Oct 25 2013
I’ve decided to forgo reading sci-fi for a stretch to try and broaden my horizons a bit. I’m moving into…fantasy! Not exactly an enormous genre leap, but now that I’ve finished A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m curious to see what other books are in the same realm that might catch my interest.
Between seeing Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind on several top Goodreads fantasy lists, and having it headline an io9 post titled “10 Great Fantasy Series to Read While You’re Waiting for George R.R. Martin’s Next Book,” I figured I’d found my first new read.
The Name of the Wind is the first in what’s supposed to be a three-part series called The Kingkiller Chronicles, focused on the arcanist Kvothe, as he recounts his long and storied career as a hero, while a new threat looms in present day. The first installment clocks in at around 700 pages, and upon completion, I’ve just discovered that its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, is close to double that. It’s a daunting task, to say the least.
With my only real experience in fantasy being George RR Martin’s books, or old tomes like The Lord of the Rings, I was worried I might get a bit overwhelmed with the medieval terminology and complicated universe building of the genre. Fortunately, Rothfuss’s style is very accessible and I breezed through 700 pages in barely a work week.
We first meet Kvothe as Kote, a lowly innkeeper who struggles to pull in patrons. His world is unsettled when a rock-like spider demon (or should I say, spider-like rock demon) is found to have attacked a man in town. It stirs Kvothe into remembering his demon fighting glory days, and when a scribe called the Chronicler shows up, Kvothe consents to tell him the full story of his life to be recorded. Kvothe is a hero in the land, though some see him as a villain for reasons not yet made clear. Either way, he’s a legend, though no one recognizes him in his current state. The Name of the Wind is the story of his early years when he first started to grasp magic, and I presume the next books will move on to other chapters in his life. When the first book is through, Kvothe remains a young teenager.
From here on out, spoilers will follow, as I mean this to be a discussion of the book for those who have already read it. If you haven’t, go do so and rejoin us in a few days or a month, whenever you might be able to finish. If it’s any motivation, Fox is supposed to turn this series into a TV show at some point in the future, so it could be the next Game of Thrones. Well, it could be, but who knows with Fox. Hopefully they’ll put it on FX to at least give it a fighting chance.
Interestingly, despite the fact that this is recommended alongside A Song of Ice and Fire, I found it had very little in common with that series despite being fantasy and well-written. Kvothe is an interesting character, but he’s a warrior poet if there ever was one. He’s a master singer and lute player, and when he does have to actually fight, he uses magic. He never even picks up a blade other than to hang one in his inn for decoration. This is of course in contrast to Game of Thrones where half the characters sort their problems out with steel, and even the damn throne itself is a bunch of swords stuck together.
So there’s very little blood, and even less sex. Once Kvothe hits his teenage years, you would think that subject might present itself. Instead, we see a series of women throwing themselves at Kvothe, but he pays them little interest, only reacting with bemusement at their affections. He has one true love, Denna, but even when she suggests he “steal her” from all the other guys who show her attention, he never bothers to. He loves her, yet he’s content to forever remain at a distance from her. At least so far in the story, that is. It sounds like the sad tale of someone who has been friendzoned so hard in the past, they actually look at it as something noble. It’s an interesting way to handle a love story, but one that gets rather confusing as Kvothe turns the potential affection of anyone and everyone for what really seems like no good reason at all.
The Name of the Wind has three main sections when it comes to Kvothe’s early years. I quite liked the beginning where he’s traveling with his family’s theater company, as its really unique origin story to have a character who grows up learning how to sing, act and play instruments from a young age, rather than fight. Kvothe is naturally incredibly good at everything, almost weirdly so, and as of yet, there’s really no explanation for his aptitude at absolutely everything in the story. This translates to theater performance, but also to magic (called “binding” here) and thinking on his feet. Fans of Tyrion Lannister will be pleased that the vast majority of the time, Kvothe is outsmarting his enemies rather than beating them with blunt or sharp objects.
