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.