On a recommendation, I decided to delve into a genre I haven’t read much of since before I went into college: fantasy. The recommended book was THE NAME OF THE WIND, Book 1 in a trilogy with the decidedly-badass name “The Kingkiller Chronicles”. The recommendation came with the claim that “Patrick Rothfuss [the author] could very well be a modern day Tolkien” in his writing style, world creation, and descriptive narrative (and that’s a direct paraphrase, har har). Given the fact that I had just finished re-reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring you can perhaps understand why I delved eagerly into this book, and you can perhaps also understand why my hopes and expectations were high.
Having finished the tome (it weighs in at a hefty 660 pages, but I devoured it in a week. Let it never be said that I do not have an appetite for food or words) I can understand the comparison. Both are epic works that span entire worlds, contain enigmatic and oft-misunderstood magical elements, and contain plenty of intricate and interesting songs, stories, and narratives about world history and mythology. But about there the similarities end.
THE NAME OF THE WIND is the story of Kvothe, told from two different perspectives: (1) a third-person limited narration based around the present time, which comprises of Kvothe’s life as an innkeeper at a mostly-quiet small town, and (2) Kvothe’s first-person narration of his life story. The innkeeper portion of the story is when we’re treated to the things that, I suppose, will eventually drive the trilogy forward: strangely shaped demons are encroaching on their quiet little town, Kvothe is losing some of his heroic powers and abilities, and there are hints of dangerous magic and war. This part, however, only comprises about one-fifth of the book, at most. The rest of the text is devoted to Kvothe’s personal narrative, when we learn how he became the legend and the hero that he is trying to escape.
Reading the prologue, I was incredibly hopeful. The prologue dissects a silence that haunts Kvothe’s inn, what comprises it, and where it comes from:
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind, it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. … A pair of men … drank with quiet determination …. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. … The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. … It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die. (Lc 1-205, Kindle Edition)
Wow. Awesome, right? Okay, maybe it’s not Tolkien. (Maybe nothing can ever be Tolkien.) But it’s still enchanting, ripe with tangible descriptions, chock-full of the perfect hollowness that Rothfuss is trying to achieve. Beautiful!
Unfortunately, the magnificent language bows out right about there. That’s not to say that the rest of the book isn’t well-written, or interesting, or captivating. I didn’t read it in a week for nothing. It just … wasn’t astounding. Take, for example, Kvothe/Rothfuss’ description of spending an evening with the girl Kvothe is in love with:
It had the desperate feel of the last warm night of summer. We spoke of everything and nothing, and all the while I could hardly breathe for the nearness of her, the way she moved, the sound of her voice as it touched the autumn air. (Lc 8906, Kindle Version)
Okay. Not terrible. In fact, it’s quite decent, by most standards. But it’s just not … enchanting. Magnificent. Magical. It hasn’t got anything on what he wrote in the prologue. And the disappointing thing is that that’s just about as rich as his descriptions get. For me, it felt like Rothfuss was trying to be magnificent, enchanting, and captivating, but he just couldn’t quite make it there. There are points where he might be working at it, but it just falls short. Or maybe Rothfuss really does have a gilded tongue, but he was holding back because he believes Kvothe wouldn’t talk like that. Who knows. Granted, a surprising percentage of his words (given the vast quantity of them) are spent on plot points, technical observations, and dialogue, rather than on description. So there aren’t a ton of examples to choose from as demonstrations, but that in itself could be seen as a weakness. I believe fervently in the “show, don’t tell” maxim, but that doesn’t mean that authors should avoid character or setting descriptions, either.
Then we get into the plot. There are some key moments (three, really) in the book that make it clear that there is something worth reading. They have to do with a mysterious group of people known as the Chandrian, who are believed to be the stuff of fairy tales and childhood ghost stories. If it weren’t for the fact that Kvothe witnesses them with his own eyes as he watches as they destroy his childhood, and then devotes the rest of his life to seeking them so that he can exact revenge, there would be no reason to read the book. It would be the autobiography of a one-time hero recounting vain stories about saving damsels and villages in distress while trying to impress as many people around him as possible. But because we know that Kvothe is striving towards something–knowledge of the Chandrian, and the magical and physical power to eventually battle them–we keep turning the page. We wait patiently for something to happen. And … it does.
While studying at the University in the Arcanum, Kvothe gets wind of a rumor that, to him, indicates that the Chandrian have attacked and utterly obliterated a wedding party. He gets himself to the scene of the crime, finds that the girl he’s in love with is mysteriously there as well, and begins investigating. He looks for traces of the Chandrian, and he finds them – but just traces, nothing more. He gets wind that the Chandrian were looking for some artifact (“a big fancy pot”) that had been dug up at the site of the wedding party – but they whisked the artifact off, so of course Kvothe can’t actually look at it. And then we finally get a sense of danger when a giant fire-breathing lizard shows up — dragon! But no, it’s just a draccus, and while it might burn the entire village to the ground while trying to eat the wood houses(it doesn’t even eat people, it’s an herbivore that devours tree limbs, talk about a let-down), it has absolutely nothing to do with the Chandrian, Kvothe’s quest for revenge, or anything else other than Kvothe once again being a hero and saving the day.
