Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This is the first time I’m reviewing a book after I met its author. In this case, I met Rothfuss at this year’s past Oddcon. It’s one thing to read a book, review it, and not meet the author until several years down the line, if ever. It’s another thing to meet someone, learn they have a best-selling novel, then go out and read it.

But read “The Name of the Wind”, I did. And as I did, I realized something. This is a book that shouldn’t have gotten published, much less on the New York Times Best-seller’s List.

According to epic fantasy writing convention, it’s now considered bad form to start an epic fantasy with a prologue. There are no grand quests. It’s not a standalone, which also seems to be current trend among fantasy books nowadays. There is magic, yes, but it’s standard, mundane magic. The main character goes to “university” (shades of Harry Potter, anyone?) There are times when the POV switches from first to third person—right in the same passage. To be honest, not a whole lot happens in this book that can be considered “epic”. And, oh yeah, it starts off, of all places, in an inn.

So how? How did this book do so well when it looks like it broke nearly every rule newbie fantasy writers first learn about the craft?

It’s this line. This first line of the book: “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”

Against my will, this line it pulled me into the story of Kvothe. Kvothe has many names: Kvothe the Arcane, Kvothe Kingkiller. But when we first meet him, he is Kote, keeper of the Waystone Inn. How this man goes from a mighty figure of legend to a mere, humble innkeeper is not known—in fact, I’m going to tell you up front: we don’t find out in this book. In a sense, The Name of the Wind is really a prologue of sorts. But it’s a prologue that’s needed.

In the beginning, the story basically follows Kvothe as he putts around in his inn. He appears to be a shadow of some former glory, but it’s hard to tell. You know that something horrible has happened to him. You don’t know what, though. The only person who knows his past is his servant/companion/best friend Bast, and he keeps his mouth shut—mainly because he’s got his own secrets, one of which is that he’s not all that human as he looks.

One night, someone gets attacked by a big, black spider-like monster, rare in those parts. Almost reluctantly, Kvothe goes out to see if they are any more and runs into a man with the auspicious name of Chronicler. Turns out that Chronicler had been searching for Kvothe for years, hoping to get his story out of him. Kvothe resists at first, but then he agrees, and from there, we get into the story proper—told in Kvothe’s own words.

And it is engrossing. Kvothe is a master storyteller, and you can’t helped getting sucked in as you see the events of his life through the distance of his memory. We see Kvothe growing up with his family of traveling performers, being a too smart-for-his-own-good brat, whose own cleverness sometimes lands him in deep trouble. We see him through the trauma of losing his family and spending several years as a street urchin. We see him pull himself up and attend the University, where he gets whipped for insubordination, makes enemies with a noble, makes friends with a money lender, falls in love but doesn’t know what to do with that, and tries to gain money playing his lute while maintaining his studies. And, through interludes, we learn a little more about Bast, and we see more that the darkness that had (probably) pursued Kvothe is stirring again.

Like I said, this isn’t a book that takes you on a grand-sweeping country-traveling quest. Instead Kvothe is presented with little goals. His main one is to avenge his family’s deaths. But in order for him to do that, he needs to get into University, which is a trial within itself. Then he needs to find a way to get into the archives that houses the info on the dark beings that slew his family….and most of the time, the obstacles to his goals is Kvothe himself. If only if he wasn’t such a thick-skulled, arrogant bonehead…

But that’s what I like about The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss does an awesome job of taking this brash, arrogant character and turning him into someone likeable, even fun. You just can’t help rooting for Kvothe, even when he makes boneheaded decisions. Part of that, I feel, is that most of the story is in Kvothe’s own words. It’s like you’re sitting there in the inn, with Bast and Chronicler, listening to him spin his tale. Also, because most of the story is told in first person, you don’t wade through long descriptions of scenery and naval gazing.

That doesn’t mean Rothfuss slacks in the writing. There are these wonderful literary bits that reminds me a little of L’engle writing. For instance, advice from Kvothe’s father: “Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady. Their lives are hard enough, and it never hurts to be polite.” And then there’s that POV change I mentioned. There’s a scene where Kvothe plays the lute for the first time after living on the streets of Tarbean. It’s a very emotional moment for him, and you can feel it as Kvothe narrates. As he nears the end, Kvothe switches from speaking in first person to third, as if the memory of that night is too much for him, and he must distance himself by withdrawing from the story in third person. It’s a brilliant, beautiful use of POV change, and it totally blew my mind.

Of course, not everything is perfect in this book. There is a dragon chase that comes out of nowhere, and there’s a point where we have to suffer through a character with an accent barely readable on the page. But still, I really enjoyed reading The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss knows the rules. He breaks the rules. And he does it well. This book gets four iron drabs out of five. And I can’t wait for the next book, when we learn how Kvothe gets expelled from the University. What? You ask? You’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.

And speaking of which, Rothfuss is running a contest for his next book, The Wise Man’s Fear. You can be one of the lucky ones to get your name, or any name you want, into the book. All contributions go to Heifer International, a very good charity indeed. Check out the link for more information.

Dissing the Wisconsin Book Festival (or bad LaShawn, bad LaShawn for not supporting books like you should!)

The Wisconsin Book Festival was here a couple of weeks ago, and I didn’t go. I just wasn’t interested. Even last year, back when we first moved up here and I first learned about it, it just didn’t grab me.  Not like the Midwest Literary Festival in Aurora, which sadly closed due to low attendance.

Ragging on the Wisconsin Book Festival isn’t fair. How can I criticize something I barely attended? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the Festival was a week-long event, crammed with so many book readings, it lost me. Or the panels didn’t grab me as particularly interesting for a writer like me. I seem to recall complaining about this last year as well.

