Monday, 12 October 2009

Book review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

(Gollancz, 27 September 2007)

There have been plenty of debut novel success stories in the fantasy genre in recent years. Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Peter Brett all made big impressions with their debut releases, yet Patrick Rothfuss blazed an even brighter trail with his first novel, The Name of the Wind. Accompanied by considerable online fanfare (perhaps even surpassing the buzz that surrounded Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora), it apparently shifted more than 40,000 copies in hardback alone - a staggering figure, made all the more incredible given Rothfuss's status as a debut author. In the space of two years, and with just one novel under his belt, Rothfuss has already firmly established himself as one of the stars of the genre.

A few years ago I would have probably approached The Name of the Wind with an anticipation bordering on rabid, but after nearly two years of blogging about books I've realised that such anticipation often proves problematic (in other words, the book rarely lives up to the hype and you end up not just feeling disappointed, but in effect reviewing the hype rather than the book). Furthermore, I've learned - from often painful experience - that the buzz generated by some books is often completely unrelated to the book's actual quality - marketing budgets, release dates, positioning in book stores and various other factors can seriously influence a book's sales. Rumours from the nether regions of the interwebs suggest that DAW pumped a lot of money into promoting The Name of the Wind, while Rothfuss's editor declared it was "the most brilliant first fantasy novel I have read in over 30 years as an editor". I therefore approached The Name of the Wind with caution, determined to review the book on its own terms, and to ignore the eye-wincingly loud fanfare that accompanied it.

Even so, I did find it difficult to keep my anticipation in check, and was not helped by one of the best blurbs I've ever seen on the back of a book:

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. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.

As far as I'm concerned, that is how to write a blurb.

It's somewhat frustrating then that none of the above-mentioned incidents actually occur in the The Name of the Wind. Instead, the novel begins the life story of Kvothe, focusing on his childhood amongst a wandering troupe of troubadours, followed by his tough existence as a street urchin on the streets of Tarbean, before finally moving on to his experiences at the University of the Commonwealth.

If that very brief overview makes the novel sound rather conservative, it's because it is. I have to take issue with the various reviewers who praised the novel for being original - it's not. The story - at this stage at least - appears to be a classic wish-fulfilment gig - young boy grows up to wield impressive powers, overcoming various obstacles on the way. The conservative nature of the novel is also reflected in Rothfuss's world - a disappointingly bland, medieval-esque creation.

For many readers, this isn't an issue (the majority of fantasy fans are conservative by nature, which is why so much awful cliched fantasy sells so well). Those of you who have followed this blog for a significant length of time will probably have realised by now that - while I prize strong characters and a good story over everything else - I do like to see authors being inventive and innovative where possible. The Name of the Wind, for me, suffers in this respect simply because it brings nothing new to the table; instead it recycles a load of ideas that have been used numerous times by other authors. As Scott Lynch once wrote, "The truth is that there are no bad clichés--only badly considered and badly applied ones." In other words, if you're going to use a cliché then at least do something a bit different with it. Rothfuss does this at times, but generally not enough to satisfy my personal taste.

I rather suspect that the blandness of the world is partly due to the severe lack of information we're given about it. The events of the novel take place in a single country - The Commonwealth - but few details are revealed. I managed to deduce that it had a feudal-style political system and an established monetary system, but beyond that it was a mystery. A bit more info to lend some depth would have been very welcome.

When an author is using such familiar tropes and settings, they really have to nail the characterisation (because otherwise you're writing about a Mary-Sue in a bland, cliched world - and who wants to read that?). Fortunately Rothfuss just about pulls this off. Kvothe is a strong protagonist - intriguing, likeable and pleasingly flawed. It will be interesting to see how his character changes over the course of the series, since this is clearly the focus of the books. The supporting cast are mostly well-rendered as well, such as the fleeting, mysterious Denna, the good-humoured Abenthy and the stern, placid Lorren. However, some characters could have done with a little more depth - Ambrose, for example, is a stereotypical boorish young noble, who is disappointingly one-dimensional.

Rothfuss's prose - though stylistically nothing special - is accomplished and flows well, with the odd lyrical flourish here and there, along with the odd well-judged moment of humour. I wasn't particularly enamoured with the rather large segments of exposition, masquerading as songs and stories being sung/told by other characters - they interrupted the flow of the story, and perhaps could have been handled with more subtlety. The book's plot is constructed well, and I liked the various interludes that allow a pause in the story, giving the reader the chance to compare the adult Kvothe to his younger self. That said, I found the first half of the book rather slow at times, while throughout the novel there are various scenes that could have perhaps been removed since they didn't seem to serve much purpose.

So far I guess I've painted a rather negative picture of The Name of the Wind, so it might come as a bit of a surprise to you that despite the flaws mentioned above, somehow the book managed to hook me. I think the real key is Kvothe himself; there's just something so earnest and likeable about him, and as I followed him through his various hardships, I found myself really rooting for him and interested to see how everything panned out. At times it does seem as though he has an answer for everything (perhaps too much for such a young man, even such a gifted one) but the problems he faces and consequences he suffers just about remedy this.

