The Name of the Wind came up, a little unexpectedly, on a list of the top 100 or so science fiction and fantasy books of all time. These are about as common as oxygen nowadays, but this particular list was from NPR, so I stopped to read. Among the obvious Tolkien, Heinlein, Herbert, Orwell, and other thoroughly entrenched authors were some surprises. I first learned of Gene Wolf’s The Book of the New Sun, which was new to me but an old book with its sci-fi bona fides. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind was more puzzling, being the debut novel of an unknown writer, published a mere four years ago. My curiosity was piqued.
It would be a mistake to say that Rothfuss breaks new ground with The Name of the Wind, the first part of a planned trilogy1 called The Kingkiller Chronicles. To the contrary, most of the appeal of Rothfuss is that, as a well-versed fan of science fiction and fantasy, he knows to cherry-pick the most interesting bits of all his various and sundry interests. The result is a mélange of influences, for better or worse.
This is a dangerous game to play. Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance cycle which ended this year, wrote from a similar position, and while the books were certainly successful, they were also uniformly awful—an uninspired pastiche of Middle Earth, Star Wars, and Pern. Because there was nothing unique about the books, and the characters similarly uncompelling (I found myself wishing for the untimely death of no smaller number of them), they were little more than lengthy Tolkien fan-fiction. From the very beginning, we knew that Eragon would eventually beat the evil Galbatorix; since the plot itself was invented by Paolini on the fly to suit whatever ends he felt at the time, the muddled mess in between Eragon’s discovery of a dragon egg and the final battle of the fourth books was narrative masturbation.
Rothfuss handles this with significantly more grace—or at least he does so far. The series is told as an extended flashback; from the very beginning, readers know that Kvothe, the hero with flaming red hair, is a living legend. We don’t know what he’s done, aside from a few tall tales, but we can intuit from the name of the series that regicide will ultimately be involved. We also come to understand, early on, that Kvothe is now living as an innkeeper under the assumed name of Kote. A strange and compelling scene indeed. Eventually, Kvothe relates his story for posterity to a writer named The Chronicler, and the book is mostly told as a story, punctuated by interludes in the present.
By way of a brief plot summary: Kvothe’s story begins when he is young boy, traveling with his family as part of a collective group of musicians and performers known as the Edema Ruh (think of gypsies, negative connotations and all). When a magician (“sympathist”) briefly traveled with them, the precocious Kvothe learns about magic and science. When his entire troupe is slaughtered by an ancient group of bogeymen known as the Chandrian, young Kvothe becomes a street urchin in the large city of Tarbean, homeless and wretched, before he finds his way to The University, which teaches sympathetic magic and other, more mundane topics. The rest of the book details Kvothe’s first few terms at the University.
This all sounds perfectly mundane, but I found myself drawn to Rothfuss’ story; I couldn’t put it down until I finished it, and I’m not the only one. The reasons are subtle, but important.
Whence Kvothe? Since we know immediately that at some point, Kvothe becomes legendary, with apparently unrivaled power, it’s important as readers for us to understand how he goes from a smart and precocious child to the stuff of myths. Especially when Kvothe spends much of the book desperately poor, beaten up, fearing for his life or his status in the University; even by the end of The Name of the Wind, the Kvothe we know doesn’t begin to approach Kvothe qua Legend. It’s a trap that Rothfuss sets; until this disparity between our a priori knowledge of Kvothe and the story of Kvote as Narrator is resolved, there’s a dramatic tension that holds us. A lot—even too much—time is spent with Kvothe worrying about his money as he lives a penny at the time.
Magic done right. Magic is easy to write, but it’s also boring. Anybody can cast Magic Missile; that, for instance, Harry Potter can wave his wand and do just about anything, makes the magic itself that much less compelling. Rothfuss’ approach to the topic, then, splits into a number of fronts. The more mundane kind of magic, known as “sympathy”, is a blend of traditional magic and more modern ideas like thermodynamics or quantum entanglement. A sympathist (not a magician) uses magic to link two similar objects; by using a handful of ash from a roaring fire, for instance, a sympathist can use its heat to start a fire even when spatially distant from said fire. The quality of the link depends on the similarity from the items, and when desperate, a sympathist can use the heat from their own blood to power a spell. This is a tricky form of magic whose uses and drawbacks aren’t immediately obvious, and so we can’t necessarily predict when or how Kvothe will be able to use them.
A love story, sort of. It’s not too long before Kvothe introduces Denna, a young girl about his age who is likewise a wanderer. The relationship is frustrating to readers because Kvothe remains solidly in the “Friend Zone” while Denna is courted by tens (hundreds?) of men and patrons; yet it is obvious to readers (and even to the characters themselves) that they’re crazy about each other. When Kvothe the Narrator first introduces the subject, however, he does so with an import that implies his relationship with Denna (who is only ever referred to in the past tense) will come to mean a lot more than the romantic-comedy foibles Rothfuss gives us in the first book.
Chicks dig rock stars. Perhaps the most unique—perhaps I should simply say “surprising”?—aspect of Kvothe’s story is that Kvothe is a highly skilled lute player, actor, and singer. His instrument of choice—a lute—features heavily in the story, and is the catalyst for his meeting Denna. Rothfuss’ invented world is gaga for musicians, and Kvothe’s performances routinely move people to tears and/or wild applause; this is perhaps a little difficult to swallow, but we accept it because Rothfuss is at least consistent in his treatment of the subject.
There’s magic, and then there’s magic. I’ve already talked about sympathetic magic, which is a compromise between traditional fantasy thaumaturgy and steampunk science; in fact, the two meet more obviously in the art of “artificing”, which involves engineering mechanical objects which utilize sympathetic magic to do things—”sympathy lamps”, for instance, which use small amounts of the bearer’s body heat to produce a flameless light. But there’s another kind of magic to be had which is more important in Kvothe’s case. A widely-told legend in Kvothe’s universe is that of Taborlin the Great, who “knew the names of all things”; by “names”, we mean of course “True Names”, which is a convenient label for a metaphysical understanding of an object, and which has been used to greater or lesser degree in both other fantasy novels and in real-world myths and legends. Kvothe’s first knowledge of this comes when he botches a sympathetic link and essentially suffocates himself when learning magic from the wandering sympathist in the beginning of the book. The sympathist, who knows that Name of the Wind (you see?), called upon it to undo the binding. From that point forward, Kvothe seeks the Name of the Wind, and it isn’t until the end of the book that he calls it very much by accident and falls under the tutelage of the quirky Master Elodin, the University’s Master Namer.
All of these unsolved mysteries, taken as a whole, are enough to make The Name of the Wind extraordinarily compelling. There’s no small amount that Rothfuss does wrong in his writing, and I hesitate to say that The Kingkiller Chronicles will enter into the fantasy canon, but there’s no denying that the first book in the series is an engaging, playful, thorough beginning to what I hope will be an equally thrilling series.
- As of 2011, after the publication of the second installment, I would be surprised if it ends up as only a trilogy.[↩]