The book turns to misery as Kvothe’s family is slaughtered by the mysterious Chandrian, a group of powerful beings who seem to want to kill anyone who even speaks about them to more than a crowd of two. Kvothe finds himself destitute, and after surviving in the woods, heads to the closest city where he struggles to survive as a street rat.
This portion of the book is incredibly moving, and paints a pretty heartbreaking portrayal of poverty, probably more so than any other story I’ve come across. Kvothe survives beatings, robberies and so on and so forth, and here the book begins its rather unusual “accounting,” which is the best way I can describe it. From the first time Kvothe gets any amount of money as a beggar, the book ensures we always known just how much he has. He has wide swings of wealth throughout the rest of the book, and goes from pauper to prince and back again depending on what life throws at him. It’s a very, very specific obsession Rothfuss has with money, and at any given time, I can tell you how many drabs or pennies or talents Kvothe has on him. I’m not quite sure what this adds to the story, but it’s omnipresent for the last two thirds, and honestly, Kvothe’s constant struggle against poverty might even be the biggest conflict in the story.
There are some really fantastic scenes where Kvothe first arrives at the arcanist University to try and become a student. It’s a bit Harry Potter, where he’s essentially the chosen one who shows a mastery of magic far beyond his years, and in a great sequence during his admission interview, it actually ends with the school paying him to go there. Kvothe makes a name for himself by embarrassing professors, feuding with noble’s sons and so on, and I love the slow burn of how his legend begins, and spirals into myth from word of mouth.
I will say the book starts to lag as University soldiers on. There’s a section of a solid hundred pages or so where very little happens other than minor spats with professors or students. And I think far too much time is devoted to Kvothe’s eternal love Denna, who just comes across as dislikable. She’s interested in Kvothe, but when he doesn’t make any bold moves to get her, she pals around with any guy with coin. She accompanies Kvothe on his grand dragon-slaying adventure near the end of the book, but does nothing but almost get herself killed by accidentally overdosing on medieval meth. The book even recognizes her flaws, as Kvothe agrees that she’s “cruel,” and it never really manages to describe just why Kvothe is drawn to her so much. In fact, Kvothe meets a half dozen different girls who are all much better love interest candidates, but it’s only Denna he has eyes for. I assume she’ll remain a figure in the series, but I’m hoping there’s more to her than simply this mysterious draw.
I love Rothfuss’s writing here, as he’s masterful with descriptions of every scene and moment (other than those involving Denna). By focusing solely on a singular character for 700 pages, he really manages to build Kvothe up into one of the most well-rounded protagonists I’ve come across in literature. I think he sometimes relies a bit too heavily on the whole “Kvothe is a god at singing/thinking/magic” card which doesn’t really come with an explanation. Why is Kvothe so incredible at everything? It has to be more than luck, and even though this question isn’t really addressed, I have to imagine it’s one of the fundamental mysteries of the series.
But other than that, there are plenty more mysteries to keep us hooked. We hear snippets about future events in Kvothe’s life that are only just hinted at in the first book. We have the threat of the Chandrian, and though we have some explanation about their origins, much remains in shadow, like what they’re doing in present day when Kvothe is now Kote the innkeep who can no longer do magic (another mystery). There are locked doors and secret urns and all manner of other things that are going to make me tear apart the 1300 page Wise Man’s Fear like it’s the funny pages. And who the hell is this king he kills?
While I may have a gripe or two about this and that, The Name of the Wind is a fundamentally excellent book with a well-developed lead who doesn’t need to lop off heads or bed women to be a badass. And that’s a concept I’m not really used to seeing in most popular stories. I will report back when I finish The Wise Man’s Fear in ten years (more like two weeks, most likely), and I await news on the third book like the rest of you.
Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts about the book below, I just ask that you refrain from spoilers regarding the next sequel while doing so.
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