Friday, October 29, 2021

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss--Fiction Review

Time for some fantasy, Obscurists. This week I’m talking about “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss, a sweeping heroic fantasy novel, and the first of “The King Killer Chronicle.”

Patrick Rothfuss

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

If you’re a fan of fantasy worldbuilding, Rothfuss is your guy. “The Name of the Wind” has richly detailed settings, people, cultures, and a rigorous magic system that is all intricately planned out by the author. It also works one of my favorite angles in fantasy: magic as science or technology—there are rules and limitations that are to be discovered, and it isn’t just handwaved.

Rothfuss is also really good at character voice, and his characters, like the world they inhabit, are well designed—on the protagonist side of things and also with the more neutral characters. I can’t say there was ever a character in this story that I thought was poorly conceived. The antagonists are certainly scary but scary the way lightning is when you’re out in a storm and not under any cover.

There are big exciting action sequences at the beginning of the book and the end that were a lot of fun. They act as tent poles on either side of the story. There are conflicts in between but smaller in magnitude.

The musical angle in this book is something I have always admired in books when they’re pulled off well. I think it’s because I can read music and hold a tune, but I’m still a pretty dreadful musician. I was a clarinetist of middling natural skill in school, coupled with an appalling lack of motivation—but that never stopped me from admiring people of great talent and dedication to music. I just wish I was better in that regard. Anyway, through his main character, Rothfuss injects so much passion for music that it’s arresting in a wondrous way and creates a whole new dimension to this guy.

What I don’t love about this book:

So I’ve been hedging on whether or not to write a review of this book. It’s one of those big fantasy books that I’ve been told by multiple people that it is their absolute favorite book, and I should totally read it and love it like them. I thought it was ok. It’s really long, and the framing story is actually the story I’m more interested in, which robbed a lot of my enthusiasm for the actual main story. 

Kvothe, other than persistent poverty, is also a bit of a male Mary Sue. He’s inexplicably naturally talented at anything he decides to take up. This doesn’t make him immune to mistakes, which is why I qualified “a bit of,” but he always tends to be leaps and bounds better than he ought to be at his age, regardless of the task. His most significant character flaw seems to be his arrogance, but I’d be arrogant too if I were a master swordsman/magician/musician/scholar/adventurer.

The worldbuilding, like I said before, is excellent. You can easily tell that Rothfuss has spent a lot of time thinking about and intricately planning out how his fantasy world looks, feels, and operates. I wish there was a bit more of that planning evident in the plot. I say this because “The Name of the Wind” is actually several subsequent stories that just sprawl and spread out, taking a while to focus in on what’s happening next in the story.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story starts with a frame story, set in a typical small fantasy farm town and centered on the local tavern and its keeper—a man named Kote. Early on, the villagers and a traveling scribe called Chronicler are threatened by giant demon-like spiders. Chronicler is only saved by the mysterious Kote, who Chronicler correctly deduces isn’t just a simple tavern owner but the legendary figure named Kvothe, who has gone into hiding since the whole King killing business he was involved with apparently.

Chronicler and Kote/Kvothe’s assistant convince Kote to tell the story of his life for Chronicler. After reluctantly agreeing, saying the story will take three days to tell, Kvothe launches into the main part of this novel.

It starts literally at the beginning of Kvothe’s life when he was a boy living with his parents traveling musicians, and actors. This is where Kvothe gets his enduring love of music and his first taste of magic when a wondering sort of hedge wizard joins their troupe. The wizard acts as a teacher to Kvothe and instills in him a desire to attend the University and learn more about magic and Kvothe’s first ambition to learn the name of the wind.

Kvothe’s father, meanwhile, has been hard at work on what is supposed to be the masterpiece of his life, a ballad about a tragic hero and an ageless evil group called the Chandrian. It turns out that the Chandrian isn’t just some legend, but are real and are obsessed with keeping any knowledge of them, no matter how minuscule, suppressed. They descend on Kvothe’s troupe while he is out in the woods and murder everyone, including his parents. He is only spared at the last moment by circumstance because the Chandrian’s leader suspects their enemies are closing in on them, and they just don’t have the time.

Thus begins Kvothe’s second ambition in life—to find any and all information he can on the Chandrian and, hopefully, destroy them one day. Of course, there are significant hurdles to overcome. The first of which is that he’d been reduced in status to that of a penniless orphan. Kvothe spends the next few years living as a beggar on the streets of a major city.

It isn’t until after that entire little lifetime that he manages to scrape enough together to just get to the University, never mind how to pay for tuition. On his way to the famous school, he meets a mysterious girl named Denna, a fellow musician, who attracts him instantly and will become a recurring distraction in his life.

