Every book has highs and lows, pros and cons that lodge in your brain as you try and come to terms with it. Rarely do the two things break down as starkly for me as they did when I finished up Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.
First of the Kingkiller Chronicle, it’s the first day (of three – it’s a trilogy, you see) of Kvothe telling his life story. Including, presumably, how he turns into a killer of kings. Thus, the book isn’t just a story in itself, it’s a story of a story being told, which opens up a lot of interesting avenues for writing. There are also odd things happening in the “present” as the story is told (how’s about spider demons the size of wagon wheels!). In spite of all that, my thoughts are kind of black and white as to its flaws and strengths.
On the one hand, it’s really well written. I mean in the actually putting words on the page in a right order kind of way. Rothfuss’s prose is breezy and quick, but he slips in a lot of clever bits for the reader to catch (my favorite is the comparison of who lives in the high-dollar and low-dollar sections of the city of Tarbean). In other words, it makes for entertaining reading. In addition, Rothfuss takes an interesting approach to world building, avoiding large dumps of background info that the characters already know just to inform the reader about things. While this leaves some gaps in our understanding (These folks know about germ theory? How?), it allows Rothfuss to casually slip in details that don’t seem important to things but that show their relevance later on. See, for example, the whole issue of “dragons” and their dangerousness.
On the other hand, for a book that’s several hundred pages long (and more than a full day in Audible time) precious little of substance actually happens. In fact, main character and narrator Kvothe admits near the end that all that came before was “foundation” for the interesting stuff to come later (did I mention that the trilogy is, as yet, unfinished?). Naturally, that means there’s nothing like a self-contained narrative arc for this book, which is frustrating. In addition, along the way we’re treated to tale after tale of the hyper-competent Kvothe, the teenager (he’s only 16 when this book ends) who knows every useful skill under the sun and is never bested in any kind of competitive environment. To be fair, he suffers negative consequences as a result of all his success, but, still, a main character who always wins a series of largely meaningless things isn’t all that compelling.
What’s amazing is that, for those pretty substantial cons, The Name of the Wind was still an engaging read. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t mind that things had moved along so little by the end, although I was frustrated by the “and here’s the end” resolution (a final scene between Kvothe’s student and the person recording the tale helps a lot). It makes me hesitant to press on with the series (particularly given this review of book two), but only because I’m not certain Rothfuss can sustain the trick. Eventually all the spinning plates have to come down, either in a crashing cacophony or a controlled descent – whether that happens with Kvothe and his tale, we’ll have to wait and see. At the very least, I’ll wait until the third book comes out (I know – glass houses and all that).
The Name of the Wind seems to be a book that most people either love or hate, given the vacillating 5 and 1-star ratings at Goodreads. I can understand that. A lot of what the 1-star folks complain about I agree with, I just don’t think it overrides the good stuff. Highly recommended from me, even if with a bit of an asterisk.
POSTSCRIPT: Over dinner I came up with a good comparison for how I think of The Name of the Wind – like it was a concept album (Kvothe is a musician – he’d dig it). Something where the story doesn’t really hold together but the music’s so good you don’t care. So, maybe it’s like The Lamb? Or Subterranea? Either way, not bad company.