The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1) by Patrick Rothfuss
Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen. The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature. A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.
If you had asked me a week or so ago who I wished I could write like, I would have said Steven Moffat or Kim Harrison, or any myriad of other related writers. I probably wouldn’t have had a definitive reason (although I could make a strong case for Moffat).
Patrick Rothfuss is a genius.
The dust-jacket description of this book really doesn’t do it justice, but I understand why it is so sparse. Much more would have risked detracting from any particular reader’s experience—and this is truly a book for creating unique and memorable experiences. I am 100% confident that this a book everyone will walk away from with a different takeaway, which I personally think is a wonderful thing in a book. It means I will look forward to reading it again, and I’m confident that at some point I will. Probably prior to the release of book #3.
This book was just plain good. It was well written, the characters all shone, and it was an interesting and unique concept. The world worked, and I have no holes to poke at. There were some obvious themes and some more subtle themes—something I don’t normally care overmuch about but something that I truly appreciate when it’s there.
I loved this book so much, in fact, that it’s going to be difficult to write this post without getting into spoilers. To aid in that, you’re going to at least let me level-set you with some background not provided in the dust jacket description. If you’ve read the book, you won’t get the specific examples that I have sticky-marked (yes, I was so into this book that I put sticky notes on pages with something particularly exceptional—what’s so strange about that?). But if you haven’t read this book (and you absolutely 100% should—I mean this as emphatically as I meant it with The Fault in Our Stars), you will have just enough information to be able to guess at where I’m coming from.
This book is written as a story within a story. A famous author, The “Chronicler,” is taking down the history of Kvothe’s life over the course of three days. This book is “Day 1” of the story-telling, and Kvothe (“pronounced nearly the same as ‘Quothe'”) takes us through the early stages of his life in some 600+ pages. We learn about some of his younger decisions that have influenced his motivations in later situations, hereto unknown. Interjected in this story-telling is the present-day, and we get glimpses of what has happened post- the story we’re hearing now. And, as we learn towards the very beginning and ends of the book, the present isn’t exactly dull either.
I’m going to start my assessment with this: It is extremely difficult to write a good book with a story-teller format. I’ve tried several times, because I do find something extremely elegant in the format. It is incredibly difficult to juggle the present with the past, to be able to make you feel informed in the present-day without giving too much information about what we haven’t learned yet. Rothfuss has a spectacular knack for this format, and he is a master tease—he gives little bits of information and lets you stew over them before finally resolving (or not) the tension. So good, in fact, that this deserves a whole paragraph when we get there. Suffice to say for now that I am simply impressed in the elegance with which this story has been presented, and I am envious of the skill it took to do so. I may make another attempt at this format in the very near future.
Now, if you’re a regular reader here, you know I spend an awful lot of time talking about characters and emotions. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to spend much time talking about characters here because they weren’t the major selling point of the book. That’s not to say that they weren’t great—everything that I’ve said about books with good characters in the past 100% applies here. I loved Kvothe, and I loved all of the supporting characters. What I mean, rather, is that this book stands on its own for so many other reasons it would be an insult to focus only on the characters. So we’ll get my rave about Kvothe out of the way early on.
I loved him. He has such a singular personality, and while I’m not sure that we would be best friends if I ever were to meet him (we probably would, but I’m afraid he would make me feel stupid, which is not something I’m used to), he sang off of the page, quite literally.
I saw some reviews prior to writing this that expressed how much of an ass he was and how they couldn’t understand how anyone could like him. To that, I have one thing to say: the fact that you thought he was an ass means that he was written well. This is an example of what I meant when I said that I think every individual will have a starkly different experience with this book. Kvothe had so much depth that every person who reads about him will almost certainly have a different reaction, connect with him on a different level. I cannot express enough how three-dimensional he is. The supporting characters aren’t too shabby either, and every single character, even those who only have minor roles, reveals a different truth about the world if you’re open to seeing it.
He also has a certain wit about him that just pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. He is an ass, but he’s a funny ass. He’s brilliant, and sometimes brilliant people are just a little bit difficult to relate to. When Chronicler is trying to convince Kvothe to let him record his story (I promise this is not a spoiler—nothing on page 50 can possibly qualify as that), Chronicler argues that he has a “nearly perfect” memory and that nothing Kvothe says would be mis-represented when the story is finally recorded. Kvothe says that nearly perfect isn’t good enough, and when Chronicler says he can write fast enough to keep up with anything he says, Kvothe tests him by spouting random words quite rapidly. Among them are expressions including “I, Chronicler do hereby avow that I can neither read nor write,” words in foreign languages, and even made up words. When all is said and done, Chronicler can do nothing but ask “What does eggoliant mean?” Truthfully, I’d been wondering that myself. Kvothe’s response? “Hmmm? Oh, nothing. I made it up. I wanted to see if an unfamiliar word would slow you down.” He then demands to be taught the entirety of the shorthand Chronicler used to record so quickly, and in a matter of fifteen minutes he can write it fluently himself. This is a tame example—most of the particularly funny ones require too much background to share in a single post, or would get into the realm of true spoilers.
