Years ago I heard a man on the radio describe his experience at Stonehenge. His words went something like this, “It was like…epic, man. So totally epic.” His voice held the same syrupy, lazy tone as the stereotypical surfer in SoCal, and I have never been able to forget it. I find it amusing, particularly his utter reliance upon a single word to encapsulate such a life-changing encounter. Epic.
For me, ‘epic’ is a word saved for the true saga. A story, an event so monumental and long that other words fail to communicate its vastness. The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale. The Odyssey, too. I consider The Pillars of the Earth and Gone with the Wind epics. And now, The Name of the Wind joins them.
I am a little late to join the Patrick Rothfuss bandwagon. His debut novel, The Name of the Wind, hit bookstores three years ago. Despite my tardiness, I am now onboard and endorse this gripping fantasy epic.
Wait…fantasy? As in scaly dragons, wizened warlocks, and an overabundance of vowel-ridden names? Not exactly. Yes, Rothfuss creates an entirely new world. And yes, his tale is one of epic fantasy. He even errs on the side of too many vowels within his fictitious languages. Yet he grounds his story within characters—most powerfully in its protagonist and narrator—and solid mythology. Here is a world not touched by our own reality, but it is a reality nonetheless, just as colorfully depicted and honestly rendered as any contemporary fiction.
The Name of the Wind opens with Kvothe, a deeply quiet and unassuming innkeeper. At least, that is what his fellow townspeople think. As readers we are only given scraps of insight into Kvothe’s true identity. His past is a thing he wants to keep buried, and he succeeds at this until a scribe stumbles into his town. The “Chronicler” knows of Kvothe and has come in search of him in order to preserve the true version of history—from ‘Kvothe the Kingkiller’ himself.
We travel with Kvothe from his early childhood years in a performing troupe to his miserable, orphaned life in squalid Tarbean (strangely reminiscent to Victorian England), to his early admittance to University where students study alchemy, science, and sympathy (a.k.a. magic). We meet his few friends, his enemies, his benefactors, and his one love. Sprinkled throughout his narrative, Rothfuss inserts interludes, where we return to the adult Kvothe and Chronicler (and also Bast, Kvothe’s friend and pupil). These interludes notch up the intrigue as it become apparent that Kvothe’s past is relentlessly hounding him, despite his best efforts to remain hidden.
Rothfuss can be needlessly wordy at times. Enthralling plot notwithstanding, Kvothe’s voice sometimes turns tiresome. You can only read, “I don’t expect you can understand” and “There is no possible way to describe” so many times before finding him a bit pretentious and uncreative. Readers might get annoyed at Kvothe’s lack of perception and his incessant pride. (I sure did.) He is headstrong, impatient, and reckless. Yet I forced myself to remember that Kvothe—at this juncture in the story—is an adolescent. Moreover, he is a character with deep flaws, and that is something I appreciate. The Name of the Wind is not a story about a gleaming, pure-hearted boy who becomes a much-respected warrior. Kvothe’s story is read with trepidation because his recklessness, while it affords him adventure and opportunity, also backfires. Frequently.
As with most epics, it is difficult to describe The Name of the Wind without compromising the story. The best praise I can offer is that I consumed the 730-page novel in less than a week. Once I opened its pages, I submerged into another world. And it is truly a wonderful universe with mysterious beginnings, fascinating mythology, dark undertones, and motley characters. It provides the same thrill—the same rush—as navigating a foreign country for the first time. You have no knowledge of the landscape; you are entirely reliant upon the narrator. You do not know what creature or legend or character or culture might turn the corner next. The thrill lies within that unknown. Curiosity fuels the reader. Even though Rothfuss’s world is make-believe, I still want to learn about it as much as I can. It is illuminating how many parallels to the ‘real world’ can be made within fantasy—when the distractions of reality are wholly and completely dismantled.
Be forewarned: cliffhanger does not even begin to describe this book’s ending. At first I was confused as to why The Name of the Wind is called ‘Day One,’ rather than the more usual ‘Book One’. The reason lies in a statement by Kvothe at the very beginning; he tells Chronicler it will take him three days to share his story. So the tale of Kvothe is divided into three sections, and we only get the first third in The Name of the Wind. If you’re expecting to read up until the present-day Kvothe we’re introduced to at the novel’s beginning, you will be sorely disappointed. We get about sixteen years of his life. The rest—or at least the second part—awaits in the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. The scheduled release date is March 1, 2011. Pre-order anyone?
Five out of five stars.