I really thought I was a bit over epic fantasy trilogies. I mean, I haven’t consciously started one in a very long time. Partly that’s because they’re black holes sucking time and energy into them, partly it’s because I am wary of starting trilogies at all – especially when the rest haven’t been written yet and I haven’t got a sense of whether the quality holds up – and partly, I’ve realised, my tastes have been veering towards science fiction, and especially hard SF and space opera, much more consistently in the last few years. No idea why, just have.
Consequently, when a friend started raving about Patrick Rothfuss and The Name of the Wind at me, I had no idea what she was talking about. And none of the above occurred to me, either, because it wasn’t until a few weeks after she had put a copy in my hands and promised me late nights reading that I discovered the darn thing was a first book, and that the others are as-yet unpublished. I started feeling annoyed… and then realised that I had forced Holly Black’s White Cat into her hands, so we’re kinda even in that its sequels are also unpublished. But I figure I still have a bit of leeway since Name is about a quarter the size of White Cat.
Anyway. I read it. And it’s the sort of book that if someone described it baldly, I would probably roll my eyes and say that I was largely over big fat magical quests in faux medieval settings with some mysterious baddy in the offing.
It is one of the longer books I’ve read in a while, at 662. While it was sometimes a bit of a slog, the fact that it has exceptionally short chapters – there are 92, plus a prologue and epilogue – meant that it was easier to keep ploughing through. And honestly, it was worth it. I liked the conceit that it was a man telling a story to a chronicler, and that there were occasional breaks from the main story back to the scene of the storytelling; it helped keep it grounded, and it also meant that you knew Kvothe was going to get through the obstacles put in his way. It’s an interesting way of doing it, letting the reader know that the protag is definitely going to go and be amazing, because that’s why he’s telling the story in the first place. There’s none of that “ooh, surprise! The farm boy with uncommon wit is really a magician!”
Kvothe? He’s a pretty good main character. He has lots of advantages – uncommon wit, fast reflexes, an exceptional memory – but disadvantages too – his upbringing, his temper, and a whole lot of bad luck. I had rather hoped, when the story opened with an adult man, that we would be skipping all of that apprenticeship stuff. It was not to be, and I’ll allow that I was – surprisingly – riveted by his childhood and his time at the University (that’s not a spoiler; it’s obvious pretty early on that that must happen). And, as I’m sure was the intention, I am now beside myself with wonder about what happens to Kvothe when he leaves the University, how he gets the name Kingkiller, and why he’s now an innkeeper.
The other characters pale in comparison with Kvothe; they don’t get as much time, of course, and they just can’t be as interesting. Even the woman in his life – who is one of the more interesting love-interests I’ve come across in a while, I’ll admit, and I’m wild with curiosity about her background, and if we don’t find out more about her I’ll do a Misery on Rothfuss – didn’t keep me as interested as Kvothe. They’re not boring, though, and many of them are nicely quirky; one of my favourites is Auri, a wild girl Kvothe befriends. And of course Abenthy, his first teacher, is awesome.
The worldbuilding is quite detailed; not that original, in some aspects, but nicely realised and crafted. I really liked the notion of going to University to study what others perceive as magic (and not in a Pratchett-style University, either); and I liked the sense of historical depth Rothfuss implies, too, without going into long, drawn-out, pompous epics told over the campfire or dug out as a revelation from a dusty tome.
And the plot? Again, on the face of it not overwhelmingly original. A young boy with a tragic past seeks to make his way in the world; a poor young man struggles in a world driven by money; a boy experiences a mystery as a child and strives to understand it as he grows up. Oh, and there’s a girl. But saying it like that does not, of course, do it justice. While the story might in places follow a well-worn path, there’s a reason for that: that path leads to fascinating places. And, to continue the metaphor, the scenery on this particular version of the path is marvellous and well worth making the journey. Even most of the bit-characters are interesting in their own rights, and the writing is delightful enough to lure the reader on.
I enjoyed this book way more than I had anticipated.