I was just beginning to get invested when I reached the end of Chapter 10—that’s when the real world finally slipped away for me. Kvothe started taking lessons from an arcanist, and most of the lessons involved strengthening the power of his mind to hold multiple beliefs at once. One exercise he did was called “Seek the Stone,” where one side of your mind hides a stone in an imaginary room, and then the other side tries to find it. Kvothe shares with us that one time he looked for the stone for almost an hour before he asked the other side of his mind where it was, only to find out that he hadn’t hidden it at all and had just been waiting to see how long it would take for him to give up. He follows this up with the comment: “It’s no wonder that many arcanists you meet are a little eccentric, if not downright cracked.” I swear, and you may think me strange for this, I laughed for a solid ten minutes before finally turning back to the book and continuing on. This page, by the way, is when I decided I wanted to put sticky notes on my favorite parts.
I’m spending so much time on this topic for a reason. The wit in this book, and more importantly in the characters, is incredibly important. This book has a lot of darkness in it. It is not for the weak of heart. Kvothe had a rough childhood, and his turmoil will become your own if you invest the time in these pages. The wit and sarcasm alike serve as a much needed comedic relief. It was not unheard of for me to range from crying to laughing to both within a single page. I honestly don’t think I could have made it through Chapters Eighteen through Thirty if I didn’t have enough positive emotion to keep me going. As it was, I’m glad I got through all of that in one sitting or I might have been hesitant to even pick this book back up.
That said, I think it’s time to talk about emotional investment. I’ve tip-toed around this subject in the past, partially because I haven’t been able to pinpoint anything in particular about the writing that elicits such emotion from a reader. I think in this book I was, at least a little bit. I mentioned earlier that Rothfuss is a giant, ingenious tease. He toys with our emotions throughout this entire book. There were moments where (in hindsight) I felt like I was a contestant on one of those shows where you get voted off, and where the judges make it seem like you’re the one who’s going to lose this week, and then they tell you you’re safe. Of course, I didn’t think that at the time—at the time all I could think about was my utter relief that the bad thing didn’t always happen (oh, how I wish I could give a spoiler right now).
Part of the reason Rothfuss is able to play with us thusly is his skill with suspense and tension. Personally, I think it’s very difficult to build suspense when there isn’t something inherently suspenseful going on. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the times when I felt most strongly about it, there truly was something inherently suspenseful about the story. But there were other times where that wasn’t necessarily the case, and I was just as on-edge. He does this through word choice and timing. You remember one of your high school English classes, where they have a discussion about word choice and how you can change the mood of your story by choosing certain words? I have never seen such a good representation of that as I have in this book (with the exception, perhaps, of Poe). But more importantly, Rothfuss just doesn’t let you get settled and comfortable. Every time the narrative begins to get comforting, he says something that warns you that the comfort is going to break. Again, no examples because of, well, spoilers.
And part of the reason that this works so well is because of the format of the story. Kvothe is telling us about his own life, not Rothfuss telling us about some random person. This is a real person we are getting invested in, and it’s his autobiography. And even more importantly, we have enough hints about the present/future to leave us wondering how we get there. In some ways, it makes it all the more believable, even though we have some interjection conversation that casts doubt on the events.
That said, one of the things that I love so much about this book is its strong roots in story-telling. When I studied abroad in Denmark a couple of years ago, I took a class on European Storytelling (which was not nearly as much of a blow-off class as it sounds). In it, we studied some of the traditions of story-telling: numbers, themes, imagery, etc. There are these cues in spoken stories that have to be there to trigger our memories of what happened earlier, or to warn us that something is important and we should pay attention now.
Rothfuss/Kvothe got all of this right on the nail. From the significance of numbers (seven is a big one in this book) to the spectacular imagery (I’m pretty certain I could actually hear the music whenever Kvothe was playing his lute). Parallels were drawn between stories told to Kvothe when he was very young and what was going on in his narrative flawlessly. The numbers and lines from stories he had told countless times became significant in his love life (including the old wive’s tale about there being seven words that can make a woman love you).
Most importantly, there wasn’t a single wasted word. Hard to believe in a book of this size, I know, but every single detail mattered. Even ones that seemed like they could be written off as little more than mere world-building turned out to be highly significant. This book expected a lot of its readers, and it gave a lot in return. That said, I could go on for hours, but I don’t think I should.
Please go and read this book for yourself if you haven’t already. It is my new favorite ever. As you might have guessed, Patrick Rothfuss is my new role model when it comes to writing. And now I’m left with two questions:
- When do I get to actually read book 2 when I have two books that I have to read by the end of the month?
- Why in the world did it take me so long to get around to reading this book? Seriously, Dad told me I should read it four or five years ago …