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.


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