Jan 12 2010 5:26pm

Lovely and undemanding: Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

First, my funny story about The Name of the Wind. I’ve never met Patrick Rothfuss, but he’s a friend of my friend, Hugo-winning short story writer David Levine. He emailed me out of the blue a few years ago, when nobody had heard of him, asking me to read and blurb his book. I declined, explaining that I hate fantasy and said he should get his editor to ask people, because it’s so much easier to say no to editors. He insisted, politely. I said that if I hated it, that was the end of it. He agreed. I read it. I loved it and couldn’t put it down, and I wrote a blurb saying so. The book was published, became a huge success, and came out in paperback, whereupon I bought it—I still have the ARC I originally read, but give me a nice paperback any day. A while later, I was in a thrift store with my son, Sasha, who has recently got into reading epic fantasy. He found a used copy of The Name of the Wind for a couple of dollars, looked at it, put it down and came to find me to ask if it was good. By the time I told him it was good and he went back for it, someone else had bought it—perhaps someone who trusted my blurb as printed in the book rather than crossing the shop to ask personally.

It’s very good. There’s nothing that’s as enjoyable as reading a really good long fantasy with a really absorbing world and a great voice. What Rothfuss does so brilliantly here is to produce a variation on a theme that’s absorbing and intelligent. Unpleasant things happen to Kvothe and the world is getting darker, but still, the experience of re-reading this is like lying in a warm bed with a cup of tea and a box of toffees.The worldbuilding is excellent, the hinted at mysteries are interesting, and on those times when I want to pull the covers up and have somebody tell me a story, I couldn’t ask for anything better.

The first thing that’s wrong with it is that volume 2 isn’t finished yet. The Name of the Wind is 722 pages of a man telling the story of growing up in a fascinating fantasy world, and at the end of that he isn’t sixteen yet. There’s also a frame story in which Kvothe is somewhere less than thirty. The frame hints at a world that’s getting darker, at promises broken and a king killed. We see the beginning of Kvothe’s hero’s journey, and we have hints that it ends in disaster. We also have an ongoing story which will, most likely, lead to eucatastrophe and redemption. (I’d be very surprised if it didn’t.) The shape of the story is visible, the details of both world and adventures are what makes it worth having. But I’ve now read it three times, and the rest of the story still isn’t done! I appreciate that he’s not my bitch, and books certainly do take a while to write, and I’m a reasonable adult who can wait not a kid whining “are we there yet?”, but all the same, I want more this afternoon.

Next potential problem: To like this book you have to like Kvothe, who is arrogant and too good at everything, but nevertheless a charming companion. He also has red hair, eyes that change colour, a nifty cloak, and a personal grudge against evil beings most people think are mythical—but he’s easy to believe in all the same. He works because we first see him as an innkeeper with a secret and then in first person—anyone is easier to swallow in first person, as Orwell puts it, we have a tendency to believe what an “I” is telling us. It also helps that we see him go from an arrogant child to... an arrogant teenager. I’m hoping he grows up a bit in book 2. I like him. But if you didn’t like him, you wouldn’t like the book.

The treatment of women is a bit odd. There aren’t many of them, and the main love interest doesn’t make sense. I’m hoping she doesn’t make sense in a way that’s going to be revealed as Kvothe missing lots of what’s going on in the next volume, but for now she’s a McGuffin, not a person. No first person book from a male point of view can pass the Bechdel test, but I don’t think this one even has two women talk to each other with Kvothe present. I’m not sure it ever has more than one woman on stage at once. Again, I’m hoping for better in the sequels as Kvothe grows up a bit and gets less self-centred.

This is a world at a slightly post-Renaissance tech level, and the economics almost makes sense. The sense of there being a lot of complex history comes over very well—it’s not one prophecy there in service of the plot, it’s tangled and weird and nifty.

This is an immensely enjoyable book to read. To date I have raced through it every time—it’s a long book, but it’s only a couple of days read. It’s not very demanding—and I wonder if that’s precisely part of its wide appeal and success. As I was pausing above to find the link for “volume 2 isn’t finished yet” I considered ending the sentence “if you want a new and completed fantasy series, try Daniel Abraham.” This immediately felt like an unfair comparison. Abraham’s books are good in a completely different way. They’re much more challenging, much more emotionally wrenching, much more thought-provoking, much more original, much more concerned with wide ethical issues—and also much less commercially successful. I wonder if “undemanding” is something we actually seek in fantasy, if it’s part of the star quality that DAW instantly recognised in Rothfuss?

