Mar 7 2011 1:00pm

Best SFF Novels of the Decade: An Appreciation of The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussI have a story I like to tell about my first encounter with Patrick Rothfuss and The Name of the Wind. Pat knows which story this is, and he’s probably even now putting his hand to his forehead and thinking, “Oh God, not this story again,” but for the rest of you it might be new, so here goes.

In 2007 I was on tour for my novel The Last Colony, and at the Minneapolis stop, the folks at Uncle Hugos, where I was doing my signing, told me a new author had left behind a signed book for me. Then they proceeded to use a crane to drag out this monster of a book called The Name of the Wind. It was huge, we’re talking elk-stunning huge, and since I had everything for a three-week tour in a single carry on (if you give airlines dozens of chances to lose your luggage, they will), I had no place to pack the thing. I had to carry the thing around.

And, well, I thought. If I have to carry the damn thing, I might as well read it. So I started reading, and there, on page four—of a book that started on page three, mind you, were five bowls of stew.

Oh, crap, I thought. Not a “hearty stew” fantasy! Stew being the most cliche of all fantasy world meals, as duly noted in Diana Wynne Jones’s entirely merciless tour of fantasy cliches, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (“you may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out.”) Honestly, if on the second page of the story you’re already trotting out the stew, what possible hope does the rest of the book have?

I’m going to be honest and note that as a reader I’m harder on fantasy than I am on science fiction; it’s easier for me to forgive sloppy world building in latter than the former. There’s no logical reason for it; it’s just where my biases lie.

So I almost stopped reading Wind right there. But then I realized that if I stopped reading it, I’d still have to lug its elephantine bulk around. I couldn’t just ditch the thing. That Rothfuss character signed it to me. It was like giving me a puppy. So, fine, I thought, I’ll give this thing one more chance....

And the next time I look up I’m two tour stops down the line.

I want to stress how remarkable this was. After the “stew incident” I was actively looking for the Potempkin moment in his world building when I could declare the game over and give up. I didn’t find it. After a while I stopped looking for it. And after that I had begun started being sad that I was coming to the end of the book and then there would be no more book to read, just when I was totally into it.

Stupid Patrick Rothfuss. He could have given just one more obvious cliche and I wouldn’t have had to get sucked in. But he didn’t, the rotten bastard.

(Well, except for his hero Kvothe being one of those red-haired hyper-competent types. But speaking as one of those poor schmucks who got branded as a “New Heinlein”: In fantasy and science fiction, you just have to live with red-haired hyper-competents.)

I do take comfort in the fact I’m not the only one who got so completely sucked into Pat’s world. The Name of The Wind has become arguably the greatest success story in fantasy fiction in the last five years. Why? Well, because great story, great characters, and great writing craft really do still matter, enough so that some of Pat’s readers have become surly that the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, took four more years to get published. I sympathize, but I’ll tell you what: I wouldn’t want Kvothe’s adventures quicker and sloppier. I fell hard for Pat’s world, and building a world like that isn’t something you just bang out. It’s worth the wait.

I will say this, however. When Pat’s publisher sent me an ARC of The Wise Man’s Fear, the first thing I did (that is, after taking a picture of it and putting it online so I could taunt everyone who didn’t have one yet, bwa ha ha ha hah ha!) was to crack it open at random and see what was happening on that page.

And what was happening on that page? Someone was passing out bowls of stew. I swear to God.

Sorry, Pat. I’m not falling for your stew trick a second time. I'm just going to keep reading. That'll show you.

John Scalzi’s first published novel Old Man’s War was a finalist for the Hugo Award, took first place in the Best of the Decade Reader's Poll, and won him 2006’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; since then, he has published five more novels. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, a collection of essays from his popular weblog The Whatever, won the Hugo for Best Related Work in 2009. He is currently serving as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Brian Vrolyk
1. vyskol
Given this recommendation, and Brandon Sanderson's, I'm very excited to add this to my "to-read" list.
Heidi Byrd
2. sweetlilflower
Yeah, I picked up this book because Brandon Sanderson said it was really good. I am very glad that I did. This book rocks!
3. cmpalmer
I'm not that that critical of a reader, but I also seem to judge fantasy books by a higher standard. It's weird, but I wouldn't claim that I'm a fan of fantasy books, yet I think a majority of my favorite books and fantasy and most of my favorite authors have written fantasy.

I loved The Name of the Wind so much that I was fearful of re-reading it because I was worried that it wouldn't actually be as good as I remembered, but as the release date for The Wise Man's Fear drew closer, I re-read it. I think it was better the second time.

I'm 3/4 of the way through The Wise Man's Fear. I have a tendency to speed through books that I'm enjoying. I'm enjoying the hell out of this one, but it's actually so good that I'm pacing myself so it won't be over as quickly.

I won't spoil anything, but The Wise Man's Fear introduces at least two major fantasy tropes and both of them, like Scalzi's stew, had me thinking, "Oh no, not !" But the impact and execution of both of them, at least so far, have blown me away. I thought the first half of Fear was as good as Name of the Wind. From where I am now in it, it's even better.
Ty Margheim
4. alSeen
Just want to say that I love Uncle Hugo's. There is something about being surrounded by that much scifi/fantasy that is incredibly awesome.

