The best fantasy novels do not tell stories, they build worlds. Worlds that draw you in, make you believe that the empires and elves inhabiting the pages before you are real. Dragons dwell on top of the highest peaks, avoiding the peoples living in the valleys below. There is real drama, intrigue, racial and religious tension, defined magic. Behind everything, the classic battle between good and evil. There will be twists, and the most interesting heroes possess major flaws which inform their character, but all great fantasy stories share one thing. They force you to stop seeing words on a page and start seeing the worlds in your head.
Patrick Rothfuss may be one of the greatest living fantasy writers, despite not actually having written very much. Before writing The Name of the Wind, he dabbled in poetry, and it shows in his writing now. Every word is important and beautiful. The prose is musical. His imagination does not just settle for the fantastic but explains how the fantastic came to be. In doing so, it pulls readers in even deeper by showing them a thoroughness not regularly found in fantasy. A man known for being curmudgeonly and fickle, I feel he would appreciate the story of how I discovered his work. It was not through reviews or internet chatter, but a web series.
Critical Role is a show where talented voice actors and actresses play Dungeons and Dragons. The first time I heard the name “Patrick Rothfuss” was after he appeared as a guest actor on several episodes. His character was wise, despite claiming the opposite. A retired adventurer, he appeared just as the pressure of a world’s expectations weighed on the conscious of one main character. He was fascinating. Still, I never really researched who he was. Fast forward to April 13th, 2018, and I am exploring a Barnes and Noble while waiting to see Rampage (starring the Rock) with some friends. And there, right there on the shelf, is a name I recognize: Patrick Rothfuss. I read nearly a hundred pages that day and walked into the movie carrying The Name of the Wind under my arm.
The Name of the Wind is the story of Kvothe the Bloodless. When we first meet Kvothe (pronounced like “quothe”), we have no idea who he is. The name is whispered in stories and folk legends. Some say he summoned demons, other say he fought back the forces of hell. All agree that he was larger than life, and that he has since disappeared, despite being active only a scant few years ago. The myth is steeped in an intentional mystery, as a tavern keeper named Kote keeps a low profile in a small country town. The older Kvothe, tired of his adventures and legends, seems content in this town, although strange events soon threaten to drag him back into the wider world. A threat appears in the form of the scrael; living stone appearing in the guise of large spiders. But this is not the point of the novel.
The majority of the book is spent reliving Kvothe’s past life. He tells us of his upbringing with the Edema Ruh, a traveling people similar to real world Romani. He demonstrates his genius when an arcanist, a practitioner of alchemy, joins the troupe. He learns the basics of magic, and it is a magic based on understanding the sciences. He guides us through the destruction of his world when figures thought to be myth slaughter his people. We see his life as a homeless orphan, and follow his adventures in the University, studying to become an arcanist himself. Where the older Kote appears depressed and world-weary, the younger Kvothe is exploding with confidence. He talks and performs his way out of most troubles and, even when faced with punishment, escapes with only flesh wounds. The teenager is a genius, he knows he is a genius, and never passes up the opportunity to showcase his genius. But we are seeing Kvothe through Kote’s eyes. This is a man who has failed in life, and the grandeur of his arcanist studies read more as a warning than a brag. Beware one’s hubris.
The structure of The Name of the Wind is something unique in storytelling. The novel actually takes place in Kvothe, or Kote’s, present day. The book is technically written in the third person, allowing the narrative to jump between several characters. While reading, however, it can be difficult to remember. You see, the majority of the novel is Kvothe’s autobiography. The action, such as it is, is Kvothe sitting across the table from a man named Chronicler, telling his story. For most of it’s 700 pages, we are reading massive sections of dialogue as Kvothe speaks. Because we are hearing the story directly from Kvothe, and he is essentially telling it in real time, it is not perfect. He cuts himself off, he starts over, he jumps over events he deems uninteresting. And, the entire time, there is Chronicler, listening and writing exactly what he hears, word for word.
Aside from Kvothe and Chronicler, there are a few other characters of note. Bast, a faerie and Kvothe’s apprentice, works in the tavern while trying to pull Kvothe out of his melancholy. At the University, Kvothe makes friends in Simmon and Wilem, fellow students. He forms a rivalry fueled by mutual hatred with Ambrose Jakins, a noble’s son, who resents the impoverished genius. The novel does, however, falter slightly when it comes to female characters. Denna is his love interest, a girl sought after by all men and who flows through them in order to survive. She is described as a wild thing, a hind and a storm, uncontrollable and cruel. Auri is a mysterious, mentally unbalance girl living in the catacombs of the university. Aside from these two, there are no other fully formed female characters. Part of that can be explained by the setting, which draws heavily on medieval Europe and ancient empires, where women were not treated well historically. Part of it can also be explained by Kvothe’s admitted stupidity when it comes to women.
My relationship with fantasy is one of love. Starting in the fifth grade, when I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy about half a dozen times and received detention for reading during class, no other genre has grabbed my attention more. Patrick Rothfuss is the type of writer who pulls you into his imagination and welcomes you to the world he has created. It is a world which is easy to get lost in and explore. It is a book which leaves you questioning and debating the workings of fictional currency and striving to understand the dark forces which work behind the scene. Like Patrick Rothfuss, like many of you, fantasy has inspired my imagination in ways no other books ever did. But that, as they say, is another story.
The Name of the Wind may be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 10 days (the book is 700 pages; time spent reading may vary)
Next on the List: The Body Library, by Jeff Noon (I really mean it this time)