Review | The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (Gollancz)


Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: Gollancz
Format: Paperback
Release Date: June 2008

Reviewed by: Steve Aryan

Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
'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 day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me' So begins the tale of Kvothe - currently known as Kote, the unassuming innkeepter - from his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, through his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-riddled city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a difficult and dangerous school of magic. In these pages you will come to know Kvothe the notorious magician, the accomplished thief, the masterful musician, the dragon-slayer, the legend-hunter, the lover, the thief and the infamous assassin. The Name of the Wind is fantasy at its very best, and an astounding must-read title.
Every now and then I hear on the grapevine about a new superstar of fantasy. Someone the critics rave about and say they are the next Tolkien, the next Gemmell, the next George RR Martin. This instantly makes me nervous. Patrick Rothfuss makes me nervous. Maybe it’s the beard, or the fact that he is a geek, like me. He just seems too nice! I read a couple of interviews about him and the book, but stayed away from those which gave away too much of the plot. Even then what I read sounded very good. Perhaps too good to be true. So I stayed away for a couple of years. The Name of the Wind came out in 2007 but I only read it in 2009. I should not have waited that long. The real reason Rothfuss makes me nervous is because, in my opinion, the hype is true and he is going to be a giant of the genre.

This is his first book and I am not going to say it is perfect in every single way, because that would be untrue. But it is one hell of a damn good debut and is miles better than some who have been at it a lot longer. Over the years Rothfuss will grow and improve, and as a relatively young man in his mid 30s, I hope he has many decades of writing ahead of him. By the time he is George RR Martin’s age, I expect him to have produced some of the most unforgettable fantasy books seen in the last 30 years. If not I will find him and shave off his beard in retribution. And that’s just for starters!

As it stands, The Name of the Wind is one of the most memorable fantasy books I’ve read in several years. There are some rough edges and it took me a little while to get into the story as it was slow at first. Also, at first glance it bears all the familiar hallmarks of a fantasy story that would normally send me running for the hills as if pursued by an angry mob. The book is the first of three that chronicles the life of the main character, Kvothe, and it focuses on his early and teenage years. A few posts ago I reviewed The Painted Man by Peter Brett, which also has a young boy growing into a man and going out to challenge the world. There is one other similarity between the books, because in each the main character has suffered a tragedy and seeks to better understand who or what was responsible and why it happened. But that is where the likeness ends. Saying the two books are the same story because of that would be a lie and utterly unfair. They are very different books and hopefully you will see why as I go along and why I think Rothfuss has created something unique.

In Rothfuss’ novel, which is told in first person by an adult Kvothe to a scribe known as the Chronicler, I see glimpses of an epic story and epic character. Kvothe comes from humble beginnings and even by the end of the first book he is not a master wizard, warrior, or a great leader of men inspiring people to greatness. But, you get the impression that one day he will be one or all of these things. There are also no familiar archetypes in this book, no labels for people such as warrior or wizard, everything is fresh and there are only people just going about their lives. I get the impression that the older Kvothe is a true Renaissance man, someone who has delved into many areas, learned many secrets and has become a master of many arts, both scientific and magical. His name is known throughout the many lands that are hinted at, but we don’t really know too much about what his reputation is or what he achieved. Which makes sense, as the bulk of the story in the first book retells events in his life as a young boy, and as such he hasn’t saved nations from a demon plague or killed conquering armies with a quiver of his eyebrow.

As a boy Kvothe is talented, not just a good musician and storyteller, which he learned from his parents who are performing artists, but by today’s standards he would be called a prodigy or gifted. His parents recognise his thirst for knowledge and growing intellect and try their best to meet his expectations, whilst also keeping him firmly grounded. Without giving away too many spoilers, the story moves to a very harsh period in Kvothe’s life where he is living rough in the city of Tarbean. One of Rothfuss’ talents is his ability to create characters that are unique and interesting, but he also has the knack of describing the situations so vividly, and also without heavy detail or florid prose, that you really care about his characters. You can almost feel the cold pavement under Kvothe’s bare feet and we see the darker side of a city, the street urchins and poverty, small crimes and small minds just trying to exist. These aren’t tiny events that will eventually create an avalanche that changes the course of a nation, it’s just daily life in a thronging city. Rothfuss doesn’t shy away from difficult situations and Kvothe doesn’t always come away without a scratch or emerge the victor, because after all he’s just a boy.

Later in the story Kvothe manages to enrol at the university and he finally starts to come back to life after being on the streets. His vast intellect is challenged, he delves into new mysteries and Sympathy, a unique system of magic that has some very scientific principles underlying it. Now at this point it might sound too much like a certain boy wizard’s story, but again rest assured this is not the case. There is not one ‘big bad’ for Kvothe to vanquish each year at the university, but his constants are abject poverty, difficult relationships with friends, and his attempt to find out who is responsible for the most tragic event in his life.

Rothfuss tightly focuses his world building on wherever Kvothe is at that time, but we do occasionally hear news from other places and some secondary characters are from abroad. So there is a trickle effect that fills in some gaps and we get small tastes of other cultures and countries. However, this is not a sprawling fantasy quest story about a band of plucky heroes. It is both a local story about a boy who will become a legend, and also a much bigger story. Perhaps it is also there so that we will be able to better understand why he made certain choices later in life. I also get the impression that in the present, when Kvothe is grown up, the world is in a bit of a mess and there are hints that somehow he is responsible, perhaps indirectly. We just don’t know at this point and I won’t speculate any further as there is a lot more meat in the book, so I won’t spoil it.

The book is a hefty tome, coming in at about 700 pages, but to be honest when I got to the end I wanted more. His style is not overly descriptive, it’s almost straight forward but not nearly so blunt and gritty as say Gemmell or Abercrombie. I was captivated by Rothfuss’ writing, his imagination and how he adds in small details, and creates myths, folk songs and nursery rhymes that make his world feel realistic and not just slapped together so he can press on with the adventure. It gives me the impression that a lot of care has been taken to help the reader fully immerse themselves and I was drawn into the story. Despite the length of the book I read it pretty quickly as I was keen to know what happened next. But now that I’ve finished it, I want to go back and read it again because I’m sure there are clues and hints at the bigger picture I missed the first time.

The second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, is due out in March this year and I know there are literally thousands and thousands of fans chomping at the bit to know what happened next to Kvothe, and I am now one of them.

Mad Professah  – (16 January 2011 at 06:29)  

7/10?? Is that some kind of a joke? And this is a positive review? Anything less than a 9/10 for The Name Of The Wind is a travesty!

redhead  – (17 January 2011 at 01:32)  

Like you, I was a little put off by all the hype that surrounded Name of the Wind when it came out. But I did finally read it, and I'm still kicking myself for waiting so long. Rothfuss is pure brilliance.

Name of the Wind is a gamechanger, I think every coming-of-age magical fantasy will forever be compared to it.

Stephen  – (17 January 2011 at 08:13)  

Hello,

@Mad Professah - No, it's not a joke. As I said, it's a good book, a great book in fact, and for a debut novel, excellent and miles ahead of lots of other authors. But it's not the best ever book and claiming it is would be dishonest, and there is room for improvement, so I think it's a fair and positive score.

@Redhead - I think there are a lot of really clever touches in the book and it made me think I was reading a folk story several times. It certainly is a remarkable book.

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