So, finally got round to reading this debut by one of the big names in modern fantasy. The Name of the Wind regularly tops the lists of the best fantasy books of the 21st century. That’s a blessing and a curse. When I got round to reading it, I was expecting something pretty exceptional.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me
Kvothe is the main character of this book, of that there is no doubt. Many fans have fallen in love with him and it’s easy to see why. We are introduced to the red haired Kote as a simple innkeeper. It soon emerges, however, that he has been much more than that. A Chronicler arrives, looking for the famous Kvothe. Kote begins to tell his story to a small audience and we are transported back in time to when he was called Kvothe, as a young boy. Kvothe’s early years, up to 15 or 16, are the centre of the story. He is very young, but extremely talented: a musician; magician, of sorts; brave; attractive to the ladies; intelligent, since he goes to university at a remarkably young age. Well hey, this is fantasy. Many people would like to be Kvothe. At times, however, I found his perfection to be a little annoying. Nonetheless, his trials and tribulations make you root for him to succeed.
The book features a host of supporting characters: his parents; his first teacher, Abenthy; various other masters at the University; friends; his love interest, Denna; Ambrose, his antagonist at the University; Bast, his assistant in the frame story. And many more I could name. But all of these characters are kept at arm’s length, to an extent, to allow Kvothe to be centre stage. Many, such as Denna and Bast, are deliberately mysterious. Overall they are interesting, with hints as to their future role in the story, but after 660 odd pages we still don’t know them that well.
As with the characters, the world that Rothfuss gives us hints of much more to come in later books. In this novel there is still a sense of mystery about what kind of world we are dealing with. We are introduced to a pseudo-scientific magic system, called Sympathy, which explains how people can perform ‘magic’. This makes it something that can be studied, in a multi-disciplinary kind of way, at the University. Thus, you can have natural ability and develop it through your studies. There are restrictions on students using this magic outside the University. All of this is easy for the reader to grasp and accept, being not so different from Hogwarts after all. We are only given tantalising glimpses of other aspects, however. We know that there are non-human creatures about, but this is left vague.
The world Kvothe inhabits is lovingly created at the micro level. There are two key settings: first the city of Tarbean; second the University with the associated cultural hub of Imre. These locations are so well described that you get immersed in the environment in which Kvothe is trying to make his way. Details such as the currency, the buildings and inhabitants are rich and believable. At the more macro level, there is less. Most of the story is set in the Commonwealth, but this is a vague entity. The towns and cities seem to be, to all intents and purposes, self-governing, but even here there are no discernible political leaders. Ambrose is a member of the nobility, who we are told are rich and powerful, but there is little sign of their influence. Again, this may be fleshed out more in later books, but I was left with little understanding of how this world ‘works’.
Rothfuss is a great writer and this is surely key to his popularity. He deals with a long and complex story effortlessly and his descriptive writing is lush without being heavy. He has produced a coming-of-age story that can be enjoyed by any reader, not just fantasy fans.
This is a story that takes its sweet time. Kvothe is given pages and pages in which to grow. Not so much has happened by the time we get to the end, it has to be said. The evil Chandrian, whom Kvothe is trying to uncover, remain as mysterious as they are at the beginning; as does the girl he wants. Kvothe’s spell at the University is not yet at an end. That’s not to say that we haven’t been taken on a journey. But it seems there is a lot of work left for the second book to do.
This is a great read by an author with a mature and light touch, dealing with familiar themes. As I say, it rises above the genre, in a similar way to the Harry Potter series. It seems ideal for fans of Hogwarts who are ready to move on to a more adult fantasy setting. Finally, it promises much for the rest of the series. The second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, is already out and, so I’ve heard, even longer!