I still enjoy being able to lose myself in other worlds now and again. Often I just return to the favourite books that are already on my shelves, but once in a while I take the plunge and try something new. It’s never without a hint of nervousness: it strikes me that in fantasy there’s so much more scope for things to go wrong. The task of building a plausible, solid and convincing world is that much more challenging than it would be in any other genre. So, with fantasy, I tend to hang back until the weight of acclaim turns a particular book into a must-read. Over the past year, I’ve probably seen The Name of the Wind in Waterstones at least a dozen times, and each time I picked it up, flicked through it, and put it back unconvinced. Over the Christmas holidays I finally caved in, and I’m so glad I did.

Let me explain: I’m a little wary of fantasy formulae: wizards; magic; dragons; the force of destiny; the precocious hero; characters with odd names. To some degree, The Name of the Wind contains all of the above. But, when I started reading it, I realised that Rothfuss simply acknowledges the cliches of fantasy fiction while cheerfully telling his own story. I spent a whole snowy Sunday curled up on the sofa, reading from cover to cover, all 662 pages of it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a teasing, good-natured romp which felt like the kind of thing George R.R. Martin and Terry Pratchett might have dreamed up after reading Scaramouche. And, like Scaramouche, it has a striking hero, who introduces himself in this fashion:

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town
of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my
life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed
in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during the day. I have talked
to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
You may have heard of me.

How can I resist a character who leaves a calling card like that?

The story begins at the Waystone Inn, run by the red-haired Kote and his assistant Bast. It’s a quiet pub in a sleepy little village where nothing ever happens, and the innkeeper’s life is peaceful to the point of becoming stultifyingly boring, which seems to be exactly what Kote wants. But the world has other ideas. First, one of the villagers is attacked by a demonic creature that looks like a giant spider, and it becomes clear that Kote knows more about dealing with such things than you might expect from a common innkeeper. Then, shortly afterwards, a visitor arrives at the Waystone: a weary and footsore scribe, who has been robbed on the road. He is Chronicler, a servant at the royal court, and he is an educated man who knows his legends. He realises that humble Kote the innkeeper is nothing of the sort: he is Kvothe the Bloodless, also called Kingkiller, one of the most fabled heroes of recent times. And so Chronicler makes Kvothe an offer: Kvothe should tell his story as it really happened and put the rumours straight, and Chronicler will record it and keep Kvothe’s name alive. Tempted, despite himself, Kvothe begins…

This first installment in the Kingkiller Chronicles only covers the first sixteen years of Kvothe’s life and I’ll give a brief summary, at the risk of spoilers. His idyllic childhood, spent in his parents’ travelling theatrical troupe, is cut brutally short when he is the only survivor of a massacre on the road: the work not of common bandits but of an altogether more unsettling nature. Trained in stagecraft, music and the odd bit of sympathy (see below), Kvothe must adapt to a new set of skills as he learns to fend for himself in the cutthroat alleys of the city of Tarbean.

But always, at the back of his mind, is the dream of a different life: the University. If he can only find a way to study there, he might not only learn to master the name of the wind, but he can also find his way into their unparalleled Archives. For Kvothe knows his legends too, and he wants to find out more about the Chandrian. These are usually dismissed as bogeymen or children’s stories, but Kvothe knows they are only too real. They are the ones who murdered his parents, and he intends to take revenge. But this will take time. First he needs to get to the University and find a way of impressing the tutors so much that they will consider admitting him without tuition fees. Then he needs to get through his studies without falling into too much trouble. This, it turns out, is more difficult than everything else put together.

