Title: The Name of the Wind (2007)
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Read: 7th – 15th April 2017
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is the first book in the evocatively named The Kingkiller Chronicles, a sure-to-be-epic fantasy series which mimics the storytelling tradition of oral myths and legends. Framed through the device of a Chronicler writing down the deeds as recounted by the enigmatic protagonist, Kvothe, The Name of the Wind is a story which slowly but surely draws you into its world and magic until you are hooked without realising how on earth you got there. And then you realise: here be dragons.
‘Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.’ (Synopsis from Goodreads)
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
I found the slower pacing of this book extremely disconcerting at first – it’s the reason why it took me two attempts to actually finish what was otherwise such a wonderful book. If you go into this expecting an action-packed, swashbuckling fantasy, you’ll be sorely disappointed; everything, from the magic system to the narrative voice to the action sequences is conveyed in a slower, more drawn-out tone. Part of this is due to the narrative framing – Kvothe is telling his life story to the Chronicler who is writing it down for posterity’s sake so all of the narrative is actually recounted events rather than strictly flashbacks. We do occasionally snap back to “the present” when something, or someone, demands Kote the Innkeeper’s attention and I suppose it’s a testament to the skill with which Rothfuss manages this narrative device that I frequently forgot what I was reading was essentially a chronicled history – it felt so real and “present”, like I was sitting in the Waystone Inn too and enjoying a pint whilst overhearing Kvothe’s tales.
“Music is a proud, temperamental mistress. Give her the time and attention she deserves, and she is yours. Slight her and there will come a day when you call and she will not answer. So I began sleeping less to give her the time she needed.”
But it is a slower paced fantasy, and that’s certainly something to be aware of, going into the story. I found myself labouring through the first hundred pages or so, enjoying the ride and learning about Kvothe’s childhood with the band of performers, but wondering when the story was going to Start, with a capital “S”. But I’d been lulled along, obviously, and was now hooked onto his childhood as a street kid in Tarbean and enjoying the book more than I immediately realised I was! My true enjoyment of this book only started, however, once Kvothe had arrived at the University. Perhaps this is because you spend so much of the build-up learning about the University’s grand reputation or perhaps it’s just because I’m a sucker for a book set in a boarding school or a university. (Maybe I’m just ‘missing my days at university’, you say?) The masters at the University are each wonderfully painted and unique, each with their own area of expertise, agenda, and opinion on the (let’s face it) spirited young Kvothe and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his clashes with staff and fellow student alike. His little group of friends were charming and had me laughing aloud on many an occasion, mostly as they teased each other. Kvothe himself is quickly presented as a thoroughly likeable character and Rothfuss does a wonderful job at ensuring you quickly root for him – the fact we are seeing things through his eyes surely cannot hurt the cause in that respect. The way that Kvothe appreciates music and song is something that you as a reader, whether a musician or not, can feel coming off the page as he hopes to earn his talent pipes at The Eolian tavern – it’s a very evocative and visceral appreciation and this scene in particular made me feel as though I was part of Kvothe’s tale.
“… for most practical purposes, Tarbean had two parts: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggars, thieves and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians and courtesans.”
There is just so much to be enjoyed on a surface-level as well as deeper more complex issues. For example, Rothfuss does not shy away from presenting the very real and lasting effects of poverty. Kvothe’s entire mindset on everything, from playing music to studying at the University, is necessarily coloured by the hardships he suffered as a penniless orphan in a city full of rich folk as well as homeless street children. There is not a time when Kvothe’s relationship with money (from gambling to borrowing money to his tuition) is shied away from. Of course Kvothe needs to consider the very real possibility that he needs to quickly progress through the ranks at the University because there’s a very real chance he physically cannot pay the tuition for longer than a term. As someone from a not particularly well-off family, I appreciated deeply that this element of social deprivation was presented in Rothfuss’ fantasy world because of course it would exist and affect characters and their interactions with each other and society at large – it would be very ignorant, I think, to not include such elements in a story as rich as this one.
“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.”
Despite all this, I must admit some misgivings I had about The Name of the Wind. Truthfully, I spent a large portion of this book with a slight bugbear – where were the women? For a good few hundred pages there are little to no female characters in the book – maybe that’s not a huge issue but after reading so much female-led young-adult fantasy lately, I was finding the lack of women in The Name of the Wind disappointing. Enter: Denna or Diane or whatever she’s going by nowadays. I’m not entirely sure what I made of her characterisation and it’s something I am still mulling over, weeks later. I did appreciate, however, that Rothfuss created a female character whose life choices might be judged by a naive Kvothe (and the reader initially) but actually largely reflected her personal and familial circumstances which compelled her to seek out and court men of a stable position in society, because she had no family connections to rely on. I’m still not convinced Rothfuss leaves us with anything near the truth about Denna by the end of The Name of the Wind and that is extremely frustrating, but also to be commended. I’ll try to reserve further judgement about how I feel about the presentation of women (or lack thereof) in this book until I’ve read its sequel.
“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. You may have heard of me.”
Whilst it was a well-written, well-paced, and well-drawn novel I would be lying if I say I thought this was anywhere close to a four-star read at the beginning of the story – truth be told, until the University, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to stick with this book to the end. One thing annoyed me, big-time, and I know it’s personal taste but I feel dishonest if I don’t mention it – I was sick to the back teeth of being told that Kvothe was such a legendary character with amazing deeds and bravery in the opening of this story (as demonstrated in the quote above). Don’t tell me that, show me it – it’s a basic rule of thumb with writing yet I felt that the set-up of this novel was entirely ignoring that idea. I understand that this allowed for Kvothe to be hailed as an almost mythological figure and then the Chronicler was setting down the real story for us, with all its moments of bravery and stupidity alike, humanising the character by bringing him down to the person behind the legend. I get it, truly I do, but I felt the initial presentation of Kvothe was a bit ham-fisted for my liking. I get it, now get to getting. Thankfully, the story moved on and I am very glad I persevered with it, despite these bug-bears. On reflection I understand that any account framed in such a way is always going to have a touch of the unreliable narrator about it – each of us would present our own life story in a subjective way, it’s impossible to not want to make yourself seem grander or more perfect on paper. Like I said – personal bug bear, I got over it, clearly, since I ended up loving this and giving it four stars.
“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”
Fans of epic fantasy will undoubtedly adore Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, a deeply complex and well-constructed world which draws you in slowly and doesn’t let go. Fans of literary fiction will likewise probably enjoy The Name of the Wind as its focus on a more considered character development and slower pace likely mimic the less action-packed narratives of the literary genre. Most of all, if you enjoy a story which appreciates the art of storytelling itself – which knows the importance of words, of music, of creating and craftsmanship – then The Name of the Wind will enchant you from the very first page.
“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
Additional note: If you can, I implore you to try the audiobook as read by Rupert Degas – Degas has a wonderful narration style and his performance as Kvothe was what ultimately won me around to the character.