Once at the University, he loses touch with Denna for a while. He does manage to get admitted through a combination of smarts in trickery, and for once, money won’t be a problem—this semester. He excels, per usual, at his studies and makes several friends but also runs afoul of one of the masters of the University and one of the wealthy students who hates him for being, well, him. That student tricks him into committing an infraction that gets Kvothe banned from the Archives, one of the chief reasons he is at the University, thus stymying his research into the Chandrian.

Kvothe supports himself with music, and other activities, constantly scrimping for cash, worrying about tuition, and constantly on the lookout for Denna when he finally hears some interesting, albeit terrible, news. It seems that a whole wedding party had been wiped out in the countryside in a manner like his troupe had been, and it sounds like the Chandrian’s Modus Operandi. So Kvothe takes off to investigate and runs into Denna.

While looking for the Chandrian, the pair face down a monster called a Draccus, which Kvothe barely manages to slay before it totally destroys a local town. He finds out why the Chandrian killed the wedding party because the bride’s father had recently found a pot depicting the Chandrian—so they killed them all.

Kvothe loses track of Denna again and eventually makes his way back to the University. There he has a showdown with his rival student that got him banned from the Archive. During their fight, Kvothe calls down the wind using its name and breaks his rival’s arm. Kvothe avoids expulsion but is punished, but ultimately promoted by the University Masters because he did show magical mastery.

At the end of the book, we return to the framing story again. Kvothe’s tavern patrons are threatened by a possessed man, and the diminished Kvothe can’t seem to muster the magical wherewithal to put the monster down. That falls to the blacksmith’s apprentice that strikes it with a bar of pure iron. Kvothe’s assistant, in secret from his master, presses Chronicler that going forward, he needs to get Kvothe to focus more on the heroic aspects of his story so that he might get out of his apathetic funk.


This synopsis was challenging to write because this is a long, long book. It’s exactly the kind of book I tend to avoid reviewing on this blog because it’s hard to pare down a nearly thirty-hour experience I had into a few paragraphs and do it justice. 

That being said, I felt it was achievable with this book because a lot of “The Name of the Wind” is sprawling meandering in this world Rothfuss has made. It’s nicely told, and he makes it enjoyable, but it really is this guy’s whole life story, and like any life, there are fallow periods. So if you’re looking for an intimate experience with a fantasy character, it works great. If you’re looking for a fast-paced action-adventure, fantasy—well, it has those things between long segments of learning this or doing odds and ends, traveling about, and just kind of hanging out from time to time.

At no point during “The Name of the Wind” did I ever feel that Rothfuss was in a hurry to get anywhere. Not even when his principal character, Kvothe, clearly was in a hurry. Especially not then, it seemed at times to me.

Kvothe himself seems like the sort of effortlessly charming and charmed person who is just good at things—like all the things. So that charisma kept me going with him, and there was a real sense that the other characters friendly to him had rich lives, motivations, and backstories behind them as well. The antagonists are the kind of fantasy baddies who just seem to live to make either everyone’s lives more miserable, or at the very least, the protagonist and his friends’ lives more miserable.

Parting thoughts:

Speaking of Rothfuss being not in a hurry to get anywhere, this is another big fantasy series of books like “A Song of Ice and Fire” that is just unfinished, and its ending is somewhere out there in the ever-widening TBA future. Sorry to bury this point all the way down here if you were thinking about jumping into it. But just like George R.R. Martin, Rothfuss seems to have written most of this story, published the first book over a decade ago, another a few years later, and then ten years later still no third book.

So, on the one hand, I get that novel writing is hard, especially when you write super intricate massive epics. Sometimes it’s hard to just sit down and pound out the words on a keyboard—actually, I had a little bit of that feeling while writing this review. Life can get in the way. Competing demands on your time can interrupt that elusive state of flow that turns writing into a joy where everything seems to come together beautifully.

It is hard to chase that in the zone, flow, feel—and sometimes it’s a mistake to even try and force it because you ultimately get nowhere but frustrated.

But—on the other hand—sometimes deadlines need to be observed and met. Sometimes, you need to do the hacky thing and just sit down. Thrash it out. Put those words on the screen and get it done. No matter how inelegant. That’s the beauty of editing—you can go back and fix it if it’s not perfect. Writing a blog that updates three times a week has really honed my ability to focus on getting something done.

Now, I am nowhere near Rothfuss’s league as a writer and statistically unlikely to ever be as successful as him. So it’s a valid criticism to ask, who the fuck am I to question him on when his story should be “done?” No one, really. Just a weird guy on the internet. But you know who should be and are upset about this other than his fans? His editor.

And finally, I would posit that because he is clearly so successful, like Martin—if not to the same magnitude—which has its monetary rewards, what else has he to do with his professional time? This is his job. How does one lose an entire decade?

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