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.