As for authors, well, they did bring on Gregory Maguire, who wrote Wicked. I’m not a fan of his novels, but I do like his short stories. The only other author I recognize was Kevin Henkes, and I am bummed about missing him. We’re currently discovering him in our household, and Daniel is becoming a huge fan of his books, all on his own. It would have been neat to take Daniel to meet the creator of his favorite book, "Julius, the Baby of the World", so I could introduce him to the world of writers. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know Henkes was attending the festival, not until I heard from someone else the following week who did attend. So I was bummed.

Perhaps the reason why I didn’t go to the festival is because I’ve grown more selective in what festivals I network at. After all, I’ve been to two cons this year, OdysseyCon and Wiscon. Both are geared towards science fiction and fantasy, genres that I’m developing my writing in. Both deal with the fandom of the genre, which I have more knowledge of, as opposed to say, bass fishing in Wisconsin. Both give me the opportunity to mingle with writers and editors in my field—I’m still blissed out over my chance to meet with the editor from Tor—the Wisconsin book festival seemed more general.

I don’t want to come down hard on the Festival. It does look like a great, well-organized festival, and there were some authors I genuinely wanted to see had I actually made an effort to go see them. But maybe what I need right now is to get more involved in the fandom of the genre I’m writing in.

But I do promise to pay more attention to the Wisconsin Book Festival next year. I really am bummed I missed an opportunity to introduce Daniel to his favorite author. It looks like, however, like some of Kevin Henkes’ artwork, as well as other illustrators, are on display at the Wisconsin Academy until December 6. Looks like I need to arrange for a field trip.

In the meantime, I’m making plans to not only go to Oddcon and Wiscon next year, but I may even squeeze in one more con. I’m thinking World Fantasy 2010. Road trip to Columbus, OH, anyone?

New Short Story: "Lavender and Chamomile" up at Big Pulp

Took a little while, but I finally got this short story sold. It’s up and running at Big Pulp Magazine.

The foundation to this story came back when Daniel was still a baby. One of the many toys he got was the quintessential teddy bear, complete with glassy eyes and button nose. One day, I was picking up toys in his room, and the teddy bear was lying face-down on the floor. I picked it up to put it back on a shelf and –boom– instant storyline.

I think this was the second story I ever wrote, so I’m not surprised that it took me this long to find a market for it. I submitted it to several fantasy markets, and most of them came back with “interesting story, but not sure it fits us”.  I really didn’t want to shelve it or rewrite it, so when I found Big Pulp, I figured “Lavender and Chamomile” would be a good fit, and started to send it to them under their “Fantasy” genre.

Then I thought, wait a second. I’m not having much looking submitting it as a fantasy story. What if I submitted it as ‘horror’?

What constitutes a horror story? For a long time, I thought it was monsters. Demons. Things that go bump in the night. When I was a kid, I read a lot Stephen King and Dean Koontz. When I grew older and started writing seriously, I shied away from horror, mainly because I felt it too dark. But really, what constitutes a horror story? It’s the strong emotion of fear, yes, but where does that fear come from? Can it come from monsters, or can it come other things? Fear of aliens? Fear of life?

Or the fear of a mother trying to protect her child?

So there you have it. I submitted it under horror and it got accepted—in their fantasy section. So aha! It is a fantasy story! Just as I thought! I shall thumb my nose at all those other markets who thought otherwise. Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!

Actually, in all honesty, I’m just glad it’s published now. Maybe one day, I’ll write a horror story for real. But if I’m going to do that, I’ll have to start reading more horror stories. Looks like I’ll have to take a trip to Pseudopod

So have fun reading “Lavender and Chamomile“. It’s rated PG—though if little kids love their teddy bears, you might not want to let them read this.

By the way, for his preschool graduation present this year, Daniel got a Build-A-Bear from the Build-A-Bear workshop. Its fur is soft, its eyes are glassy. I know it’s just a stuffed bear.

But I still make the boy pick it up off the floor just the same.

Rambling Thoughts on a Rainy Cold Night…

I’m sitting here in my chair, a mug of decaf hot Lipton tea next to me (my third one), and an episode of Babylon 5 playing on the TV.

Rainy nights always make me moody.

Our cable went out a couple of months ago. I haven’t missed it at all. Been too busy working on Willow and other short stories. I’m starting to watch movies again. Last night, I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Brilliant movie. Absolutely brilliant. The storyline and editing was wonderful. I want to watch it again, pick it apart bit by bit.

What makes a good story? Is it plot? Is it in the writing itself? Language? Is it the ability to empathize with the characters? Is it turning a twist on a cliché?

I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I realized that one of the ways to learn is to become a slushreader. A couple of weeks ago, Fantasy Magazine put out a call for new slushreaders, and I was lucky to be chosen as one. So far, it’s been good. I’ve read stories where the ideas were so-so. And I read stories where it pulled me in, but something about the story was off…not quite right.

I’m trying to figure out how that applies in my own writing. I’ve been making good on my goal of releasing a story a week out to markets, though this week might be a little hard because of this cold. But for the most part, it’s been fun fore me, mainly because I’m not agonizing over every little word. And these stories have sat on my hard drive long enough. They deserve to get a chance, though it’s more likely they’ll get rejections. But still, better than just sitting there, unread by anyone.

Well, my mug’s empty, and my nose is drippy. I think I’m going to turn in early tonight, read a book. The rain patters against the windows, and I want it to be background noise for Barrick as he travels in the Fae Realm.