I mean, seriously! This is the biggest moment in the book, the climax, we’re almost 90% through, we’ve been hanging onto the hopes of finding something, anything about the Chandrian, right alongside Kvothe, and we’re served – an ancient POT? A POT? I mean, even if we decide to call it an urn to make it sound more sophisticated and historical, it’s still glorified cookware. It takes a lot to get me excited about a giant stock pot, and this just isn’t doing it for me.
Okay, calm down, Amira. Obviously the answers are coming in books two and three. Obviously Rothfuss can’t give everything away in the first book. But I have a hard time being sated by the fact that I just powered through 660 pages of words as Kvothe pursues his quest for revenge and I’m supposed to be tempted to keep reading by the idea of finding out more about this goddamn magical pot. Or not, I guess, since Kvothe doesn’t even HAVE the pot.
In sum, I kept waiting for a climax, and then a denouement, and I never found it. The book is like a slow-simmering soup. The difference is that at the end of cooking a soup, you get to eat the soup. With this book, I was still hungry for more. Some people might say that’s a good thing – I’m going to rush out and buy the 2nd book now, right?? Well, quite frankly, I don’t think I am. I might. In a few weeks, or a few months, or something. But frankly, while I’m interested in the Life and Times of Kvothe (if he has a last name, I don’t believe it’s been revealed), I don’t know if I’m interested enough to power through 994 (!!!!) pages of Book 2. And then there’s still Book 3 after that. Sigh.
Before you go away from this review thinking that the entire thing was a letdown or a waste of time, let me clarify: It wasn’t. There are aspects of Rothfuss’ tale that are rich, elegant, and moving. One of the major themes of the book is music, its power, and how it is created. There’s a section about 2/3 of the way through the book where Kvothe sings and plays a complicated ballad to a crowded audience in one of the most reputable inns in the local city. Rothfuss gives us some of the details about the song, but of course it’s impossible to convey music through text. So instead, what we get are Kvothe’s thoughts as he immerses himself in the song, and he does a compelling job of illustrating Kvothe’s mindset for us as he performs what I can only imagine must be a haunting, tragic, beautiful love story. It’s a powerful moment in the book, and I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it.
The University that Kvothe attends – to which the majority of the second half of the book is devoted – is also fascinating. Starkly different from other books on magical education (betcha can’t guess which other series I’m thinking about right now), The University is both somber and serious, and yet at the same time, fascinating. The fey arts they study at the University are not quite as interesting as the University itself, with a complex world beneath it that we only begin to learn about at the end of Book 1, a giant library from which Kvothe is banned (and he spends much of his time scheming how to get back in), and the odds and ends of the professors, who are just as eclectic, intelligent, and fierce as I hoped for.
So, you see, the book was hardly a waste of time. It was perhaps only a letdown because I had such high expectations going into it (shame upon my recommender who claimed that Rothfuss would inherit the Tolkien legacy – though she claims she has no memory of making such a statement). Would I recommend it to a common reader on the streets? Not if he weren’t interested in fantasy books, or in medieval-style epics. Not if she weren’t willing to slog through a boatload of pages with little anticipatory reward at the end. Not if fancy language is a must-have to keep you interested. But if you’re interested in world-building, in character relationships, in a complex and ever-evolving protagonist with secrets buried in his past – and an uncertain future – then go for it. If you dig coming-of-age and revenge stories, go for it. If you dig crazy magic and crazier world histories, with fascinating legends that make you wish you were a part of this invented world, then go for it.
Ultimately, it was an engaging book. The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ll read the next book – but unlike with The Hunger Games or the Divergent trilogies, I’m definitely going to need a break in between this one and the next. If, however, six-hundred page tomes with anti-climactic endings tempt you, I recommend that you click through to the Amazon site here.
In other news, I’m giving up on ratings. I don’t understand ratings and what they accomplish, and in my mind they fail to describe all of the complexities of a reaction to a book, CD, movie, or artist. Unless I either loathe beyond reason or love beyond passion a book, album, or movie, the ratings just don’t seem to make sense. What does 3/5 stars mean, anyway? You liked it? You didn’t like it? You’d read it again? You’d buy the next book in the series? You’d buy the next book but only if it were on sale? What about 3.5 stars? What about 2 stars? Does one star mean you hated it? Or does zero stars mean you hated it? Does 5 stars mean perfection? What even is perfection? Have you ever read a perfect book?
You see the problem?
Wait, though – that’s a great question. Have you ever read a perfect book? Why was it perfect? What made it perfect to you, and do you think it would be perfect to other readers you know?
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more reviews!