Plus Lois McMaster Bujold will stop in at times and sign the copies of her books that are there.
6. Webcudgel
I started this book a few days ago and am already entrenched. My co-worker, Evan, is reading The Wise Man's Fear even as I type this during my lunch break.
Evan Langlinais
7. Skwid
Yes, I was reading it during my lunch break, and it is (thus far) magnificent.

Also this post really made me crave stew. True story!
8. Lindsay Ribar
Crap. Now I want stew.
9. Fenric25
Glad to see Rothfuss made it high up on the poll, as I very much love the Name of the Wind, stew and all (and what's wrong with stew? It's good and hearty and delicious-well, most of the time. Just like the book, actually, except maybe for the delicious part-I'm not a literal bibliovore)

I still have to read Wise Man's Fear, but that can be remedied next payday, if the bill collectors are kind. Also plan on reading some of Mr. Scalzi's works there eventually-enough praises from other people have made me very curious insofar as his works are concerned. Of course, I have to start reading Jo Walton's book that I picked up from the library first...

Curse you,! You've introduced me to so many great authors and great books and I have such little time to read it all in...Grr, grumble...
10. BettyJean
Working full time, eating, and sleeping have gotten in the way of my reading. Bravo, Mr. Rothfuss. Bravo.
11. Kvon
Huh, I had some stew today. And I'm reading WMF. Coincidence? And it is a remarkably good story.
12. GKelly
Loved Name of the Wind and like @cmpalmer, found it was as good (if not better) rereading it recently to prepare for release of Wise Man's Fear.

I went to a signing with Patrick Rothfuss this past weekend and in person he was just awesome...funny, engaging, pashionate. Best author event I have been to yet and I have been to quite a few (though not a Scalzie signing...yet).
13. DontDriveAngry
I liked this book more than I disliked it, and I'm sure I will eventually read the follow-up books at some point, but I was put-off for a good part of it, mostly due to the eye-roll inducing hypercompetency of the protagonist that John mentioned.

Again, I did like it, but it never amounted to much more than "Jimmy The Hand goes to Hogwarts" for me... But after reading this review, I think the next book I buy might well be
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
14. Williamao5
I'm still kind of flummoxed by the focus on the hyper-competency of Kvothe. Yeah, he's really really good at everything, yet he spends the entirely of Name of the Wind in wrenching, teeth-grinding, stomach-sucking POVERTY! He doesn't have a goblin vault full of gold, he doesn't get a free ride to school and graduates to live in an upper west side apartment with his chums, and he doesn't have some noble adobt him as his heir.

He is pretty much the best there is at everything and he is only able just barely feed himself or just barely stay in the University, and this is a treatment of poverty and economic division I've yet to come across elsewhere in fantasy literature.
15. trench
I have to come down in favor of Stew here. Its a wondeful meal, it comes in a bowl, great for stormy nights, and it easy to clean up afterwards.

As or the Name of the Wind, its a great book to read while eating Stew.
16. xi'an101
Truly the best fantasy novel of the decade in my opinion! Contrary to some blockbusters that get stuck because the authors cannot reunite the multiple threads they have created, Patrick Rothfuss spend the years between his volume spinning and re-spinning his style until he reaches the ultimate seamless-ness!! A major writer as well as a genuine story-teller, stew or not!
17. cmpalmer
I kinda like the idea that Kvothe is extraordinarily competent at everything mental and physical that he attempts, and that he is a master of manipulating his image through story, yet he manages to consistently make bad decisions and miss opportunities, particularly when dealing with personal issues.

Of course, there is the old saying: "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"
18. cmpalmer
@xi'an101, what impresses me is that its not just the plot threads, but the range of foreshadowing from the stories, songs, tales, and lessons in the book, some of which are extremely subtle. It's not the standard "You are the one legend has said will reclaim the Sword of Goodness and conquer evil." Instead, we have a casual mention of a flower in a story that turns out to have ominous overtones 1000 pages later, or a silly fairy tale about a boy who falls in love with the moon that is much more than it appears to be.

And above all of that, the framing story adds another "meta" level to the storytelling, so we're reading Rothfuss telling the story of Kvothe, who is telling his own story (and shaping it as it goes because he is a trained storyteller), who in turn tells many other stories and legends going back thousands of years.
19. Stefan Jones
I also like stew, and The Name of the Wind.

I actually listened to the well-produced audio book the first time. A faulty mp3-i-zation on my point made me think I had a dozen chapters more than there were, so when the story ended I was horribly, horribly bummed.

Went to a reading/signing last week. The line for autographs was enormous, so I ducked out after Rothfus' somewhat random but very entertaining Q&A/reading. Picked up two copies of the NOTW paperback, and a pre-signed copy of WMF. reading the first book now.

RE stew, I once made a Greek stew called "stifado," which was very tasty, but the name bothers me. It sounds like a medieval torture implement, or a service performed by an Athens sex worker.
Hugh Staples
20. hugh57
What kind of reader even notices what the characters are eating enough to know that it's cliche? And what do you expect them to serve in an ordinary tavern? Lobster Thermidor? Beef Wellington?