The Name of the Wind is a lovely read, but at the end there isn’t much to say about it. Most of what I could say about it as spoilers would fall into the territory of speculating about what’s going to happen next, and the shadow-shape of the time between the end of the book and the frame story. All the same, I’ll buy the sequel the minute it hits the shops.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Ian Cyr
1. Ian Cyr
It doesn't have to do with the book, per se, but Rothfuss deserves a mention at least for his Heifer International raffle that he's put on for the past two years now. That's actually how I was first introduced to him, via Neil Gaiman's blog.

I then went and picked up Name of the Wind, and have been aching for the sequel ever since. I'm sure I'll re-read the first one when the second comes out, but I know it's the first book in a long while that's hooked me in that way great books do. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he has in store for us in the rest of the series.
Jon Evans
2. rezendi
No first person book from a male point of view can pass the Bechdel test

Pedantic nitpick: I don't think this is technically true. My sources indicate that the test is:

1. It has to have at least two (named) women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.

Which is entirely possible, indeed quite easy, within a first-person male POV.
Elio García
3. Egarcia
I read this one with some interest after all the hype, but I have to say it feels overhyped to me. Perhaps because of the fact that it's so undemanding. I expected something much more original, much more obviously flashy, from how people were responding to it but it's just ... a (generally) entertaining story (generally) well-told.

I'll certainly read the next book, but I'm dialing back my expectations on boundary-pushing.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
I read The Name of the Wind and I liked it okay, but I'm not really champing at the bit for the sequels. I'll probably check them out of the library when they're released.

I will say that I don't see Kvothe as a Mary Sue, as some have said. Yes, he's very bright and competent at a bunch of things, but he works hard at them too, and we're shown him having to work hard. He makes mistakes (and Rothfuss does a good job at having them be the sort of mistakes that someone bright but inexperienced would make).

There was one thing that I found difficult to believe in (I'll put it in ROT13 for spoiler protection):

Jura ur'f yvivat ebhtu, ur frrzf gb unir sbetbggra gung ur rire yrnearq nal gunhznghetl. Lrf, ur'q orra zragnyyl genhzngvmrq, ohg V jbhyq guvax gung na rzcgl oryyl jbhyq pbapragengr uvf zvaq.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
David: And not only that, but everything else he's learned that would be useful in that situation. Juggling -- or any skill you can busk with.
Ian Cyr
6. dreamwolf
I have to copy the encrypted text, start Notepad++,
patch the copied text into a new document, and select
textFX->Convert->ROT13 to view text that has been ROT13 converted. Is there a somewhat easier way to do it in Firefox or IE or how do you do it?

Regarding the The Name of the Wind, I liked it and will buy the successor but it lacked some undefined quality that would have made it a great book in my mind. Maybe the supporting characters maybe the love interest I'm not sure. Incidentally I'm with you in your ROT13 comment David.
Ian Cyr
7. Herewiss13
I wonder if part of the appeal is that it's an entrepreneurially driven fantasy, rather than a prophecy driven fantasy...which is rare.

Kvothe isn't some pre-destined hero growing into his role, he's the godd*mned Batman, _making_ himself into the person he needs to be, rather than following out a trial of MacGuffin-crumbs (ala Eddings, who I also enjoy in a non-challenging way).

That's the other part of the comfort/fantasy: Kvothe is Batman. He is Sherlock Holmes. He is Doc Savage. He is an extra-ordinary person doing extra-ordinary things. Being able to empathize with the farm-boy/hobbit/naive Chosen One thrown off the deep end is one kind of fantasy, but there is also the appeal of the hyper competent doing things that are "Awesome!", which (for all his mistakes) Kvothe does...frequently. When it's done badly, it's a Mary-Sue issue...but Batman, Holmes and Savage are not Mary Sues, and neither is Kvothe.
Nancy Lebovitz
8. NancyLebovitz
I heard about Rothfuss because people linked to his piece about not having finished book 2, and my first thought was "He's such a good cartoonist (more for the words than the pictures), maybe he should just do that". Then I read the book, and concluded that no, he should keep writing fantasy.

