The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
February 11, 2017 by Leslie Anderson
Despite being a relatively new book, I might be one of the last fantasy nerds to read The Name of the Wind. I’ve heard plenty of hype, but also enough grousing that I went into the book with roughly no expectations.
Which was an asset. I suspect those who rated it poorly got sucked into the hype and were disappointed when they didn’t feel like the book lived up to those expectations.
Either way, I’m glad I read it. There was a lot to like, but it’s exactly because I liked it that I feel a certain amount of disappointment that it didn’t quite live up to the promises it made.
The first promise broken was the point of view. For the first seven chapters, the POV wandered between a sort of omniscient narrator and a closer third-person. This flexibility with the POV, the sort of thing I’m normally a stickler for, worked. It allowed the author to hint at things going on behind the scenes without revealing his hand. The story itself had a slow steadiness to it; it wasn’t in a hurry. As the opening to a 700 page epic fantasy, everything felt like it fit, and like I had some idea of where the book was headed.
I was wrong.
The shifting third-person POV was replaced with the main character, Kvothe, retelling the story of his life.
Instantly, albeit unintentionally, I took a three-month break from the book. It’s not that I hated the change so much as that it wasn’t the book I had planned to read. It’s like being excited for Mexican and then being served Thai. I love Thai, but I was looking forward to guacamole.
When I re-opened the book, I was met by a bombastic and braggadocios account of all the cool things Kvothe has done. It was the sort of monologue that would make me hate a person in real life, but promised interesting adventures of stealing from gods and courting princesses and other fantastical things. To properly set up those accomplishments, though, Kvothe decided he needed to start at the beginning: his childhood.
At this point, I felt like I’d taken two steps back. Initially, I was expecting a steady build up of awesomeness. Then I was expecting to jump right into the insanity. Instead, I was following a boy through his life as a travelling performer. He was altogether too clever, and beyond precocious, but somehow it still worked for me. Kvothe knew he was clever, but aside from wanting to impress the occasional adult, never put on airs or viewed himself as greater-than. It worked. I was invested in his relationships and personal goals, even knowing his world would certainly fall apart, and soon. The narrative made that much clear.
When it did, I thought for sure it had turned into a revenge story. I waited for Kvothe to gather first his emotions, then his wits, then everything he’d need to exact his revenge, and then set out to undo the wrongs of the past.
Again, I was wrong. Hundreds of pages passed, and that coal of revenge felt like it was cooling. I was okay with this. I had grown invested in his goals, his relationships, his personal struggles. A few secondary (and slightly insane) characters were especially delightful, and though Kvothe remained far too clever, his poverty helped keep him grounded in such a way that when he did puff up over his own intelligence, it felt like a defense mechanism, not big-headedness. You could almost forgive him for it; his intelligence was one of the few things he had. It made sense he would wield it occasionally like a weapon.
It helped that most of this pompousness was against Ambrose, an utterly contemptible character. That Ambrose existed at all, though, felt like it did the book a disservice. One could easily edit him out completely, and the story would stay the same. What’s more, I found that this character lurking nearby almost ruined good moments in the book. For example, at some point, Kvothe comes into a good deal of money. As he’s spent most of his life destitute, this is a huge opportunity for him. I was instantly nervous about what the obnoxiously villainous Ambrose would do to somehow ruin this for Kvothe. He never did, but what was a happy moment in the book was overshadowed by an unpleasant sort of tension that I’m not sure the author even intended.
By this point, revenge had become very much back-burner. I was comfortable and interested in watching him live his normal life—even if it looked nothing like his initial promise of stealing from gods and courting princesses—and I was excited to see him succeed.
But then revenge came back on the table, and everything Kvothe worked for came second.
About once a day since I say to myself “Leslie, why didn’t you finish reading The Name of the Wind? It was good! I want to know how it ends!”
And then I remember that I did, in fact, finish it—it just didn’t feel like an ending. The first-person retelling of Kvothe’s life ends rather abruptly. Back in the third-person cum omniscient point of view, things get weird in a seemingly plot-heavy way, but that weirdness doesn’t appear to have any direct link to the story Kvothe was telling. There was no discernible arc, and no feeling of closure. It could have ended a few chapters earlier or later, and I’d have felt the same.
This is all the more frustrating to me because of the large passages in the book that feel superfluous. Removing Ambrose would free up valuable pages. The section dedicated to Kvothe’s trials and tribulations lingered far longer than necessary to make you understand his plight—while not actively advancing or impacting the plot. In short, I feel like there was room to give the story an arc, or at least a satisfying enough ending that I’d remember that I had finished reading the book.
While it sounds like I’m tearing The Name of the Wind apart, that’s not my intent. I’m well past the days of finishing a book for completionist sake. I only finish a book if I enjoy it. And I did!
It’s hard to put into words what specifically I liked about The Name of the Wind, though. I could mention that I really liked the magic system, and the effortless way secondary characters wove through the story, and that I can still conjure vivid images of scenes from the book, but I think what I most enjoyed was that the book was simply interesting and pleasant to read. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but I’d argue that it’s much easier to come up with a compelling plot than it is to write long stretches that are pleasant and interesting even when the plot feels like an after-thought.
I’ll be curious to see how he handles book two—both because I think Rothfuss has talent and potential to write a jaw-dropping book, and because I want to stop my brain from constantly asking me why I never finished reading The Name of the Wind.