I read The Name of the Wind a while ago, and had a bit of a rant then about how I was over big fat fantasy trilogies, for all sorts of very sensible reasons. And then I spent several hundred words frothing at the mouth about why that book was an exception to the rule that basically made me go weak at the knees (clearly Tansy’s Creature Court trilogy is also an exception, but at least in that case I know that a) the third is already written, and if it wasn’t… well, b) I know where she lives). I’ve had The Wise Man’s Fear sitting on my shelf for a good few months. I’ve half-reached for it a number of times, but each time my hand hesitated and fell on something else. Know what that other book usually had going for it? It didn’t weigh a kilo. Gentle reader, this book is nearly 1000 pages long, and it’s only one third of the story. The entirety of The Lord of the Rings (discounting the appendices no one reads (NB I mean including the one about Aragon and Arwen because you have to read those, but excluding the others)) is only just over 1000 pages long and people complain all the time about it being unwieldy! (Not me, but you get my drift.) So it is no wonder that the thought of picking up this tome was somewhat daunting. And then… then I was given a Saturday with no one in the house, rain outside the house, and a hankering to know what mischief Kvothe could get up to now. So I read for the entirety of Saturday (with a break for Doctor Who. And occasional food). And today, Monday, I have finished it off. The problem now is that the third book has not been written. I may actually go mad. (No, not literally.) (Oh boy. Oh no. I just realised that the book doesn’t actually say that this is a trilogy. What if Rothfuss pulls a Jordan?!?!) (The Goodreads blurb does call it a trilogy. My hair may be saved.)
I realised while reading that one of the reasons why this series feels so attractive is because it genuinely feels like a memoir. Partly, of course, that’s because of how it is written – as readers we are asked to identify almost as much with Chronicler, I think, sitting there listening to Kvothe, as we are with Kvothe himself. But it’s also because we get the nitty-gritty of Kvothe’s life, and the sheer size of the books contributes to it looking and feeling like a multi-volume biography. This vibe definitely works for me, overall. That said, for all the luscious and lavish detail spent on most of Kvothe’s adventures, there are a couple of incidents that are surprisingly and uncomfortably lacking in detail. It feels out of character for Kvothe and Rothfuss both, and threw me out of the reading experience. On the flipside, there is one incident in particular that is dwelt on in overwhelming and unnecessary detail, to the point of exasperation. I won’t discuss what it involved, since that would be quite a spoiler, but I do think the encounter could have been given half the words and still have been shown to be appropriately significant. It’s one of the few times that I found myself growing impatient.
We pick up the narrative with Kvothe beginning the second day of his recitation for the Chronicler. He continues to discuss his life as a student at University, with most of the same problems that he left off the first day still to tackle: what to do about Ambrose and Denna, how to get money, and how to have all his questions answered. About a third of the book is set at the University again, and it’s a tribute to Rothfuss that I didn’t find this section repetitious. Instead Kvothe genuinely progressed, with his teachers and his friends and his studies, as he ought. Eventually, other adventures beckon, and the reader is introduced to more of this world that Rothfuss has created as Kvothe travels about. I particularly liked that Kvothe visits a culture that is very, very different from his own, in the Adem. Rothfuss introduces fascinating small differences that together make a world of alienation – one of them being that women are most definitely viewed as equal to men. This is not to say that Kvothe’s regular culture is incredibly biased, but seeing the Adem made me re-evaluate “the Commonwealth” – and not in a good way. Pointing out the flaws in his main culture is a brave thing for Rothfuss to do – not that he ever claimed that it was perfect. Additionally, the Adem have a very different way of thinking about life, and these attitudes certainly made me think both about the book-world and our own; that the Adem view everyone else as barbaric certainly gives pause for thought. (It’s also interesting to reflect on the fact that Rothfuss does all of this without making them the urbane intellectual effetes that Eddings did with the Malloreans. They feel like an amalgam of Rome and Sparta, with other bits thrown in for good measure.)
Once again, along with enjoying the adventures of young Kvothe, I was really pleased by the scenes with contemporary Kvothe, or Kote. The insights provided, of his relationship with Bast on the one hand and the general bitterness and resignation he feels on the other, are a large part of what is driving me to so desperately want to find out what happens in this story. The fact that it is a memoir makes it all the agonising. I already know about his magic and his ability to get into trouble everywhere; I need to know how he comes by all of those other experiences and skills that made him the legend he so clearly is, when he is recounting the story. We start to get an understanding of Kvothe’s legend towards the end of this instalment; the nerve and subtlety at play, and the insinuations Rothfuss makes, are frankly marvellous. (Also, I really really need to know about Denna (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that that is in no way resolved in this book).)
So now I have to wait for the third to be written. I am unimpressed.
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.