I'm especially fond of the description of the messed-up indexing in the magical library.

I did like one aspect of the relationship-- Rothfuss realizes that being beautiful is consequential for a woman-- it isn't just eye candy for the reader and male character. The only other novel I've seen emphasize this is Adam's Maya.
Ian Cyr
9. BritMandelo
I had that impression of the women the first time around, but the second time, you notice more of them here and there. While they are in the background, they do still exist as human beings (the girl in the underground whose name I have forgotten, for one). @NancyLebovitz is also correct: the women are not beautiful to be eye candy, and it is actually a problem/tool for them to use.

I think the best part of these books is the fact that they are, at their deepest level, books about storytelling. The point of the whole thing is how Kvothe's story has been told, is being told, has adapted depending on who is telling it, etc. The same is true of the stories Kvothe himself tells us and the framing tale as it stands: there is no sense of reliable narrator, ever, ever, ever. The fact that it's a story about stories and how they mutate won me from the first few chapters. I love that stuff.
Ian Cyr
10. Diatryma
Dreamwolf, I use the Leetkey addon for Firefox, and there's rot13.com-- just paste it in and click.
Pasi Kallinen
11. paxed
Dreamwolf, or you could use a rot13 bookmarklet. (Googling will show versions that work for IE too)

I remember liking the book, but strangely the story didn't stick to my mind.
James Goetsch
12. Jedikalos
Well, I found it both lovely and DEMANDING. But that is just me.
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
Here's another ROT13 bookmarklet that also lets you enter text to encrypt, not just select it on a page.

Jo, I hadn't realized you blurbed this--we have a copy of the mmpb somewhere, but the voice didn't grab me at first and I got the impression that if anything was going to overcome my reluctance to read large unfinished fantasy series, it would be that.
Ian Cyr
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
It's a very Wisconsin book: laidback very smart rural people who view taverns and universities as equally important institutions. Neal Stephenson does something similar with Iowa and wrestling in The Cobweb.
Maiane Bakroeva
15. Isilel
Well, I have to disagree. IMHO, Kvothe _is_ pretty much a Mary Sue and his povetry problems are presented in a very implausible way. He makes the most unconving "poor student" ever, since he completely eshews the time-honored traditional RL ways of dealing with his situation.
Also, his talents are of such a diversity and scope and seemingly untouched by any disuse that it is difficult to empathise with his triumphs and take his predicaments seriously.
In addition, all secondary characters except for Ben seem cardboard. Ditto locations. Now, of course that _may_ be unreliable narrator at work, but it doesn't help, IMHO.

The "current" segments do hint at some interesting things, but of course we don't come to grip with them - it is all just stoking expectations for the later volumes.

So, yea, "undemanding" is a very fitting description. I didn't hate it or anything, but it was a let-down after all the hype. Pretty run-of-the mill, IMHO.
- -
16. heresiarch
Rothfuss has one literary tick which really grates on me. It goes like this: "I, Kvothe, am the finest story teller in the world. Let me tell you about this thing I did: it was sunlight on water, a fine day in spring; the taste of new love and the smell of new-cut grass. If you haven't done it you can't understand what it was like, so I won't even try to describe it."


Anyway, it brings up an interesting paradox of writing, which is that it's very easy to write convincingly of people who are exceptionally strong, or beautiful, or magical, but very difficult to write of people who are really good at, say, story-telling. There's a certain set of talents which can't simply be evoked by narrative fiat, but have to be shown. If you aren't actually an amazing storyteller, or an insidious political manipulator, then it's very difficult to fake.* Very intelligent characters face a similar problem--it's often quite pathetic how transparent the mad supergenius's evil plot really is.

*Not to rag on Rothfuss overly much--he's actually a better storyteller than I think he gives himself credit for. If he were more confident, he wouldn't feel the need to describe to us how indescribably amazing things are.
- -
17. heresiarch
"The treatment of women is a bit odd."

