Somehow I ended up owning two copies of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, while knowing little about it beyond it was a fantasy book that receives glowing reviews online. While brainstorming birthday presents for my dad last year (and knowing well his habit of reading good, bad, and terrible fantasy and sci-fi novels), I reasoned that I could give him The Name of the Wind based purely on what I had heard others saying about it. A risky gamble, but it paid off: not only did my dad love the book, but he ended up passing it to two colleagues who also loved it. This was finally enough to motivate me to read the book that I had already recommended!
The Name of the Wind could have been an interesting fantasy if only because of its unique narrative structure: it is the story of Kvothe, a famous arcanist and warrior, told by Kvothe himself, over the course of a single day. I loved this conceit. It allowed us to compare the Kvothe of years ago–brash, curious, and fierce–with the man he is today, without quite knowing yet why the change occurred.
And luckily for readers, the framing device is not the only wonderful thing about this novel. The worldbuilding, for example, is fantastic. While only a few locations are fleshed out in this first book, they are given such depth that you truly see and experience them along with Kvothe. The University reminded me of my own college days (though sadly I didn’t get to learn about sigils and alchemy) and the ways in which the presence of an institute of higher learning can change a city, for better and for worse. Meanwhile, Tarbean represented the worst that I’ve seen and experienced in cities: apathetic people, squalid living conditions, and a sense of hopelessness that hangs like smog. It is really a credit to Rothfuss that he is able to make the geography and locations of Kvothe’s life simultaneously feel so real and so fantastic.
The characters are another strong point. Kvothe, for all of the legends that surround him, is a likable person, if mysterious. Hearing not about his exploits but about the events in his life that drove him forward, with some of the reflection that being an adult recounting his story brings, is really wonderful and unique. The other main “present day” characters, Bast and Chronicler, are interesting characters in their own right. I think many of us will recognize ourselves in Chronicler, actually; we all want the truth behind the man they call the Arcane, the Bloodless, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.
An important note is that The Name of the Wind isn’t as much of a play on common fantasy tropes as, say, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. If you go into it expecting a systematic dismantling of sword-and-sorcery, you might feel disappointed. In fact, Rothfuss relies on many of the standard fantasy cliches such as an orphaned hero, a mysterious love interest, and a rich bully. He just treats them realistically, and once I made the distinction, I was into it 100%. Much of the romance of an young, friendless orphan, for example, is stripped away when you realize that a homeless, penniless child is a target for beatings and much worse. A beautiful mysterious young woman without family is going to have few career options and will probably be distrustful of men. And so on.
At the end of the day, what I think distinguishes Rothfuss from other fantasy writers is simply his talent. The man has a way with words. Even though I had a distinct idea of where the story was headed, I couldn’t stop reading it. And even though there were definitely places where the plot felt as if it were lagging–oh, Tarbean!–I kept going because I knew that there was going to be something soon that would justify it.
While it hasn’t displaced ASOIAF as my top fantasy read, The Name of the Wind is a strong entry into the fantasy canon, and definitely worth your time. As I write this review, I actually just finished the second book in Rothfuss’s series, The Wise Man’s Fear. (Spoiler alert: It’s even better than The Name of the Wind.)
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”
Other Reviews: Shelf Life, Fantasy Book Critic, The Book Smugglers