Review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind
By Patrick Rothfuss; Read by Nick Podehl
28 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 2011
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Magicians / University /

The emperor may have clothes, but they didn’t fit me
A review by Brian Murphy

What do you want out of your fantasy? Exotic places? People different than the ones you know? High language? The clangor of battle? Wonders cold and distant and magnificent? The calling of silver trumpets? You don’t get any of this in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It feels very … pedestrian, and common. Rothfuss’ created world is very much like our own, and is altogether too much with us. Worst of all, its protagonist is annoying as hell. In my opinion.

I was fully prepared to love The Name of the Wind. I knew about the overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon, and the rave reviews from bloggers whose tastes and opinions frequently mirror my own. I was excited to see fantasy/SF luminaries like Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, and Orson Scott Card (“He’s the great new fantasy writer we’ve been waiting for,” the latter wrote) singing its praises, and was fully prepared to do the same.

But the long and short of it is this: I didn’t love this book, and for long stretches, I didn’t even like it. Which makes me a bit sad, as I too was anticipating the arrival of a new great hope to emerge (or rescue, depending on your point of view) from the current crop of fantasy writers. As it turns out, I’m still waiting.

All that said, I recognize The Name of the Wind as a pretty solid artistic endeavor. In no way would I describe it as objectively bad, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it’s just not to my tastes. So I thought I would detail in this review why I didn’t like it, and then speculate on a few of the reasons why so many others have found it appealing. Of course, since I didn’t like The Name of the Wind very much, this review will spend much more time on the former, so be prepared.

The Name of the Wind is the first in a planned trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicles. It details the life and times of a young man named Kvothe, a brilliant and talented magician doing his best to stay out of the limelight by posing as a simple innkeeper. When we meet Kvothe he’s in his early to mid 20s and is already a legend, though the events of his life have been exaggerated and mythologized. The Name of the Wind is essentially about a single day in which Kvothe sets the record straight for the loremaster Chronicler by giving the latter the full and true account of his youth and his subsequent rise to fame. We learn about Kvothe’s upbringing with a traveling group of minstrels and performers, to his days as a homeless street urchin, up through his first year at a University for wizards.

The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy length-wise (approximately 700 pages, and 23 discs in the audio version), but has nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien. It has everything to do with Harry Potter—Potter with a harder edge, yes, but Potter, unmistakably. When I read the description of the book and some of the reviews on Amazon I was expecting something closer to Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series—mythic, serious, a book with lessons to teach us about human nature and our place in the world. Instead I got a harmless, overlong soap opera.

I think we need a new name for this type of fantasy. This “positive” review (“Lovely and Undemanding” by Jo Walton or Tor.com) expresses one of my problems with the novel: its lightweight nature. Writes Walton, “It’s not very demanding—and I wonder if that’s precisely part of its wide appeal and success… I wonder if “undemanding” is something we actually seek in fantasy, if it’s part of the star quality that DAW instantly recognised in Rothfuss? … The Name of the Wind is a lovely read, but at the end there isn’t much to say about it.”

There is something to say about The Name of the Wind, of course, but the word that comes to mind is ordinary. I don’t mind applicability to the real world in my fantasy fiction, but what I don’t want is 1:1 equivalency. Aside from some sprinkled anachronisms (calling a week “a span,” or invoking the name of “Tehlu” instead of God) Rothfuss’ world is too much like our own. Half or more of the book is about Kvothe’s struggles with … student loans. Most of the problems Kvothe encounters are pedestrian: Young love, separation from his parents, completion of school projects on time, teachers who just don’t understand him. His college days also suffer from what I would call 90210 syndrome—despite the heavy workload we’re assured he’s suffering under, Kvothe seems to have endless time for hanging out with friends and sipping wine at the bar, or saving the town from marauding dragons. Which is much cooler than schoolwork, of course, but not entirely realistic. This is a problem, given that one of the conceits Rothfuss employs in The Name of The Wind is that he’s telling us a “real” story as opposed to a cliché fantasy. He uses the construction, “Now if this were a book, then X would have happened, but this is not a fantasy, and so here’s the real truth,” time and time again. But the problem is we never once feel like we’re in something other than a well planned, well coordinated, safe fantasy. Rothfuss does not have the maturity as a writer to pull off this conceit, in my opinion. Despite its claims to the contrary The Name of the Wind is a genre novel in every sense of the word. Again, that’s not a bad thing, and many readers have enjoyed it and will continue to do so. But let’s not pretend it’s anything more than another Belgariad.