It's a little annoying how so far all the women described in any detail have been exceptionally (nigh indescribably!) gorgeous--including the crazy girl who lives in the sewers. I mean, really.

Though I'm willing to forgive a lot for the scene where Xibgur whzcf sebz gur gbjre gb trg gur anzre gb grnpu uvz, hggreyl pbaivaprq gung ur jvyy pngpu uvz evtug hc gb gur frpbaq ur uvgf gur tebhaq.
Emmet O'Brien
18. EmmetAOBrien

It's a little annoying how so far all the women described in any detail have been exceptionally (nigh indescribably!) gorgeous--including the crazy girl who lives in the sewers. I mean, really.

I am minded to read that as narrator characterisation; Kvothe finding close to any woman he notices at all exceptionally gorgeous, in a similar manner to, say, Archie Goodwin.
- -
19. heresiarch
EmmetAOBrien @ 18: Hmm, that's an interesting take on it.
Ian Cyr
20. Liesel
Jo, I always love your reviews, but this is the first one that made me immediately log onto my local library's website and request the book! I can't wait to read it instead of reading for my classes :)
Ian Cyr
21. OtterB
I liked this one, but thought it was overhyped. I will read the next one, but I'll either get the next from the library or wait for the paperback. And Jo has it right; I didn't like Kvothe. My recollection is that about the third time he got himself in trouble because he was sure he knew better than everyone else, I was just annoyed. Not TSTL since he's obviously not stupid, but Too Arrogant to Tolerate. I do like his current-day persona better than I do the past, which gives me hope that I'll like the next book better than the first, as the character matures.
Marcus W
22. toryx
This is one of those books that I keep running into and thinking about before putting it back on the shelf. The first time I seriously considered it, I read the opening page and the voice kind of turned me off.

But people keep talking about it, which means I'll probably read it. Eventually. Maybe after book 2.
Rob Munnelly
23. RobMRobM
I just read it and liked it. Definitely curious to see where the story goes and what the heck is up with D because I can't figure it out.

There are some competent women in the story, notably, his mother, D, his schoolmates F and M, plus the bargaining woman on his trip to the Academy. That aspect didn't bother me at all.

I liked several of the subsidiary characters, especially Ben and K's buddies from the Academy. Story really needs to be opened up beyond K's narrow adolescent pespective so that we understand what's really going on in the broader world.

Andrew Mason
24. AnotherAndrew
I am minded to read that as narrator characterisation; Kvothe finding close to any woman he notices at all exceptionally gorgeous, in a similar manner to, say, Archie Goodwin.

I've just come across a passage that bears this out: when Kvothe says that Denna was beautiful, Bast points out that she had a crooked nose and her face was rather thin. He also says that all the women in Kvothe's story are beautiful, but he can't comment on the others because he hasn't met them.
Dylan Thurston
25. dthurston
No first person book from a male point of view can pass the Bechdel test, but I don’t think this one even has two women talk to each other with Kvothe present.

Kvothe brings Mola (a healer) to see Auri (the girl from the sewers). They do talk briefly (and not about men).

Much of the gender politics are very clearly affected by the narrator being a teenage male at a male-dominated institution for most of the book. It felt real to me from my own adolescence... The narrator draws attention to his own blindness with regard to women several times, so I also hope the later books will be more aware.

GLBT issues, on the other hand, are only mentioned in passing in the typical assumed-negative way; I found that fairly annoying.
Ian Cyr
26. Paul-Michael
First off I have to say that I "liked" it. It definately seems over-hyped to me and I'm baffled as to why so many reviewers have fawned all over it. My biggest issue is with Kvothe, super annoying character, and the fact that nothing actually happens. I don't have a problem with the Chandrian remaining in the background and I don't expect to have Kvothe just suddenly come across all the information he needs, but enough already...give us something!! The sections set in the present indicate that there is alot that has to happen and since the story is already 1/3 done I have no earthly idea how we are going to get there. I also have some issues with how Rothfuss writes, a previous comment touched upon his use of "If you've never seen it then it's your loss because I can't describe it," but equally annoying is his "I thought that settled it, but I should have known better." THAT is not foreshadowing. That is weak writing.
All in all it's a pretty good book and worth reading, but don't let the reviews get your hopes up to high.

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