Verdict: The Name of the Wind is a solid debut, rather than a spectacular one (I can easily think of several debuts I enjoyed more). There are some flaws, namely the uneven pacing, the lack of depth to some characters and the disappointingly bland world. Yet the book is saved by its protagonist, for Kvothe is a very well-realised character with plenty of depth, who is endlessly intriguing. His lifestory is absorbing, and while The Name of the Wind doesn't totally do his story justice, there's enough here to suggest that Rothfuss can deliver something special in future.

10 comments:

Brett said...

The burning of Trebon does happen in this novel.

logankstewart said...

Hmmm. I suppose the hype could definitely be detrimental to a reviewer, but thankfully I read this book long before the fanfare started and I loved it.

I completely agree that Kvothe is the driving force of the novel, and his tale leaves me wanting to know more about his life. For me, I found the occasional song/verse juxtaposed nicely with the prose, and it didn't bother me (unlike some of Tolkien's).

It's hard to read a critical review of one of my favorite books, but you defend your reasoning soundly. The medieval-esque world was indeed slightly bland, but to me the lack of description allowed me to infer culture and society.

All in all, a great review. I'd be prepared for Pat's Legion of Followers to hound you, though, but I won't be on that train.

James said...

Hmm...yeah perhaps. I mean, the blurb says "I (Kvothe) burned down the Town of Trebon" but in the book he doesn't technically do it himself, does he? Plus you can hardly say the whole town burned down, because it didn't. I guess this led me to think that the blurb was alluding to a future incident, though I could well be wrong there. :)

James said...

Only just saw your post Logan, you must have posted it seconds before I did mine!

Well, different strokes for different blokes I guess. That's the great thing about the online genre community - the fact we disagree! If everyone agreed all the time there would be little to discuss.

And I know what it's like when you read a negative(ish) review of one of your favourite books, it's very easily to take it personally. But of course, this review just expresses my own opinion, which is valid as anyone else's (but no more important).

ediFanoB said...

I read your review with interest because I expected a review which will differ from all the praises.
I must admit this one of my favorite books too.
But why should I hound you? You explained in detail what you liked/disliked. Reviews like yours give me the opportunity to have a different approach to a book.
Anyway I completely agree that Kvothe is th driving force of the novel.
I look forward to read the second book.

Iain said...

James,

A very well written, considered review.

I approached NOTW around the same time as The Lies of Locke Lamora. These two books got me back into fantasy in a big way and for that reason I am very fond of them.

If I was to read anything into the worldbuilding it may be that this is more of a character driven novel say than the mighty epics of GRRM and Steven Erikson where the world they are set in is everything. NOTW is much more intimate in scale, focussing on Kvothe's first steps in a wider world. Perhaps we don't know too much of that wider world because Kvothe is a kid for most of the novel and spends large parts of it as an urchin scratching a living off the street. I was particularly fond of the old holy man/monk who cared for the various urchins during this section. However, I did find some of his escapes from dire situations in the University just a little too cute for my like.

But when you look at it Pat Rothfuss's first novel is the kind of debut all aspiring novellists can only dream off.

My hope for the second and third novel is that we see more of the wider world Kvothe has such a huge impact on and how he gets involved with Bast and the Fey folk.

As you say this is the joy of blogging on SF/Fantasy -- all opinions (as long as they aren't bitching about missed Amazon release dates) are welcome and can add to the experience of reading these novels.

James said...

EdiFanoB: I'm glad I managed to get my points across clearly, because there's nothing I hate more than people saying "I hated this" without explaining why (the opposite is true as well). And yes, I am also looking forward to the next book as I'm interested to see how Kvothe's story unfolds.

Iain: That's a very good point you make about the worldbuilding - hopefully as the story progresses, and Kvothe travels around a bit more, we'll see more of the world (and hopefully it'll be more interesting that it first appears).

I'm not sure I agree that GRRM is writing a series where the 'world is everything' - I think ASOIAF is also very character-driven, but with an intriguing world as well. Erikson perhaps demonstrates your point better.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as saying that The Name of the Wind is the kind of novel aspiring writers would hope to write, but I've certainly read much, much worse debuts! I'd certainly not be complaining if I wrote a book that achieved the success Rothfuss has enjoyed!

Iain said...

James,

You are quite right about the GRRM comment -- he is so much more than a careful world builder. I should have added that his characters are pretty damn special!!

Shame on me! :)

Anonymous said...

I actually thought the point of the blurb was to demonstrate the difference between the actual events of his life and the legends that are eventually told about him. So you have the (potentially menacing) statement about him burning down Trebon, when in actuality it was a bit more complicated than that.

I agree that the world comes off as a bit bland, and I also agree that it is most likely due to the fact that we're limited to the perspective of a single person who has yet to really explore the land.

I agree with you the most about Ambrose. He definitely came across as a stereotypical spoiled noble's son with a sadistic streak, and that's hardly original by any stretch of the imagination.

On the other hand, though, it occurs to me that it's not as if Kvothe is a reliable narrator. When you're viewing events like that years later it's easy to turn people into caricatures in your recollection. Especially given some of the things that occurred between them.

But then again, I'm fairly fond of this book, so my musings may be fairly rose-tinted.

Still, it's nice to see a review that actually seeks out the weak points of the novel instead of just blindly denouncing it because it's too popular.

Carry on,

~Derek

K.A. Denby said...

I loved this book. Just got through writing my review. And I have had a hard time finding fantasy that I like.