The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Book 1 (Kingkiller Chronicle)
by Patrick Rothfuss
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575081390
Date: 20 September 2007 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Patrick Rothfuss's weighty début has been hailed far and wide as the next best thing since sliced bread. Our own Harriet Klausner gave it a rave review back in our April issue.
The Name of the Wind is now published here in the UK, by Gollancz, and though I have no wish to court controversy, my own impression of this novel seems to go against the flow! Check out my review elsewhere in this issue.
There has been plenty of hype surrounding Patrick Rothfuss's chunky debut fantasy, The Name of the Wind. The book received a lot of attention when it was published in the US by Daw Books last spring. The author's web site carries an open letter from Daw president and publisher Betsy Wollheim in which she states "...The Name of the Wind is the most brilliant first fantasy novel I have read in over thirty years as an editor..." Likewise, Gollancz, the publisher who now bring this book to a UK audience, have also been working hard to promote this title, animatedly enthusing about it on the grapevine and producing smart early proofs of this hefty work.
The Name of the Wind certainly conforms to what we expect of fat fantasy nowadays – firstly and foremost, it is indeed hefty – over 650 pages. Additionally it is medieval in the period setting – folks wondering around with swords, minstrels playing lutes; there is magic and dragons and taverns and ale and yokels and tinkers aplenty. This is not a novel that reinvents the wheel by any means.
Our protagonist is Kvothe, a character loaded from the start with legendary status – here is a man who by reputation is a renowned thief and assassin, a practitioner of arcane magics, lover, storyteller, a man who has talked with Gods, we're told. However, rather frustratingly, we actually get to see very little of this in the course of the novel, instead, the Kvothe we actually meet at first is a lowly, mild-mannered innkeeper, a kind of superhero in the guise of his secret identity. In what is a clunky, sluggish start to the novel, Rothfuss uses a filmic convention – introducing Kvothe and then using flashbacks to tell of his deeds. In doing this he frequently switches narrative perspective, telling the vast majority of the story "voice-over" style. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but the switches between third and first person, for me at least were unsettling and unnecessary. Why not just start at the beginning, picaresque style?
Kvothe is an engaging and undeniably interesting character, every inch the archetypal quick-witted and resourceful fantasy hero. We learn of his origins, born into a troupe of respectable strolling players, he develops talents early on for acting and an affinity with the great works of his culture. Rothfuss is very skilful in his creation of the internal myths of this world. An entire classical literature exists - plays, books, songs, and Kvothe knows them all. Much of these stories (and clearly Rothfuss is a lover of stories and their innate power over us) are spawned from legends that have long passed out of living memory, including that of The Chadrian, dark demonic things that lurk on the edges of reality, monsters from songs sung to children to temper their bad behaviour. To avoid spoilers, I'll be vague, but basically, catastrophe strikes and Kvothe becomes tied to and obsessed by the story of the Chadrian. The legend itself develops into the main long-term story arc of Rothfuss's novel, driving Kvothe onwards and providing him with his primary motivates.
We follow this young boy through his years as a street urchin in a dangerous city, towards the achievement of his goal of enrolling in the university, where he proceeds to study the various branches of the mystical arts. His real motive however is to gain access to the institution's huge and ancient library in the hope of learning more of The Chadrian. The bulk of the novel concerns the various adventures that occur during Kvothe's time as a student. We have our boy, parents killed by an ancient dark magic, himself gifted in the magical arts, running into trouble with a nasty teacher, we have him locking horns with a bullying aristocratic contemporary whom he bests with wit and a little luck, we have him mentored by a kindly, eccentric and unfathomable wizard... hang on, doesn't this all sound a bit familiar? Perhaps I'm searching for commonalities here and certainly there are plenty of elements where Rothfuss is not echoing whatever else might be dominating the market nowadays, but one can't help but notice the similarities.
More of an issue for me though is the way in which The Name of the Wind fails to adequately resolve its plot lines. When one takes on a huge book like this, I feel there's a bargain being struck between reader and author. It might not take the same amount of time to read 650 pages as it does to write them, but it is still a creative endeavour on our part. The reader must work to conjure up the events described and one does expect at least some sense of closure on turning the final page. It seems to me that currently there is change going on in fantasy – the concept of the trilogy is being redefined. It used to be that such a sequence of novels would tell three separate, but linked and above all complete stories, events overlapping and influencing each other, but with each narrative having a definitive and satisfying resolution at the end. This is not so with The Name of the Wind. It's interesting that rather than calling it "Book One" it is subtitled "The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One" – but this does not mitigate the fact that it is reads as the long first act in a story split three ways and the impression it left me with, after 650 pages, was of something unfinished and therefore unsatisfying.