This brings me to my first major problem with The Name of The Wind: I don’t like Kvothe. I don’t need to identify with the main character to enjoy a story, but I have to at least enjoy residing in their head space. I come up just short of actively despising the dude (Rothfuss does deserve praise for evoking that reaction in me, but I would bet it wasn’t his intent). The only way to explain Kvothe is that he is some avatar of the Gods. It’s utterly impossible for a boy his age to know what he knows. A precocious human child does not even come close to explaining his impossible adroitness and encyclopedic knowledge. Even after spending three years as a homeless street urchin, during which he did little but beg for coins and bread, Kvothe can rattle off every historical and anatomic question thrown at him by a brilliant panel of instructors to gain admission to the university. At one point he finds a dead man with a crossbow and knows how long the man has been dead, the type of crossbow he’s using, its cost, its usage, the fact that it’s illegal, etc. This is supposedly a medieval setting and yet what we have in Kvothe is a medieval McGyver, a walking Wikipedia page, applying scientific rigor and clear-headed rationality to every situation he encounters (another thing that irks me: The medieval tech level of Rothfuss’ world makes no sense. We have a college of brilliant teachers who have mastered anatomy and physics and every natural science known to man, yet are stuck reading rare books over candlelight and riding on horses).

One Amazon reviewer said that “Kvothe’s cockiness, arrogance, and impatience are constantly and quite believably landing him in trouble.” Except that they really don’t. Kvothe is not cocky and arrogant, save on a very superficial level. Impatient, yes. But his impatience lands him in minor scrapes from which he emerges undamaged or perhaps lightly scathed. He is, basically, perfect in every way, able to overcome every challenge with ease. For example, Kvothe takes the stage at a prestigious tavern to “earn his pipes,” a challenge which requires him to play before a tough, knowledgeable crowd to earn the distinction of master musician (yes, he’s an incredibly gifted lute player too. I didn’t mention that yet?). A jealous student sabotages Kvothe’s lute string so that it breaks at the height of his performance. But Kvothe is unflappable. It’s not even a real crisis, just a chance for Kvothe to again prove that he is that much better than we could have even thought. He finishes the most difficult song in the land with five strings and doesn’t miss a beat. Afterwards the audience weeps uncontrollably. There always seems to be a crowd around to applaud his every word. Hordes of faceless onlookers cheer his every act, applaud his every song, laugh at his every joke.

Kvothe’s only reported “fault” is his awkwardness with women and his inability to understand them, yet during one scene he compares his love Denna to a half dozen flowers with practiced, poetic ease, wooing her as no suitor before ever could. Denna returns the favor, spending paragraphs describing how Kvothe’s eyes change color when his emotions are aroused and how beautiful his red hair is. Kvothe flatters her back, telling her that only one other person has ever noticed that his eyes change color… this is bad romance novel stuff.

As for its originality? Sorry, I’m not seeing that either. The magic system seems very much cribbed from Ursula LeGuin, the conceit that knowing the true name of something grants you power over it.

So after all that grousing what is there to recommend about The Name of the Wind? At the sentence level Rothfuss is a pretty good writer. I think he’s better than Terry Brooks, and better than Stephen Donaldson. The Name of the Wind is compulsively readable, which is no mean feat. Stephen King has been labeled by a number of critics as pedestrian or lightweight, yet most of these guys can cite chapter and verse of his books and have apparently read all of them straight through. That’s because he’s so darned readable. So is Rothfuss. The story is easy to follow and carries you along to the end.

Second: Rothfuss gives you a lot of cool stuff to gawk at. Teachers engaged in a decades long war over the proper way to shelve books. A room where papers are cast to the wind and land on tiles labeled with “yes,” “no” and “maybe,” answering your questions unerringly like a medieval magic eight ball. And so on. Again, very Harry Potter-esque with its fine imaginative touches. Rothfuss also embeds lots of “Easter Eggs” and bits that prove significant later on, or lead the reader to speculate about their importance in the story. There’s lots of chatter by fans about why the evil Chandrian are so secretive, what the Underthing (mysterious passages and rooms beneath the school) are all about, and so on.

Yet a third reason: The Name of the Wind is a nice change of pace from the “GrimDark” fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin, and Richard Morgan, where everyone is a bastard and ends up raped, or dead, or both. We can cheer for Kvothe, and enjoy his scrapes, and perhaps remember what it was like to love our first girl with an unrequited love, or when we could barely scrape together six bucks on a Thursday night for a pizza.

In summary, The Name of the Wind is the product of a good writer with a lot of potential but did not deliver what I was looking for. Your mileage will vary, of course.

