The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

March 11, 2011 at 17:56 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , , )

7/10

Sometimes when an unpublished and passionate writer is newly published, the finished product is glittering and stunning, and announces without apology to the world that the shelf of classics is going to have to accomodate another name. The Name of the Wind is one of the far more common works that shows promise, and whose most noticeable and welcome feature is an original idea well told; a diamond in the rough, well worthy of publication and accolades, but not completely finished.

Fantasy novels can so often be prosaically-arranged collections of genre cliches (add in the battle scene, now the tavern scene, next the romp in the meadow/stables/tavern again, next the grave crusty teacher, next the playful bard/kendar/wisecracking archer), stitched together haphazardly with the promise of some vitally-important quest. Rothfuss does not really come up with a world that forces the reader to become fully immersed in his cosmology and religions, his legends and songs. He provides instead a very pretty gloss, and in places the world he has constructed even demonstrates true depth. His carefully written and genuinely original sympathetic magic, for instance, is one of the book’s outstanding points, and the thread of this invention is woven closely and professionally throughout the rest of the story, rather than being pasted loosely on top as a point of interest to be used as a plot device and discarded. In other places however, he appears to have described Copperfield’s London inhabited by a few hurriedly-painted fantasy stock characters: the robed inquisitors, the weatherbeatens sailors and burly barkeeps, the grim-faced travellers. They are all there, just as they have been in every other fantasy story that has been told in the last forty years. Thank heavens there are no Dwarves.

Make no mistake: where Rothfuss shines, he shines brightly, and not only in isolated patches of originality amidst tired generic facsimiles. He includes several original and beautiful sections of prose (such as Skarpi’s lay of Lanre) that are thrillingly and beautifully told, and amply reward any reader with an eye for the sweet and the tragic. His adoption of a bland RenFayre atmosphere for some parts of his book stand starkly against the moments of unlikely humanity that glimmer everywhere beneath the surface. The kindly peasant and his son who give Kvothe a ride to Tarbean might be a useful plot device for another writer, as treacherous scum who show the first glimpse of the wicked city; or else as nice people who are killed in some dreadful way, in order to illustrate a point. Their inclusion and exeunt as nothing more than kindly people in the tapestry of the story was an excellent choice. Rothfuss’ patience in throwing a small adventure the way of the Chronicler shows considerably more respect for his readers than simply having the fellow show up and elbow his way into narrating the book. In other words, he is writing for pleasure and because he believes in his world.

The fact that some two thirds of the story are taken up by Kvothe’s time at the university throws comparisons with Harry Potter into easy focus, and while these comparisons are not entirely undeserved, Rothfuss was wise enough to realise that mimicking Rowling’s detailed classes and relations with bullies, the teenage dating scene and misanthropic schoolmasters was not the direction he needed to take with The Name of the Wind. After the first few chapters of university life, the tale of a gifted magical prodigy refusing to play by the rules at a place of learning bears only superficial resemblance to other works, and he manages to tell an original and consistently entertaining story.

Mercifully, in a work that advertises itself as a darker and more adult fantasy than that of Potter, we are spared gratuitous violence, sex, language and even too much of the arcane. If this book could conceivably be described as bland, it could not be described as unpleasant or offensive. In fantasy literature, that alone sets it as distinct from the general recrudescence of tawdry novels drifting around.

Essentially, this is a book of contradictions. There are enormous passages that feel like old hat, and are one step away from Hickman and Weiss brand generic mass produced pap. There are glowing oases of phenomenal and amazing writing, and there are consistent threads of originality and genius running throughout the whole. But as soon as Rothfuss does something brilliant, he is usually let down by writing that frequently seems like a first draft, with banal and juvenile sentences, a schoolboy tendency to over-describe his characters in exhausting detail, and cliched phrases that honestly ought to have been caught by the first edit. A bold effort, and a writer to watch. It would be dishonest to describe this as a great piece of literature, but it scores top marks for entertainment, originality and for a difficult narrative that has been wrestled masterfully into place.

Related review:
The Wise Man’s Fear
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