The Name of the Wind has gotten many, many accolades – and it deserves every one of them. While the novel deals with such fantastical ideas as magic and the power of names, words and music, it does so with a footing in a realistic understanding of the workings of such things, rather than resorting to pixie dust and ancient incantations. No need to carry a healthy willing suspension of disbelief when reading The Name of the Wind, because Rothfuss makes it so easy to believe the story in its own right.
Written as the first of a trilogy (the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out in 2013; the third book is forthcoming), The Name of the Wind introduces us to Kvothe, who’s reputation over the years has been lionized as master magician and folk hero. The “real” Kvothe has retreated into the anonymous personae of Kote, innkeeper and tavern owner, for reasons that are not immediately disclosed. But when a famed biographer finds Kote tucked away at the Waystone Inn, he is determined to chronicle Kvothe’s story in the hero’s own words – and so the story begins.
We learn about Kvothe’s beginnings with his family as part of a traveling Edema Ruh performing troupe. With loving and talented parents, young Kvothe learns acting, stagecraft, recitation, music and poetry, as well as how to read a crowd, to charm an audience, and to respond nimbly to whatever situation arises. His quick wit and keen ability to soak up knowledge – both learned and perceived – brings to light a bright and eager child, whose education is nurtured by not only his traveling family but also the arcanist Abenthy, who hitches his wagon with the performers and teaches young Kvothe the sciences: botany, astronomy, psychology, anatomy, geometry and especially chemistry. “Ben” also fills Kvothe’s head with stories of the famous University, where the mysterious Arcanum teaches the ancient art of alchemy.
It is not long after Abenthy leaves the troupe that disaster strikes, and the nefarious evil that is the shadowy Chandrian leaves Kvothe alone in the world. Forced to survive by his wits and his quickness, Kvothe eaks out an existence that eventually leads him to the University, where his acquired knowledge and thirst for learning allows him to become one of its youngest (and least wealthy) students. Life is not easy for Kvothe; he must overcome many obstacles on his journey, including a lack of background, an unwillingness to participate in artifice, and an inability to settle for mediocrity. He has also vowed to learn what he can of the hated Chandrian, who most believe are simply “fairy tales” and superstition borne out of peasant ignorance. Kvothe knows otherwise.
Kvothe is an extremely intriguing character, and he teeters on the edge of being what I consider an “uber” hero – one who excels inexplicably in everything he touches. But in Patrick Rothfuss’s treatment, Kvothe refuses to become a caricature of legend. He is not successful in everything he does; he endures beatings, poverty, hunger and powerlessness, and more than once trips himself up by being impulsive, naïve, or by underestimating the circumstances in which he finds himself. But rather than settling into revenge or strength of arms, Kvothe learns from his losses through observation and humbling himself, even while he continually seeks ways to bring the advantage of a wide spectrum of experience to achieve his goals.
Rothfuss’s skill with character is not limited to Kvothe, however. He plays close attention to all his characters, whether they be major players or only appear on a few pages. Every one of them rings true, whether you like them or not! For example, the enigmatic Denna, Kvothe’s infatuation, provokes my own sensibilities. She is lovely, charming and coquettish – the sort of woman I tend to dislike. I don’t trust her, and I think she’s manipulating Kvothe, even though there is nothing overt to support that belief. (He, of course, is besotted by her.)
It’s that reaction of mine that validates Rothfuss’s skill. Denna as written has every appearance of being perfect, because we see her through Kvothe’s eyes. However, other characters, while agreeing about her beauty and charm, let slip that she is not perfect. She’s pretty, but has a slightly crooked nose, says one friend (something at which Kvothe bristles). Another counsels Kvothe to beware falling for her, acknowledging her charm but also her quicksilver nature (which Kvothe attributes to a spurned overture to the lady). Yet another points out inconsistencies in what she has told Kvothe (which he, of course, rationalizes away). These are not overt warnings, and are not heavily painted foreshadowing; instead, Rothfuss reinforces that perfect love only exists for the very young and the infatuated – and Kvothe is both.
Even lesser characters receive this treatment. Kvothe’s instructors at the University are not cookie cutter intellectuals nor pompous buffoons – they feel authentic, even those that show pettiness. His main adversary in this book, the rich and spoiled Ambrose, is slimy yet believable, and it’s understandable why the conflict between him and Kvothe escalates (some of the cause of which can be laid at Kvothe’s feet). The regulars at the Waystone Inn set the stage for our sense of place – the “here and now” of the story – effectively, because it actually does feel like we are watching from a corner table. Even an unassuming priest who crosses young Kvothe’s path in the big city of Tarbean is a gentle foil for the inhumanity that otherwise awaits unwanted street urchins in the back alleys and dirty streets of an unforgiving city.
And amongst all these wonderful characters is a fantastic story. Rothfuss takes elements that other writers attempt – magic, fantastic creatures, unconventional heroes – and give them not only a voice, but a foundation. Let’s take magic, for instance. Kovthe’s magic is actually a complex mixture of the sciences (specifically alchemy and chemistry) and process who’s effects are explainable yet nevertheless make it appears as if the wielder is calling down lightning and fire (hence the reputation). But we learn that the true magic is in understanding how elements, knowledge and situation combine to create a manipulated effect (not as easy as it sounds). There are indeed mystical elements of Kvothe’s world, such as the power that exists in knowing the names of things, but these elements are patiently explored, with wonder, not merely stated as a given that we must accept. We experience Kvothe’s struggles to understand, and therefore we are drawn inside this world in a very intimate way.
Great characters, great story, great writing – if you haven’t read The Name of the Wind yet, put it at the top of your list. There are very few books that I would give a higher recommendation than this one, if any. It really is that good.