Posted by Brian Murphy

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11 thoughts to “Review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss”

  1. Yes, Walton is sure spending a lot of time on her re-read posts. But what they (and the numerous comments underneath) appear to be are a detailed discussion of miscellany, who said what to whom and what that might mean. Nothing wrong with that, but a bit too soap opera-y for my tastes.

  2. For what I need from a book, the readability is what makes me say, hey, that was a good book! Will I ever re-read it? Probably not. I want to live in the library though….

  3. Heaven forbid that a book be entertaining and accessible to a wide audience. Not all good books have to be weighty and serious. It’s difficult to write fun, entertaining novels — authors fail at doing this all the time.

    If you’re a hardcore reader who’s looking for something demanding or original, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. But then again, you could say the same thing about 99% of mainstream fiction.

  4. Jenny, I agree–it was certainly readable, and that is a strength. I do think Rothfuss has a lot of potential as a novelist. A lot of people love The Name of the Wind, obviously–but it wasn’t for me.

    Roddy–yes, books can be entertaining and accessible to a wide audience. Judging by its sales and reception The Name of the Wind certainly is. But that doesn’t make it above criticism.

  5. Readability is nice. And it’s okay to have an extraordinary character. They’re fun. But most heroes with amazing qualities also mess up with amazing frequency. Harry wins each book at the end, but he’s not a perfect little Mary Sue or Larry Stu.

    In the Chronicles of Siala, Shadow Harold (or Garret, his name in the original Russian) is the best thief in the world and a crack crossbow shot. But he’s not very smart or wise about some things, ignorant about others, and has a hard time with relationships like friendship or romance. And he knows that, and he hates being stupid about those things. Over the course of the novels, no matter what crazy things occur or bizarre powers manifest in him, he’s still working hard to improve those things in his toolbox. The author also works hard to make some things obvious to the reader before his protagonist figures it out — but only in those areas where he’s weak. That’s how you make it work.

    That’s very basic. Folklore and mythology are full of amazing heroes, but they are all flawed. The only perfect person we know about is Jesus — and He has fairly startling remarks and viewpoints, which provide the same kind of chiaroscuro that we’re used to getting from flaws.

  6. “But his impatience lands him in minor scrapes from which he emerges undamaged or perhaps lightly scathed. He is, basically, perfect in every way, able to overcome every challenge with ease. ”

    Yes, Kvothe is somewhat of a Mary Sue. Better than everyone at everything, yet Rothfuss finds enough challenges to keep Kvothe on his toes in spite of his remarkable talents. He makes it work. He makes it fun, adventurous, and enjoyable. The example you give about the lute playing skill is extensively portended by Kvothe’s long isolation after his caravan was attacked and destroyed, practicing over and over and over with his lute whose strings broke and requiring long effort to learn how to play with limited strings. It isn’t some talent that Kvothe just pulls denovo out of his arse.

    Overall I’ve found the series to be terrifically entertaining escapism. I’m early awaiting the final installment–which Rothfus has already written, but still has much copy editing and massaging to do, and the frame to add. And writing a super talented character isn’t easy to pull off, either. We can see Jenifer Estep blow it in her Elemental Assassin series, where her world’s greatest super assassin is supposed to be brilliant but always acts like an incompetent moron because the author just isn’t smart enough to write a smart character or the clever situations that would be hard for the character to get out of. So to for Mike Resnick and his attempt at space opera, the Starship series. And for the Bloody Jack series about an orphan girl who joins the English Navy as a boy–it holds up for a while, but then the series groans and collapses under the sheer weight of the ridiculous improbabilites piled one upon another. But not so with Rothfuss.

    The Name of the Wind: Recommended, but only for people who enjoy a fun and clever adventure and don’t take all of their reading too seriously.

  7. Wow, you said everything that I was thinking about this book. I really wanted to like it. I’d read the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere lauding this book as the best since (insert your favorite series here). I was actually excited to read it. Unfortunately it didn’t even come close to delivering.

    Yes, the writing was decent, and at times could be rather inspired. But, for the most part, it was pretty banal, mundane, and at sometimes plain out of place (interspersing poetic descriptions throughout the book that didn’t really go with Kvothe’s first person narrative). As far as the dialogue, I thought at times it was just bad and uninteresting. I don’t know how many times I rolled my eyes when Kvothe and Denna were talking to each other. Finally, there is basically no climax in this book. I guess it was supposed to be when he (spoiler alert) learns the name of the wind, but even that seemed pretty cheap and petty.

    I could (and want to) go on and on about all the things that were wrong with this book, there are so many. But, you’ve said it pretty succinctly in your review. I really wanted to like this book, and I hope it gets better because I already bought Wise Man’s Fear, but I have a feeling it’s going to be more of the same.

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