The Name of the Wind
Daw Fantasy Paperback
The Name of the Wind is the first book of a three-book story arc. It’s well done, introducing interesting characters and intriguing “story questions” from the opening couple of chapters. It is a fantasy, and a pretty good one, but I’m going to complain about two things. They happen to be pet peeves. I’m also going to praise Patrick Rothfuss for doing something more fantasy writers should do, and that is to ground his magic in a magical system, but more on that later.
Pet Peeve Number One: The book doesn’t end. It stops. This is typical of books in trilogies. After all, Tolkien did this with The Two Towers. If even Tolkien did it, I can’t give Rothfuss demerits for it.
In this book, Rothfuss gives us an unassuming innkeeper who is obviously more than he seems. The small town (its name is a play on the word “nowhere,”) where his inn is located is off the beaten path and has been, up until recently, untouched by the politics and the war that is happening in their realm. That is changing. There is discussion, at the inn, of the number of deserter soldiers on the roads, and the danger they represent. There is an attack by magical or perhaps demonic creatures. Then into the story rides Chronicler, a scribe who is searching for the enigmatic Kvothe (pronounced “quoth”). It soon becomes obvious that the innkeeper is his man. He pesters Kvothe, the subject of legend and rumor, for this life story, and Kvothe complies.
Kvothe’s story is wonderful, full of magic, danger, epic loss, epic suffering, desperate bravado, told in the voice of someone looking back ruefully at the antics of his younger self. Rothfuss captures that perfectly. As a boy, Kvothe is part of a troupe of traveling performers, and the book hums with theatrical ballads, nursery rhymes and bawdy songs. A university trained arcanist—magician– joins the troupe for a while, and teaches young Kvothe magic. Then tragedy strikes, leaving Kvothe consumed with the need for vengeance, and a half-baked plan to enter the university of magic. He succeeds. He is a scholarship student, startlingly gifted, desperately poor, frighteningly cocky and strangely naïve. All of this works beautifully.
Rothfuss’s system of magic is post-Einsteinian and it works beautifully too. Poor fantasists often try to hide sloppy magic by assuming that it “can’t be understood by mere mortals.” They are wrong. For magic to function correctly in any novel, it must be based on a system, and the dramatic purpose of the system, if your novel is any good, is not as a deus ex machina or as wish-fulfillment; it is to force your character to make choices. Do you have to sacrifice something (or someone) to make the magic work? Do you have to tie yourself to a demonic or alien entity? What do you have to give up to wield power? In The Name of the Wind, magic is all about energy and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Kvothe, who as a youngster is a fearless show-off, lets us see firsthand the risks of assuming you can trade energy, when you don’t know what you’re doing. His first attempt to control the wind is a startling and realistic example of what can go wrong.
So, I like the story; like the characters, and I like the magical system the writer has created. What’s my second pet peeve? Language. Into this vibrant, vivid, sensuous fantastical world, with its own languages, myths, fairy tales and campfire stories, its own political feuds and dynasties, we have characters who say things like, “Are you okay?” Are you okay? How did the construction “okay” develop in this world? This rings as flat as broken lute string in the middle of a minstrel competition.
Lazy fantasists (yes, you know where I’m going) often try to hide sloppy language behind the “universal translator” argument. “Well, you’re hearing the words in your head, and you are translating what they really said into your own vernacular, like ‘okay.'” It doesn’t work and Rothfuss is too good writer to be allowed to get away with it. Nobody explains this better than Ursula LeGuin in her essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” Now, Rothfuss could have skated on this one if he hadn’t made so much of his book about language; the songs and rhymes, the power of naming. When you create a world where words matter, then the words have to matter. As much as I enjoyed the Name of the Wind, Mr. Rothfuss only gets an A- over a B+ in execution, for lazy language.