In Rothfuss’s world, there are two methods of harnessing power over the elements and the objects around us. The first is through the practice of sympathy, a blend of meditation and chemistry. By understanding the nature of a thing and the energy that drives it, it is possible to divide your mind into two parts and, using the two parts concurrently, bind things together, light lamps and perform other simple functions. The second method, more rarely mastered, is through understanding the names of things, which seems to be a vaguely Platonic concept: each thing has its innate, true name, which not only describes it but also, in the naming of it, gives you power to command it. Kvothe manages to pick up the basics of sympathy during his childhood, thanks to lessons given by the indulgent Ben, an ex-University arcanist who travels with the troupe for a while. But there is much still to learn. Besides, University life offers other prospects as well: friendship, music, notoriety, and girls. And one girl in particular.

Even by the standards of fantasy heroes, Kvothe manages to get through a lot by his seventeenth birthday, and yet the fact remains that this is a very long book. As you might expect, there are a few moments where the story drags a bit (personally I could have done without the several pages in comedy bumpkin dialect), but it doesn’t usually happen for long, and then the pace picks up again and deposits Kvothe in the middle of another escapade. There isn’t too much introspection, either: Rothfuss knows where his strengths lie and so there’s plenty of lively dialogue, tongue-in-cheek humour and derring-do. The dialogue is quite modern in flavour, but on the whole I didn’t mind that: the only points where it grated were where characters said ‘okay’, which just doesn’t feel right for me in a fantasy context. But I’m a pedant and will have to live with it.

I understand that Rothfuss, like George R.R. Martin, takes his series at a very leisurely pace and so, although the second book in the series is already published, I might have to wait a while to get the answers to all my questions. For example, who is Denna really? Can the standing stones called waystones actually act as gateways, or have I just been reading too much Robin Hobb? If so, where do they lead? What is the significance of the sword hanging above the counter in the Waystone Inn? Exactly who and what is Bast? And how, precisely, will Kvothe manage to get himself sent down from the University? (What does Ambrose have up his sleeve?) That, at least, is something I have half a hope of finding out in The Wise Man’s Fear.

If you’re looking for a gripping but relatively light fantasy novel, with an engaging hero and a sprawling, well-realised world to get your teeth into, this could well be the kind of thing that would suit. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that Rothfuss doesn’t succumb to the curse of overly strung-out fantasy series, and that he keeps the same pace, spirit and liveliness bowling along in the later books. If so, I’m a captive audience.

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16 thoughts on “The Name of the Wind: Patrick Rothfuss

  1. Isi says:

    This is the first time you review a book I've read!! :))
    I loved it, I bought it during a summer holiday in the south of my country and three days later I came back to the library to buy another book because The name of the wind was over!
    I don't remember exactly every detail, but I agree that some parts are slower than others (for me, the thing with the dragon was a little bit boring), but in general is a great book with a wonderful and properly built fantasy world.
    I read it more than 2 years ago, so I thing it's time to start reading The wise man's fear, which is on my shelves since it was released here in Spain.

    And I have to say I don't read a lot of fantasy books; this one by Rothfuss, Song of Ice and Fire saga and Tolkien, that's all.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Well, we shall have to compare thoughts on The Wise Man's Fear when we're done!

    Yes, I read the same fantasy books as you plus a few more authors, so it was good to branch out a bit. I think it helped that this didn't take itself too seriously and it invited you to laugh a bit at the conventions of heroic fantasy. I really liked the section where Kote brings Chronicler back to the inn and Bast is absolutely furious about him having slipped out to fight the scraelings leaving only a note ('It wasn't even a *good* note. “If you are reading this I am probably dead.” What sort of a note is that?') A bit of humour goes a long way in fantasy novels of this type.

    I'll keep an eye out for your thoughts on the sequel, then, Isi. Happy reading!

