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The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One)
Patrick Rothfuss
DAW / Gollancz, 904 / 661 pages

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One)
The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One)
Patrick Rothfuss
Patrick Rothfuss was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1973. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1999 with a B.A. in English, returning two years later to teach. After completing an extremely long fantasy novel called The Song of Flame and Thunder, Rothfuss submitted it to several publishing companies, but it was rejected. Finally, DAW Books bought it and split it into a three-volume series entitled The Kingkiller Chronicle, the first installment of which, The Name of the Wind, was published in March 2007.

Patrick Rothfuss Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Patrick Rothfuss

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dustin Kenall

Multivolume fantasy series are a commitment -- of time, of attention, and (not least) of patience. To sustain a reader's devotion to a series whose page-count numbers in the thousands and whose publishing schedule might span the birth of children, a book must not be merely good. It must be extraordinary. Approaching their double-digit ordinal installment, otherwise admirable series such as Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen and Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time suffer an attrition of readership when -- having attained such a voluminous complexity that the loyal reader must review preceding novels to recall the narrative -- fans just give up.

Last year, many readers were invited to an if not never-ending banquet then at least a hearty three-course meal of a trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicles by debut novelist Patrick Rothfuss. Critics lauded the first book, The Name of the Wind, as "intricate and wondrous," the work of "a new giant," and even "the best fantasy novel of the past 10 years." The latter encomium seems willfully disputatious, given recent outstanding inventions such as K.J. Bishop's The Etched City, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, as well as ongoing works by Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin. Nonetheless, the work is an achievement, especially from a first-time writer. The true measure of its worth, however, lies in the promise of things yet to come from Rothfuss, a budding journeyman with the potential of becoming a master storyteller.

At the center of the trilogy stands Kvothe. At different times an orphan, a lutist, a student, a mage, and a dragon slayer, at the opening of his tale Kvothe is only Kote, a simple innkeeper who has renounced his adventurous ways and heroic persona. Rothfuss shows us, in a prologue that is about as perfectly polished as one page of prose can get, the layered silence that envelops him, "the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die." There are demons -- monsters equal parts spider, lobster, and Edward Scissorhands -- about and, unsurprisingly, it appears Kvothe's past is catching up with him. A scrivener tracks him down to take his life story. Kvothe demands three days - one for each book - as opposed to 101 nights to tell his tale. Then he begins the story of his life of which (unlike that indecisive narrator David Copperfield) he knows he is the hero.

Kvothe's exploits begin promisingly enough as a child prodigy of the "Ruh," itinerant performers marrying the infamy of gypsies with the talent of the theater troupe from Hamlet. Problematically, the nameless world these characters inhabit creaks with the Potemkin Village verisimilitude of an off-the-rack medieval Western European fantasy. Unexplained anachronisms intermittently pop up. In a pre-scientific culture, one wonders how a physician could subscribe not only to the precaution of washing hands but also to the concept of microscopic germs. Likewise, the author introduces a distinction between alchemy and chemistry that he never elaborates. Thus, Publishers Weekly hits the mark in observing that the novel's "originality... lies less in its unnamed imaginary world than in its precise execution."

Rothfuss eschews world building for character focus, a defensible strategy if you have an appealing character. Unfortunately, Kvothe is too good, suffering from the Superman syndrome: the flaw of flawlessness. He starts out as a boy genius with all the charm of Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. As an innkeeper in his mid-twenties he has grown, but only into an echo of a David Gemmell character, wont to utter such ponderous epigrams as "Bones mend. Regret stays with you forever" and "I've told... hard lies and harder truths." Elsewhere, the careful reader will be sure to find Kvothe dropping lapidary gems, such as when (commenting on conflicting feelings) he enlightens: "Emotions by their very nature are not reasonable things." And then there is his repartee with other characters, evinced by the exchange:

"Not many people know that play."

"I am not many people."

Kvothe also overindulges in rodomontades, such as, when reminiscing about the perceived extravagance of a little money in his pocket after years of indigence, he condescendingly assures the reader: "If you have never been desperately poor, I doubt you can understand the relief I felt." This ethical smugness jars with a modern conscience inculcated with the virtues of irony and self-deprecation. Thus, one feels an involuntary twinge of sympathy for even his most unlikable adversaries, such as the aristocratic brat who, incensed by Kvothe's smarminess, attempts to arrange his death. Moreover, a PG treatment of teenager sexuality (especially of Kvothe's unchaperoned, older university friends) detracts from the raucous bawdiness associated with pre-modern cultures -- although, in fairness, when asked in an interview what readers can expect in the next volume, Rothfuss answers "sex." Finally, while the book ends with a well constructed action set piece, the story arc terminates somewhat abruptly and arbitrarily, showing the seams from where the publisher might have split a single-volume novel into a trilogy. I don't doubt that later volumes will testify to the author's ability to explore his world, round his characters, and deepen his conflicts. But after over 600 pages, the reader feels claustrophobically enclosed by the main character's ego. One blanches at the prospect of anymore alone time with Kvothe.

Yet Rothfuss is not without considerable resources as a storyteller. When he spins myth, as in the legend of a fallen hero, it comes out hard as iron, bright as gold. While Kvothe is not as deep as he'd have you believe, he is clever, as evinced by his sardonic aside: "[M]y Arcanum bunkmates taught me a card game... I returned the favor by giving an impromptu lesson in psychology, probability, and manual dexterity. I won almost two whole talents before they stopped inviting me back." One is particularly grateful for Rothfuss's brevity. His chapters are short, his scenes as crisp and neat as hospital bed corners. This is no small talent; it keeps his narrative vital and the reader fresh. It also complements nicely his habit of anticipating the reader's plot expectations based on genre conventions, only to suddenly subvert them.

Turning to substance, Rothfuss creates a fresh and plausible magic system. If an electrician, a physicist, and a druid were locked in a room together, they might come up with something like arcanism. His magic relies, like the best, on indirection coupled with technical exactitude. When employed, it has a MacGyver-esque quality of improvisation that is pure delight. And I couldn't possibly forget to mention his singular contribution to the world's bestiary of imaginary creatures: the "cow-lizard." Rather than modeling his dragon off a regal lion, a predatory cat, or a loyal canine -- tired clichés one and all -- Rothfuss presents us with a hippopotamus of the forest that chomps trees like celery stalks and rolls over coals like a pig in dirt. The dragon has a starring role for only a few pages, but it steals the show and by itself is worth the price of admission.

Finally, a sense of joyousness now and again sneaks up and grabs the reader, especially in the proliferation of fascinating side characters. There is Manet, the student in no particular rush to graduate, counting his schooling in decades rather than semesters; Devi, the loan shark played (in a delightfully Whedon-esque way) against type and all the more scary for it; and one instance when Kvothe and a stranger take delight in the surprise of each other's good nature amidst a landscape of moral turpitude and apathy. Both having arrived at a better place than where they started from, they connect:

"You have a lovely inn here. I'd count myself lucky to have one as nice when I've grown up." I handed him the penny.

He broke into a huge smile and handed back the penny. "With such nice compliments, you come back any time."

And, I would like to. Notwithstanding my reservations, I relish the unabashed braggadocio that Rothfuss, like a prize boxer, brings to the fantasy ring. But the author affords his supporting cast too little screen time. As an actor, Kvothe should know when to leave the stage and let his colleagues take a bow.

Copyright © 2008 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog,, is always wide awake, though.

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