Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

"It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

"The first part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been horses stabled in the barn they would have stamped and champed and broken it to pieces. if there had been a crowd of guests, even a handful of guests bedded down for the night, their restless breathing and mingled snores would have gently thawed the silence like a warm spring wind. If there had been music... but no, of course there was no music. In fact, if there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

"Inside the Waystone a man huddled in his deep, sweet-smelling bed. Motionless, waiting for sleep, he laid wide-eyed in the dark. In doing this he added a small, frightened silence to the larger, hollow one. They made an alloy of sorts, a harmony.

"The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the thick stone walls of the empty taproom and in the flat, grey metal of the sword that hung behind the bar. It was in the dim candlelight that filled an upstairs room with dancing shadows. It was in the mad pattern of crumpled memoir that lay fallen and unforgotten atop the desk. And it was in the hands of the man who sat there, pointedly ignoring the pages he had written and discarded long ago." --Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

I'd like to begin this review by stating that I hate Harry Potter. I don't mean the books, or the movies (though the existence of each makes the other a little redundant), or the multimillion dollar franchise. I quite like the concept of Hoggwarts (though "school of wizards" is hardly a new concept in fantasy lit), and Ron and Hermine are quiet nice. And I'll always be a Luna/Neville shipper, authorial statements be damned.

No, what I hate is Harry Potter, the character. I hate his insufferable, unshakable smugness. I hate the way Dumbledore, particularly, fawned over his quote unquote genius. I hate the way the entire fictional universe seemed to bend over backward to reinforce his importance. I know this reinforcement is largely there to enable the reader to project themselves onto Harry, but mostly, what it mainly did was make me root for Snape.

The reason for this digression will become clear later.

The Name of the Wind is the first book in The Kingiller Chronicle (not the best of names) and the debut novel of Patrick Rothfuss. The plot starts off simply: a man known as the Chronicler tracks down the innkeeper of a small, isolated hamlet. It turns out that the innkeeper is actually Kvothe, a man of near legendary exploits. After some posturing, he agrees to tell the Chronicler his life story, over a three day period. Each book, then, is supposed to represent one day's worth of story telling. This first book covers a lot of ground: Kvothe's early childhood in a traveling circus, a brief period as a city beggar, and, for the most part, his teenage years as a member of university. The framing device is in third person, but most of the book proper is Kvothe telling his story, so it's told in a first person format. I've seen first person/third person switches in fantasy novels before (L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s The Magic of Recluce comes to mind), but it flows much more organically in this context.

The single main character fantasy story is a bit of an odd beast. In a lot of ways, the genre works better with an ensemble cast, ala Lord of the Rings; even the Harry Potter series places a lot of emphasis on the Rest of the Group. The single hero format places a lot of weight on a main character, and the author has to walk a pretty thin line. If the hero is too down-to-earth or non-heroic, then the reader has trouble accepting them as a the savior of a fantasy world; Stephen R. Donaldson walks this line a lot, and Peter David's Sir Atropos of Nothing explores a similar area. The other route to go is to make your hero some sort of super being, performing one amazing feat after another. The risk with this path is that the author has to not only continually one-up the last amazing feat, but keep the reader interested in the action of this uber-man. Two relevant examples here are the aforementioned Harry Potter (who also tries to play the "ordinary" card, with mixed success) and Geralt of Rivia in the Witcher series. Rothfuss is mostly trying this second tact, starting his character off in a sort of Potter mode of "amazing youth," but, as we see through the framing device, Kvothe will be becoming the Witcher soon enough.

I enjoyed the book, to the point where my complaints feel petty, but that doesn't make them any less valid. First, as you might guess from above, Kvothe's heroic balance isn't always in place. Usually, his valiant actions are appropriately valiant, but sometimes they're so idealized as to be eye-rolling. And the opposite problem is at work too--if you construct a hero that's supposed to be superhuman, then explaining away their stupider actions becomes a little harder. Rothfuss can blame most of Kvothe's errors on youth and tragic circumstances, but some of them get a little wearing. And with all the focus on Kvothe, that means that the other characters are given a bit of a short thrift--but many still shine through, from the mentally scarred magic teacher to Kvothe's own parents to his first tutor in the academic arts.

Speaking of unrealistic narrative actions, though, here's a complaint I never thought I'd be making in a post-Game-of-Thrones fantasy genre: there's not enough sex. Not enough, at least, for the way the character is set up. The book has at least four attractive potential love interests: the beautiful scholar whose life he saves, the scatterbrained wild girl, the sultry older woman who was thrown out of school in disgrace, and the shady girl who will, as we know from the narrative frames, be the love of his life. Because of his masterful ways, at least three of these are clearly interested in him, and he is an extremely handsome, late teens male growing up in a fantasy world, a genre where the age standard for these things is somewhat lowered. And yet the story tells us nothing happened. Either we're supposed to see an untrustworthy narrator (and there's not a lot of evidence to support that), or we're supposed to buy his excuse that he was "inexperienced with women." As a former teenage male myself, I can tell you that for your average teenage male, if a plurality of attractive girls were throwing themselves at you, it wouldn't matter how inexperienced you were--you would learn. You would make a point of the learning.

Ahem. My final problem with the book is the same as can be levied against my review posts--too damn long. There seems to be an issue with fantasy novels, especially recently, where length is equated to quality. If the stories were of the same quality as their shorter brethren, then it would be a simple matter of improved value. But in many cases, they're not. It's why you get things like the 16th book of the Wheel of Time series: forced to add such size to the proceedings, what the authors produce is really a lot of padding. Great swathes, in my humble opinion, could have been exorcised from the latest book in the aforementioned Song of Ice and Fire series. And at over 700 pages, some of The Name of the Wind could have been lost without me shedding a tear. I mean, it's 50 pages into the book before we're even finished setting up the framing device.

And yet. This isn't a book like Infinite Jest where every page must be pored over, the mood constructed laboriously sentence by sentence. While The Name of the Wind aims for, as the quotation above suggests, a literary quality higher than your average fantasy novel (and generally hits it), it is, for the most part, a quick read. There's a lot of dialogue, which flows pretty quickly, and a lot of action, which keeps moving as well. Despite all my complaints, I read it cover to cover in four days. That speaks to a pretty compelling read. So, while the hero balance issue may become greater in future volumes, in here, everything works out pretty well. If you're a fan of the genre (and you're either a quick reader or have a lot of time), it repays you nicely for your effort.

Later Days.

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