The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1)
A brilliant and precocious young boy named Kvothe becomes determined to follow the path of magic and music after the murder of his parents by a mythical and mysterious set of supernatural entities called the Chandrian. “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss, first in a trilogy, chronicles the boy's youth and first years at the University. Told as a first person narration by Kvothe years later while working as an innkeeper, the tale manages to charm and delight through a combination of excellent prose, vivid characters, consistent world building, and good plotting. The combination even manages to overcome all the parts that leave a “seen this, done that” impression, giving instead the feeling of reading something fresh despite all the many elements that border on cliché or familiarity. That alone makes the book stand out. The result is a literary tour-de-force.
An impressive first book, this was a chance find in a bookstore at Christmas. I had never heard of it until I picked it up and read it over the holidays. The wordcrafting is subtle: only on reflection does the reader realize that Rothfuss has a bit of the poet in him, which is probably why Kvothe as singer and musician carries such weight, more so than Kvothe as arcanist, as magicians are called in his world. The world he inhabits has a European feel while remaining original. The system of magic and its rules – essentially the principle of magic as Newtonian physics, with some Scandinavian “power of names” thrown in – is complex and very well thought-through. On the whole, this parallel medieval European-style world is engaging and believable enough to engage the reader without any obvious breaks or holes. Rothfuss doesn't neglect either politics or economics, adding unexpected texture to the novel. Even the structure of the book is ambitious. In a nod to “The Canterbury Tales” or perhaps “The Decameron”, the book is told through the viewpoint of a scholar named the Chronicler who records Kvothe's biography over the course of three days, thus allowing the reader to see Kvothe both as the boy he was and the seemingly broken man he had become, with a number of foreshadowing hints in between. This novel covers the first day of Kvothe's narration.
The book works best when its characters are allowed room to shine. Kvothe is brilliant, far too brilliant for his own good, and is afflicted with the sin of pride and arrogance. His arrogance leads him to rashness and thoughtlessness, character flaws that drive a good part of the novel's plot and action. Many of his problems could have been avoided if he had swallowed his pride, thought twice about the consequences of his actions, or been a little less impatient. On the other hand, he has flashes of genuine heroics, surprising even himself. A flawed hero, possibly even a tragic one, Kvothe engages the reader's sympathy even if his actions makes you want to groan out loud with their occasional stupidity. He is also bedeviled by bad luck and the malicious interference of a fellow student named Ambrose, his rival and enemy who manages to have Kvothe banned from the archives.
There are not a few plot holes, par for the course for a first novel, and the ending is disappointingly muted, without real resolution as if the novel is a prelude to the main act instead of the main act itself, but the power of the writing and the main character manages to help the reader glide past those imperfections. Yes, the whole section at the University does keep ringing bells echoing Hogwarts and Harry Potter. Fortunately, the echo isn't distracting and there are enough unique differences to keep the reader firmly on the page. The only other real problem with the book, other than Kvothe's preternatural competence that verges on the annoying, is his love interest, Denna, who comes across as curiously flat. By comparison, Deva the moneylender and Auri, an arcanist driven mad by her studies, are far more interesting and rounded.
On the whole, the book succeeds. It is an entertaining mix of fantasy, bildungsroman, horror, mystery, romance, and picaresque. Recommended. Go read it. There might have been parts that left me cold, but the rest is well worth your time.