Friday, March 25, 2011

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  Daw Books, 2007.  722 pp.  978-0-7564-0474-1.

... in which Kvothe, tragic legendary hero extraordinaire, tells a story of magic, death, betrayal, love, and music.

The trouble with traditional fantasy epics is that, after awhile, they all sort of start to sound the same.  Scrappy young man leaves his little home village, travels the world, does great deeds, gets kicked around a bit, saves everyone from a horrible fate, returns home.  The story is typically told in third person, and typically has some kind of happy resolution, and the hero is usually charming and plucky enough to make the reader love him unconditionally.

Patrick Rothfuss has done something notable in that he has taken this formula and has created something marvelous without actually deviating from the formula that much.  The Name of the Wind is the first installment (Day 1) of the Kingkiller Chronicles, a trilogy of novels following our hero (or anti-hero, in some respects) Kvothe through his adventures as a young man.

The story takes place in two separate timelines.  In the present, Kvothe is hiding out in disguise as an innkeeper in a tiny, out-of-the-way village.  He spends his days serving ale and mopping floors, and generally keeping a low profile.  One day a story teller, who calls himself the Chronicler, comes in search of Kvothe to get his story.  The second timeline is the timeline of the past, as Kvothe retells his story, in the first person, to the Chronicler.  Kvothe promises to tell the Chronicler his story over the span of three days; this book constitutes the part of the story told on the first day.

From the beginning, it is clear that Kvothe is a remarkable person.  As a child, he was extremely intelligent and precocious.  His youth is spend traveling with his large extended family, a troupe of performers who live a gypsy-like life and travel from town to town entertaining people.  Along the way, the troupe picks up a traveler, who happens to be knowledgeable in the sciences, philosophy, old legends, and ancient magic.  He lays the groundwork for young Kvothe's education.  Then, tragedy strikes Kvothe's traveling family, and Kvothe is left as the only survivor from a seemingly senseless act of brutality carried out by a mysterious and inhuman enemy.  After some years spent as a street urchin, Kvothe eventually makes his way to the University, where at the age of 14 he becomes the youngest student ever admitted.  There, he furthers his education in alchemy, magic, etc., gaining friends and dangerous enemies along the way.  In his spare time, he also begins digging into the mystery of why his entire family was murdered.  Throughout the narrative, we also cut back briefly to the "present" timeline, where interesting events are beginning to happen around Kvothe's inn that he maintains.

If it sounds like not a lot happens, for a book of 722 pages, that's because there aren't really a whole lot of big events.  This is very much a character-centric book, with plenty of details and intricacy in the events that do happen.  By the end of the book, Kvothe is still no more than 16 years old, so the slower pacing of the book is important because it allows Kvothe to develop slowly into his hero personality, with the slow progression feeling natural and understandable, given the events.  This is no Harry Potter, with events snapping out every chapter and with the main character an instant hero from page one.  This is a study of the evolution of the hero, with a careful evaluation of every event that made him into the person he is.  Throughout the novel, we get hints of the big deeds that Kvothe will eventually do, but I appreciate the fact that Rothfuss gave us a careful explanation of the character before launching into the big sword-and-sorcery events that made Kvothe a legend.  We also know that something big must be coming in the future books, from cutting back and forth between two timelines.  Somewhere in the trilogy things must go very wrong for Kvothe.  The Kvothe-as-an-innkeeper is clearly a diminished shadow of who he once was, the swaggering confident cheeky Kvothe at 15 years old.

The majority of the novel covers the time that Kvothe spends as a student at the University, learning about magic and every other useful thing a young man might need to know.  Despite this juvenile setting and the  superficial similarity with the Harry Potter series, this is a fairly adult novel, more because of the themes and not because of any particular event.  Since Kvothe is still very young, and the story is told from his perspective, there are no explicit sex scenes.  All of the major scenes of violence are seen by Kvothe in the aftermath, as he was not present when his parents were slaughtered or when the mysterious creatures strike again at a different group of people.  However, because of the fairly slow pacing and the complex characterization, I don't think this is a book that would hold the attention of someone under 15 or so.

I also really enjoyed the system of magic used in this novel.  The magic, called sympathy, involves binding objects together based on the practitioner's understanding of the chemical or alchemical characteristics of the material.  It makes for a very earthy system of magic, with unpredictable results and the requirement that the students of magic are also students of science.  The other element of magic involves naming; when someone knows the true name of something, he can control that thing.  The title of the novel is derived from Kvothe's desire to know the name of the wind, so that he might manipulate it.  I like this throw-back to old magic from legends, where the characters feared to give their true names to magicians, for fear that a magician could harm them with the knowledge of a true name.  Having said this, magic is a fairly minor part of the story, and in this first novel, there is basically no sword play or battling.

I have only two complaints about the book, and both are fairly minor.  The only prominent female character in the novel is something of a cipher to me.  She is Kvothe's love interest (or as much of a love interest as a 15 year old boy might have), and she appears sporadically throughout the novel, sometimes taking an important role and sometimes disappearing after only a paragraph.  I assume that at some point in the future, she will assume a more permanent role, because it's clear that she is intended to be significant; what's unclear is why we should find her important.

My second complaint is that, at times, the writing starts to feel a little self-important or excessively clever.  Some of that might be deliberate, since Kvothe is the story teller and he is certainly self-important and distracted by the magnitude of his own cleverness, sometimes.  It's a minor complaint, however, and does nothing to detract from the story as a whole.

I think the story is best summarized by one of the review quotes on the book's back cover:
"Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel combines the intricate stories-within-stories structure of The Arabian Nights with the academic setting of the Harry Potter series, and transforms it all into a brooding, thoroughly adult meditation on how heroism went wrong."  Onion A.V. Club

The second installment in the trilogy, The Wise Man's Fear, was released on March 1.  I reread this book, having read it first a few years ago, in anticipation of the sequel.  The end of the first book promised a great deal of action and adventure and plot in the second book, so I am looking forward to seeing where all of this wonderful setup is going.

Recommended reading for fans of traditional epic fantasy, such as Wheel of Time, Tolkien, Shannara, etc.

5/5 stars


  1. Where is my copy of the sequel? Why is Borders so slow at shipping things? :( :( :( :(

  2. ...maybe because it's going through bankruptcy? lol!


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