Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Name of the Wind

It's an interesting experience to set down a book, be pretty thoroughly enamored of it—so much so that I am looking forward to finding its sequel—but have no real clue what makes it such a good book. So it is with The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel, a novel I picked up due to its many nominations (and some wins) as the book of the year for 2007. As I read it, there were days I wanted to take off from work so I could devote myself to finishing it, so strongly did it move me. But as I set it down, nothing about it really stands out so that I could say a single aspect was among the best I have ever seen.

I think what drives it the most is the always-reliable tale-within-a-tale aspect, where the story involves the telling of another story. In this case, we are introduced to innkeeper Kote, who is apparently a diligent and good innkeeper, but just in an area where he can't possibly have a clientele that could take advantage of his skills and resources. Enter Chronicler, whose name is his job—he's a collector of the important stories of the world we find ourselves in—and he recognizes the innkeeper as the fabulous hero Kvothe, the story of whom he wants to add to his repertoire. Kvothe is uneasy but agrees to tell his story, in part because it appears he expects he may die soon and wants the truth behind all the legends about him to be known.

And so the majority of the book is the first day of Kvothe telling his tale to Chronicler, with only Kvothe's faithful student Bast as a witness. Between the visitors to the inn and the fragments of legend that Chronicler mentions, we know that we are about to be witness to an epic story, for Kvothe has legends and myths surrounding him all over the world—the youngest student ever in the University, the Kingkiller, the fighter of demons, the lover of women. But as Kvothe tells his story, starting from the very beginning—his birth—all these mentions are only harder-than-usual foreshadowing, waypoints for where the story we are reading is going to go. Kvothe himself is the archetype of the epic hero: a young man who shows extraordinary innate talent but who must be trained so that his true power can be revealed. And so, of course, the story involves both triumphs and failures, alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking. And there are "intervals," moments when everyone has to break from storytelling in order to use the privy or make food, or when Kvothe steps back from his narrative to illuminate a point. The narrative device is deftly handled, pulling the reader into its thrall.

Kvothe himself is the most fully fleshed out of the characters, while the people around his story are generally one-dimensional, reflecting the scant understanding that a young man would have for the personalities in his world. That is, he is the most fleshed out until the surprising last few chapters that take place after the day's story is done.

Another strength of the novel is the world-building that Rothfuss performs. There is enough in it that the world seems familiar until the moments when it falls into the pattern of the epic settings. There is magic, and it appears to be based on some of the more mundane rules of magic, requiring thought and planning beyond just the uttering of a simple spell. There are dragons, but Rothfuss works really hard to make them fit a naturalistic niche in their environments, so they are both more and less than a reader of fantasy has come to expect when confronted with their name. So part of what pulls the reader into the novel is interest in how this world is like the one(s) we know and how it differs.

And there is no doubt through the book that this is part of a series—there are surprises at the end of The Name of the Wind, but generally speaking no one's life appears to be explicitly in peril. Part of the reason you'll await the next book is to find out more about this boy and how he became the man he clearly is, rather than trying to figure out how he survives some catastrophic peril—all in all a far more natural way to lead in to a sequel than most others.

There are also moments of surprising artistry. But those moments are forced, not fitting the language of the rest of the book, and standing out like an experiment or formal separation from the narrative voices that guide the story. Perhaps those moments are the words that Chronicler will eventually add to his legend, but they are distinct from the rest of the text, no matter their power.

The Name of the Wind is not so much ground-breaking as it reconstitutes the tropes and clichés of epic fantasy. Not in any sort of method like Guy Gavriel Kay uses, but in a way that is just as interesting and compelling. One could make an easy argument that this is a young adult novel, for all the reasons that Kay's own Ysabel was considered young adult. Nonetheless, like Ysabel, it is compelling, and I look forward to more from this author and from this world. We may be seeing the first indication of a major long-term voice in fantasy.

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