Wednesday, August 6, 2008

THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss

WIND represents the first book in the Kingkiller Chronicle, a trilogy in the purest sense of the word. I don’t know whether it’s the marketplace (“I have to wrap up the story of Book One because who knows if Book Two will be bought”) or just modern convention, but trilogies—even series: Harry Potter?— these days have more in common with stand-alone books than they do with their serial ancestors. But THE NAME OF THE WIND is truly a “first of three”—and as a modern reader, used to the stand-alone-ish books in a series—I couldn’t help but be frustrated.

First of all, WIND (and one can’t help but assume the entire series) is an astonishing achievement: seven hundred-plus pages of extraordinarily rich and dense fiction in the most classic fantasy style. It’s the story (oral autobiography, really) of Kvothe, the unremarkable tavern keeper, who is truly his land’s greatest hero (and sometimes anti-hero) hiding in plain sight under a false identity. When his story (which he tells for posterity to the Chronicler—Book 1 representing Day 1 of the storytelling) begins, Kvothe is living a bucolic and charmed childhood, the son of traveling players, and the apprentice to an arcanist (wizard?). His path is altered by tragedy and eventually reconstructed as a quest for revenge.

The book’s plotting is remarkable (even more so because one assumes Rothfuss is keeping many of his balls in the air until the end of the series—his website tells us that he’s “finished” Kvothe’s story, if not perfected it). Many of the minor characters are well drawn and “alive” and interesting (Bast and Auri come to mind). And frankly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a book so “well-blurbed”—anybody who’s anybody in classic fantasy has labeled Rothfuss the Next Big Thing.

Maybe I’m just a tough sell these days. But as I read this book, it made me truly understand one of the many reasons that the Harry Potter series is truly worth every bit of love and honor that has been heaped upon it. Simply put, Harry is a real kid. Everyone, even baddies like Malfoy and Snape and Voldemort, is real. My chief complaint about WIND was my chief complaint about the MAXIMUM RIDE books. Rothfuss creates a young/teenaged Kvothe that’s as savvy, sexy, sophisticated, and smooth-talking as—well, as a ridiculously savvy, sexy, sophisticated, and smooth-talking twenty something. I don’t care if “living on the streets” is supposed to make you old beyond your years, Kvothe woos with spontaneous poetry and makes difficult choices unclouded by the fog of youth. He suffers existentially but not with the usual teenaged confusion. As I said, the plotting is excellent, and the young Kvothe’s story is appropriately messy and flawed and full of bad choices, but the character of young Kvothe processes these challenges with the sophistication of an adult with a PhD in philosophy.

Rothfuss dips his toes into post-modern meta-fiction at times, both with the multiple levels of narration and fluidity of time and with instances of self-reference. At times this is precious and clever, but at times it read as an ass-saving mood. Just when you think Kvothe’s biography is delving into long held fantasy clichés, Rothfuss-as-Kvothe interjects and says something along the lines of “I know what you expect now—young runaway finds wizened old mentor who teaches him everything he knows and then dies a shocking death—but that’s not exactly what happened.” And sure, it’s not exactly what happened, but it’s kind of what happened. No amount of winky self-awareness can dull the edge of WIND as a veritable buffet of conventional-fantasy events. Here’s the one where he fights the dragon. Here’s the one where the woman with the beautiful voice turns out to be the woman he’s had a crush on. Here’s the one where his rival destroys the one thing he’s sentimental about. Here’s the one where the crazy sage turns out to be the wisest one.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book is worthy of much of the hype when it comes to sheer accomplishment. I just can’t understand the abundance of dwarf-adults that populate fiction for or about children. It may be worth noting (as I noted in my review of the MAXIMUM RIDE books) that it appears that Patterson didn’t have a daughter and that Rothfuss doesn’t have children. As Kvothe grows, so does his humanity, and in the grand scheme of things (grand scheme = three epic-length books) my gripe may represent a drop in the bucket.

The fact that I was ticked off when I realized that I would have to wait til April 2009 for the next installment means I was more invested than I thought I was. I hope Rothfuss can maintain the momentum.

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