Book Review: The Name of the Wind

I’m writing this at the far end of an all-nighter with the book in question. I’ll return later to edit.

“The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years, and one that I truthfully only got around to because I happened to be writing a book with a musician protagonist, and I had to check out my competition.

If you want a one-line summation of what I thought of Rothfuss’s first book, I changed what instrument my main character plays, so I’m not standing directly in his shadow.

A longer answer is, I can honestly say both that Rothfuss is a visionary in the field of Fantasy, and that he hews closely to those who came before him (in places, too close?). I mean it when I say that The Name of the Wind is a mixed bag, and also when I say that it’s one of the finest novels I’ve read in the last decade.

Rothfuss has a rare way with words. Poetic without getting in the way, crafted to perfection while maintaining an illusion of effortlessness. Very rarely did I come across a sentence that was anything less than a joy to read.

His characters are just as strong. Every single one, whether it be our hero Kvothe, who has enough layers to put any metaphor about layers to shame, or a random innkeeper who we only see for a few paragraphs, lives and breathes in such a way that it’s easy to believe they continue to exist when you put the book down.

I’ve heard accusations of Kvothe being a Mary Sue, but although Kvothe has many qualities that are often shared by Mary Sues, I don’t feel that he is. While he’s brave and caring, clever, resourceful, and determined, he’s also hardheaded, hotheaded, arrogant, and impulsive. He’s a complex character, whose growth is gradual and realistic over the course of the story. Often, I marveled at the ways that Kvothe learned from his mistakes. And, in some ways more endearing, I was dumbfounded by the ways in which he failed to learn. Kvothe–not the mysterious figure telling the story, but the child who is living it–feels real beyond almost any other character I’ve ever read.

The magic is consistent, more a manipulation of principles already familiar than a fabrication of something wholly new. Rothfuss’s use of it is clever, and by the end, I’d learned it well enough to guess a sentence or two ahead just what was about to happen.

But we can’t just talk about the book’s strengths. We have to talk about some of its weak points, its concerning points, and its rare failures.

I’ve heard it said that The Name of the Wind has no plot, but that it’s instead just a series of events stitched together. I feel that’s overly critical. But I will say that there are many, many events that just seem to happen over the course of the novel, and that if you cut out seemingly extraneous parts, the book would only be a small fraction of its current size. This is mitigated, I feel, by both the rich enjoyment reading these events brought, and the depth to the characters and world that the events added.

The pacing is somewhat predictable, although the plot is not. That is, I always knew when something was going to happen, but almost never was sure precisely what it was that was about to take place. And as for foreshadowing…Rothfuss can be as subtle as a mallet to the face. Thankfully, he’s often just as effective.

More troubling, perhaps, is that the women in the novel consistently have the role of damsel to play. While they play it with wit, complexity, and dynamism, they’re still the ones being rescued, and often, to a degree, having their affections won in return by this rescue. I won’t go on about his patriarchal society (I’ve gone into detail previously on my own wanderings in that lost country), and I’m not suggesting that Rothfuss is sexist. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m mentioning this because Rothfuss has spoken openly on more than one occasion about the role of gender in his writings, and after a time, the trend was noticeable. I simply hope that the wonderful women characters have a chance to rescue Kvothe in the next book.

On to pet peeves. A good portion of the novel takes place while Kvothe is at the University. I’m not fond of “school days” plots, or the others that are bundled up with them. The bully, for instance, which is also present. But in this case, the few classes that we follow him through have interesting, entertaining things happening. And while the bully is portrayed as evil incarnate, a good portion of the feud between them rests on Kvothe’s shoulders as well. There’s also a “will-they-won’t-they” romance plot that I found grating, though not for lack of skill in Rothfuss’s handling of it.

Much of his worldbuilding is a bizarre mix of folklore old to our world and brand new pieces. The hints at folklore gave me a vaguely Urban Fantasy feel, which I’m not a fan of, but the new bits let me peek in at the world with the sense of wonder that I’ve been missing for years in Fantasy. What can I say? I’m a sucker for fantastical ancient history, secrets, legends, and relics, particularly if it seems like they might have a part of their own to play.

The Name of the Wind is likely the third best book that I’ve read in the last ten years. Considering that one of the two that beat it is a rather famous must-read classic, and one has become my all-time favorite single novel, there’s no shame in bringing home the bronze.

Ugh. I’m not gonna be the one to tell Kvothe that he came in third.

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