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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle Day 1 by Patrick Rothfuss

[caption id="attachment_5677" align="alignleft" width="113"]The Name of the Wind The Name of the Wind[/caption]

I'm a little behind the times with listening to this book. I frankly missed it when it was published in 2007 - only having recently had it recommended to me by a friend. Fortunately for me, the second book was a long time coming (published 2011) and the third and final book will not be published until next year. I am glad I was ignorant of this story for so long. If I'd read this book in 2007 and then had to wait nine (9!) years to get the conclusion, I'd have become as insane as Master Elodin. So it's all turned out very well.

So without further comment, here is the publisher's summary of, and my thoughts on, The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle Day 1 by Patrick Rothfuss:

My name is Kvothe

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

So begins a tale unequaled in fantasy literature - the story of a hero told in his own voice. It is a tale of sorrow, a tale of survival, a tale of one man's search for meaning in his universe, and how that search, and the indomitable will that drove it, gave birth to a legend.

The emphasis in the publisher's summary is mine. Normally when I read such lines I attribute them to an overactive and perhaps under employed marketing manager. However, in this case I emphasis the line because it is true.

Now, the first thing many of you epic fantasy aficionados thought was, "this book could not possibly be as epic as The Lord of the Rings," or more appropriately compared, as good as The Fellowship of the Ring. In that you would not be wrong. This story is not that work of epic fantasy. Comparing it to Tolkien does it a great disservice. In some very pleasant ways, The Name of the Wind is better than that book.

To many I've just thrown down a gauntlet. Let's cut to the chase then. I've read The Lord of the Rings trilogy four times in my life. That is not as many times as some of you, but three more times than most. Let's be honest about it. The world J.R.R. Tolkien built is fantastic. The story arc is truly epic as only saving the world from the grips of an unspeakably evil demigod  can be. But the main characters within the story, the Fellowship characters, are mostly two-dimensional and no more real than Middle Earth itself. They tend to be stereotypical by today's standard of writing. Back in the 1950s, when fantasy writing was really just getting started, they were better than most of what was available within the genre. But the genre has advanced, and many of the requirements of literary writing have been adopted by the fantasy genre.

One such requirement is character development. First and foremost, characters must seem as real people. They are all unique; they are all complicated. The dwarf, besides being short, bearded and fearsome with a battle axe, must also have hopes and fears and aspirations more than cleaving orc skulls or hording gold. She must have emotions. She must be governed by those emotions to some degree. Only by mastering her emotions and overcoming her own fears can she accomplish her goals. But there is a price to pay. To kill orcs all day long takes a toll on any real person's psyche. Not showing that conflict within the character is considered substandard writing these days. Remember, even orcs have family. They are people too. You can't just kill them willy-nilly and not have regrets.

Okay, perhaps that last went too far, but you see my point don't you? Patrick Rothfuss gives us not only a protagonist who has the ability to do great things - epic things - but he also has flaws. He has strong emotions. He has great gaping emotional wounds that shape him into the person he is, and a driving need to know, "why me." Is that not the quintessential question we all ask ourselves after suffering great loss? Kvothe's story is his quest to answer that question, and to uncover the horrifying truths his world has chosen to forget.

But asking that question isn't launched into right away. First there is a grieving process that must occur, because that is human nature. The mighty Kvothe is no exception. In this book, we live that process with him. There were times during his story I as so upset for Kvothe I could have cried. There were times I was so angry at the unfairness of it all I cursed his antagonists. And when he overcame, I cheered him. I laughed with him at the funny things, and I was sad for him when adversity struck. When an author can invoke in me the emotions of the protagonist, they have succeeded in the art of writing.

Going back to the previous comparison, J.R.R. Tolkien doesn't come close to this level of character development with Frodo until the third book - if then. But with Frodo, his burden was an external burden. The issue wasn't in his head, it was around his neck. That's not how it works in reality. In reality our burdens are usual imposed upon us by ourselves, and I respect an author who realizes such and creates a protagonist who is not only legendary but also humanly flawed to a point. I've known many very, very smart people who were complete social idiots for example. Being smart doesn't make you worldly-wise. Pretending your Protagonist is not susceptible to this basic fact of the human condition makes him phony. Fortunately Kvothe is not phony.

But that is not the only thing The Name of the Wind has going for it. The world it is set in is pure swords and magic fantasy, but the devil is in the detail. What Kvothe learns in the Medica from Master Arwyl is medically sound. The drugs are not magical, though they can be powerful and deadly if used incorrectly. The book's idea of magic has familiar roots in chemistry and physics.

Take for example Sympathy. Sympathy magic is the first magic students of the Arcanum learn. It is the ability to affect the physical world through mentally binding like objects. The more alike they are the stronger the Sympathy binding. But within that magic is the concept of preservation of energy. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be moved from place to place, and that is the secret of Sympathy magic. Not only is conservation of energy adhered to in Kvothe's universe, but conservation of momentum and all the other laws of physics.

So it is with the alchemy of the world. I have had enough chemistry in high school and university to know when an author is describing a reagent that can only be hydrofluoric acid, an extremely dangerous and potentially fatal chemical.

I have loved the sequences within the book where Kvothe or others are practicing their magic, but the principles explained by the masters are really nothing more than modern science couched in a different medium. And Patrick Rothfuss does this in a manner that is authentic to the world he's created. It is very clever, and I am enjoying it immensely. It's science in fiction and that really lights my Sympathy Lamp. ;-)

But let's get back to the structure of the trilogy itself. It is both the story of the legendary Kvothe in the present day, a man in hiding with a price on his head, and the story of how Kvothe became that legend. This second is told by Kvothe himself. Patrick Rothfuss manages to pull off a first person narrative within the framework of a third person narration. It takes place in Kvothe's inn, where he is hiding in plain sight from his enemies. But while the present takes place in the inn, most of the story is set in the past as Kvothe tells his true life's story to a man known as The Chronicler. It is the mother of all flashback scenes, and it is pulled off with no small amount of flair by the author.

I could go on, but this should be enough. If you are into very well written epic fantasy I can wholeheartedly recommend The Name of the Wind. And as I've already begun the second book, The Wise Man's Fear, I can say you should prepare to see this through to the end. It only seems to get better. And from what I've seen so far, I can hardly wait for the conclusion next year.

1 comment:

  1. You are a brave man! I hope you survive the pitchforks and torches long enough to read that I completely agree with you. I love Tolkien, but aside from what you've mentioned, his writing is dry. Rothfuss is both a master story-teller and a wordsmith, and it's rare to find both in one author. I've met him (briefly) a few times, and he's very kind. He spent several minutes talking to me about feminism and his children's book. I can't wait to hear your write-up of book 2!


Be civil, be responsible and most of all be kind. I will not tolerate poor form. There will be no James Hooks here. We are all better than that.

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