Book Review: THE NAME OF THE WIND

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.”

The more I think about the NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss, the more I like it.

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The thing that struck me first and foremost–from page one, to the end, the writing is beautiful. Rothfuss took care with his words, and it shows. The passages are lyrical, musical, and yet never long-winded. The book was as long as it needed to be–which is a feat in a 700+ page tome. Perhaps a titch slow in the first 30 pages, but past that it pulls the reader through to the end. I read nearly the whole book on a recent 5-hour road trip–my preferred experience of books, small and large. I will be reading the sequel, though I’m in no big rush since book three has yet to be published. This is a story I want to read all of. This is a story I want to read again. This is a story you should read.

Rothfuss’s dedication to world-building is excellent–particularly when it comes to economics. A lot of the middle of the book concerns Kvothe’s finances and lack thereof, and why that’s important. He could be the smartest 15-year-old in the world, but if he can’t pay his University tuition, it won’t matter. The magic system also feels very organic and has close ties to chemistry, math, and engineering–things I appreciate as a Science Person, and things that are also very believable given the tech level of his fictional world.

Others have said it first, and I do think THE NAME OF THE WIND deserves to knock knees with the other big names in epic fantasy–Tolkien, Martin, Jorden. Anyone who writes high fantasy does so in the prodigious shadow of Tolkien, and Rothfuss is no exception. He does, however, manage to evoke the voice and feel of high fantasy without being too derivative. WIND bears similarity to G.R.R. Martin in the more sparing use of magic and brushes of realism, but the content is not as dark and much less graphic–both things I appreciate. I many feelings about Robert Jorden. Few of them are nice, so I will just say that Rothfuss avoids the things I didn’t like about WHEEL OF TIME and makes his epic story compelling and readable.

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As always, there are a couple things that bugged me. First is the cast–and I know I’m going to sound like a typical internet complainer here. But it didn’t sit right that the number of named female characters can be counted on one hand, and most feel more like set-pieces than actual people. This is a problem genre fiction has had for decades, and it’s just a bit disappointing that something doesn’t *feel* like high fantasy unless it’s set in a medieval-esque world with a patriarchal structure. Part of the imbalance could be explained away by the fact that Kvothe is a kid for most of the story, and doesn’t yet have the brains to understand people–particularly women–complexly. Given the scattering of subtle pro-feminist statements throughout the second half of the book, I’m tempted to reserve judgement until I read the sequels. But still–I want fantasy where gender power struggles are just not even a thing.

Kvothe is a very interesting character. He is not my favorite person, but likability is not a requirement for ‘interesting’. In the beginning of his tale he comes off as over-powered and arrogant. He remains over-powered for much of the text, but in the magic of growing up, the world expands around him, and he starts to realize he’s not all that. As hinted by the frame story, this is a tale of a man’s fall from grace, from hero to nobody innkeeper, and to me that is one of the best kinds of stories out there. This first installment is mostly ‘rise’, but I look forward to the ‘fall.’

The more I reflect on the story, the more I wonder how much of an ‘unreliable narrator’ Kvothe is. Not only is the majority of the book in 1st person, but it is his re-telling of his life story from years later. He claims to have excellent memory, but how much are we supposed to believe? Sometimes it seems like he down-plays deeds, others he exaggerates. This complexity interweaves with the contrast between how he tells the tale and how other people remember and re-count the tales. Stories and songs are living things in this book, and in the end it is up to us how we interpret and perform them, indeed how we live them.

Long story short–I very much enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by Rothfuss. Find THE NAME OF THE WIND on Amazon, B&N, or your local bookstore!
(I also appreciate the trope-subversion that pops up now and then. The episode involving a dragon chomping trees like celery sticks comes to mind.)

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