  3. Heloise says:

    I was just the same as you and dithered whether to get and read this or not, until I let a friend persuade me to give it a try, and like you I am glad I did. I enjoyed The Wise Man's Fear, too, although apparently a lot of people who enjoyed the first volume did not – it is even longer than The Name of the Wind and gets outright mischievous in its treatment of Fantasy tropes – like giving us a full accounting of Kvothe's education séntimentale but glossing over all the action parts (shipwreck! pirates!) in a few sentences because they're not that important after all. I remember quite a few readers getting quite furious over that part in particular…

    In the second volume it also becomes increasingly clearer that Kvothe's story is not all that light-hearted after all but might very well be tragic at its heart. It's still very mysterious (and Rothfuss is great at scattering hints and clues to keep the reader guessing as to what is going on) and I'm not really convinced it's even possible for just a single concluding volume to pull together all the threads and resolve them satisfactorily. But I'm willing to let myself be surprised and in any case very keen on reading the next instalment.

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh, so there are only meant to be three books in the series? When I began reading it I vaguely remembered having heard that it was meant to be a trilogy, but like you, I look at the slow progress we were making through Kvothe's life and find it rather unlikely that it's all going to be wrapped up in time (having said that, he's not *that* old in the 'present'). I can't wait for the next bit; and, while I like shipwrecks and pirates just as much as the next girl, I think it'll be quite fun to read something that takes a more original approach.

    You know far more about this genre than I do, of course, Heloise. Can you recommend any other fantasy novels that are worth seeking out? Except for Tolkien, I tend to avoid the epic quest / Dark Lord sort of thing (possibly because I'm still drained from slogging through The Wheel of Time until Book 9, when I stopped caring). Favourite authors in the field are Robin Hobb, Guy Gavriel Kay, George R.R. Martin, that kind of thing… A bit more intrigue than magic, I suppose, and characters who aren't wholly good or wholly bad. Is there anything else you've come across that you would recommend?

  5. Heloise says:

    I don't follow Patrick Rothfuss' blog, but, every in comment of his on the length of the series that I've seen he has cleary stated that yes, he will be wrapping everything up in a third and final volume. I do remain sceptical,but I guess we'll just have to wait and see…

    As for Fantasy recommendations… I probably could come up with a very lengthy list if I gave it some thought, so here's just a few, the first couple that come to my mind (I can always recommend more if this isn't enough):
    A favourite of mine, E.R. Eddison – Tolkien liked his novels, and they might even have been an influence, there's the Worm Ouroboros and the Zimvamian Trilogy, all very unique in that they are very ambitious and written in a very artificial style, making them a linguistic adventure, too (if you like stuff like that, of course).
    John Crowley, Little, Big – one of the best Fantasy novels ever, no dark lord at all, not even a second world Fantasy but it is set in (kind of) our world. Beautiful writing and very imaginative.
    Sarah Monnette, Doctrine of Labyrinths (starting with Melusine) – a series of four novels, slightly more conventional in that it's second world fantasy. Might have the best characterisation in any Fantasy novel ever, at it's heart it's a m/m romance between a thief and a mage, both of which are deeply flawed but immensely likeable, and both of which Monette gives wonderfully distinctive voices.
    Steven Brust, Vlad Taltos series (starting with Jhereg) – kind of Sword & Sorcery series about a human assassin in a world where elves are the majority. Brust is an insanely brilliant writer, and while his novels are very entertaining and fast-moving he does very, very clever things with narrative structure.
    Jo Walton, Lifelode and Among Others. I prefer Lifelode myself, but it might be a bit hard to get, and Among Others has won tons of prices (and deserved it, too).

  6. Pekka says:

    I have to cautiously admit that I was at best ambivalent about this novel. I was pleasantly surprised at how readable Rothfuss's debut was, but the book rotates too much around Kvothe, a character I did not care for at all. It is Kvothe's story of course, but there are very few compelling secondary characters in this book. I didn't even remember Kvothe's best buddies' names at the University a couple of hours after I laid down this book. I thought they were complete nonentities. So there wasn't much else for me to grab onto when I found I didn't care for Kvothe.

    That said, I did enjoy most of the stuff up to the University.