Keep the stew coming, Patrick. I like it just fine. :-)
Peter Ahlstrom
21. PeterAhlstrom
I think this is a fine place to point out that Wise Man's Fear has a dead donkey in it. Not a mule, alas, but Pat is from Wisconsin.
22. RobinM
I guess I'll have to add this to my too read list after I finish a Discovery of Witches. In honor of St. Patrick's Day I happen to be making beef stew and soda bread. Name of the Wind we'll give me something to read as a curl up under my quilt and listen to the rain outside.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
23. tnh
Hugh57, a lot of readers notice food values. At least one paper has been written entirely on the subject of stew in fantasy. Stew also comes up a lot in Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

I myself feel that quasi-medieval fantasy is seriously deficient in quick tavern meals of bread of some kind, cheese of some kind, bits of some appetizing thing that's dried or smoked or pickled, a mug of whatever the locals drink, and an onion if one is to be had.
24. Ian P. Johnson
Yep, I have to say, this is one book that I enjoyed more reading the second time than the first time. There were all these little gaps and holes in my memory that I had forgotten had happened. Sometimes when I reread a book, the shine's kind of gone off it, but I enjoyed reading Name of the Wind more the second time… just spotting those little bits and pieces that I'd missed. My favorite books are like that… I remember rereading Shogun and being able to get the little details that I'd missed. And rereading Name of the Wind gave me that same pleasure. Plus the fact that Rothfuss spent years working on an epic fantasy trilogy, thanklessly and with little hope of getting published, then finally getting his work in print and blowing everyone's minds… well, it gives you hope, doesn't it?

Now I want to reread Book 1. Grrr… I knew I shouldn't have lent my only copy to my uncle who I only see about once a year…
pat purdy
25. night owl
Once again I would like to thank an elderly, nameless clerk in a book store for first recommending the Complete Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny, the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks, and last but not least, If you like those books, you will definently love the Name of the Wind. And like they say, " the rest was history! I now have book 2, will wait to reread Book 1.

Don't knock stew, easiest stuff to make , and all through history, one pot mixes were what the folks existed on. For the rest of the fantasy folk , hard bread & cheese plus the onion eated like an apple (yuck).
27. SitkaSpruce
Oh, this book is wonderous on so many levels, and it more than delivers on the promise of Name of the Wind. The prose, the world-building, the everything from Elodin's tit comment to the scary Cthaeh to Bast and more. Gah I'm having a fangasm! So many little bitty things in this series turns out to be big chunks of clue cake - Arliden's little ditty about his wife, the river stone, god I could on and on. Full of win.
28. micren
I enjoy his "hyper-competency" from a few angles.

First, he's the one telling the story, and he admits several times that he's not above making himself look good, so it's slightly humorous overall.

Second, he's only hyper-competent at *some things* - he sucks at math, it takes him half the book to figure out that Elodin isn't just messing with him, he shoots himself in the foot a number of times by not being able to control his temper or play down his intelligence, and he gets stuck in crappy situations in spite of his abilities. He's violent, obsessive, has problems with authority, takes unneccessary risks for silly reasons, can't see that the girl he's got a crush on is a drama queen/**** tease of epic proportions... in other words, he's like a real person with a high opinion of himself who happens to be a talented musician and scientist/wizard, not a super innocent genius who always makes the right choices because, well, how could you ever even *think* of doing anything else??

Finally, the point of the story is that the guy's a badass, a legend in his own time. There's a reason he's famous, and it makes the mystery of his current state as an inkeeper who apparently can't do any of the things he claims he can (but still has a mysterious fae sidekick) all the more interesting.
Evan Langlinais
29. Skwid
Last night I started two crock-pots of stew, one beef and one veggie.

Tonight, we dine like, no, commoners. Tonight we dine like commoners!
30. Jonathan Stein
Lemme see now...I think the last fantasy series I read was
Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule, etc. Funny, but I don't remember a single bowl of stew in it.(At least the first book. Been a lot of years since I read it.)
31. muppetlove
oh NO. I was looking up books by Rothfuss to see if I wanted to read Name of the Wind, and I saw his Joss Whedon shirt on his profile picture over on fanasticfiction!

Now I HAVE to read it. I'm a fan of anyone who will wear a Whedon shirt!!
32. A fairy godmother
What a fun review! I loved both Patrick Rothfuss books! I want him to write lots of them. It will take a lot to tell the story of that world. Don't let stew distract you, John, it is one of the easiest and most satisfying meals one can make with minamal ingredients. You don't even need to be a good cook.
33. andielc
to be fair, there is also homemade apple pie...
34. Badies
Stew? Is this what it has come to? I for one think stew is extremely yummy. Anyway..... I loved this book and love it even more than stew.... I'm gonna go make some......
37. Reiko
@30 There was definitely stew in Wizard's First Rule. Kahlan makes it near the beginning for Richard and Zedd, at Zedd's house. Probably more memorable, though, is Richard's spice soup.

Hmm. Now I want to reread both WFR and NOTW.

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