  7. Leander says:

    Yes, Pekka, it is true that this is one book which relies very heavily on what you make of the hero. I can perfectly understand how he might come across as rather irritating – but I grew to rather like him. I can't abide arrogant people in real life, but I find that I always warm to heroes and heroines with a little bit of swagger about them!

  8. Jen K says:

    I also am under the impression that it is supposed to be three since Chronicler is supposed to stay for three days to hear the story, and each novel I think is supposed to represent one day of stories. I liked both books but my biggest complaint on the second one was that it seemed to move too slowly with some things, leaving too much to be wrapped up in the final novel.
    If you liked the descriptions of his life as a student, the second book of the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher has a similar feel to it. Overall, the whole series is rather fun, and they are all very quick reads.

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Heloise: thank you for such a thorough list of recommendations! I have to admit that my dad had a copy of The Worm Ouroboros when I was a child and I did dip into it, but was scared off by the language. Perhaps I'll have more luck getting into it now. I heard of Steven Brust through Limyaeel's fantasy rants and she thinks very highly of him as well, so perhaps I should track him down. Monette also sounds interesting – I think characterisation is the most important thing in a novel, especially in fantasy because when the world itself is so different from ours, we need to be able to anchor ourselves somehow, and it seems that the best way to do that is through the characters we follow. I had a quick look at the first pages of Melusine via Amazon and the language was a little more modern and colloquial than I'd expected, but I'm fully aware I'd need to read more before coming to any conclusions. I'll keep my eyes open for a copy 🙂 And I haven't heard of either Crowley or Walton, so I'm delighted to have them to look out for. Thank you so much for taking the trouble!

    And Jen: Thanks for your comment: yes, that makes sense with three days and three books. At least if I know there's only one more book to go, then I can just settle back and immerse myself in the second one without worrying too much about the pace! Thanks too for the recommendation of the Codex Alera, yet another series I hadn't previously heard of.

    If anyone else would like to add recommendations, do feel free. Always very much appreciated!

  10. Heloise says:

    Very true about the three days, and just the thing Rothfuss would do, he's very good at symmetries like that. Of course, he might split the last day into something morning, afternoon and evening… just saying. 😛

    And yes, I can't really see a child enjoying The Worm Ouroboros much – the novel tries to approximate heroic sagas, and the language is very archaic, it gets even worse in the occasional letters which are kind of Middle English (all very artificial, though, and in fact made up by Eddison – you can see why Tolkien might have liked him…). There also is no modern psychology and not really anything like character, his protagonists are really archetypes and very much larger-than-life. It is a strange but very fascinating book (at least I've always found it to be) and there definitely is nothing else like it.

    As to Monette, one of the narrators is a thief, and the way he tells his part of the story reflects that, while the other one is a magician and consequently narrates in a more educated manner (when he's sane, that, is, which is not the case for all of Melusine).

    John Crowley started off as a writer of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but after Little, Big moved on towards literary fiction, although often with a strong tendency towards magical realism. I think Harold Bloom counted him amongst the best American novelists writing today, and I tend to agree with him on that and can unconditionally recommend anything by John Crowley you can get your hands on. Little, Big is probably the most beautiful of his novels, though, and I really need to read it again myself some time soon.

    Also, I of course should have re-recommended Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, just in case. 😉

  11. Leander says:

    Re: the three books… I just hope he doesn't drag it out unnecessarily 🙂 There does seem to be an increasing tendency for fantasy authors to become hooked on their series and just to be *unable* to bring themselves to finish them. Robert Jordan, obviously. George R.R. Martin is another (how long has winter been coming for now?). That's always that little bit of sadness when you read a book in a series and realise that, yep, the series has jumped the shark.

    Thanks for the addition of the Long Price Quartet. On Googling it just now I found a wonderful article about the quartet on tor.com, written by none other than Jo Walton, so there we go, it all ties together. I like the sound of it: the slightly different cultural setting, the strong female characters… definitely something I could enjoy, I think.

    I think I'll just sit back and let you populate my bookshelves *grins*

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