Let me first say that my experience with fantasy novels is pretty limited. I came to the genre in 2001 with the release of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring (I know, I should be ashamed). I walked out of the theater awestruck and astounded that I had never given (had poo pooed many times, in fact) the genre of fantasy a chance. Needless to say, I went straight to the book store and got my hands on copies of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It was all over for me after that. Tolkien had broken down the barriers of genre snobbery that had kept me from these books for so many years. The downside in coming to the genre in this way, and through such a landmark book (that description seems inadequate some how), was that Tolkien had set the bar so high that nothing else that I could find had a chance of ever measuring up.
I tried a few different books. Some were pale, thin imitations of Tolkien's epic, lacking the depth of characters and history that made The Lord of the Rings so tangible. Others tried so hard to recreate the sense of texture and layers that made The Lord of the Rings so believable, but sagged under the weight of so much bullshit exposition, ultimately revealing themselves for the imitations that they really were. I thought that the legions of fantasy fans who read fantasy books had either come to the genre for very different reasons than I had, or were willing to lower their standards for a chance to stand even in the fading light of a dying sun and the memory of the warmth it had given so generously before.
I found that I liked the idea of the genre, but felt cheated by the execution of it by these later authors. If genre conventions and clichés weren't enough, then the downright plagiarist Inheritance Cycle and the attitude of its pompous author, teenage publishing sensation Christopher Paolini, were the nails in the coffin for me. The popularity of these atrocities of writing amongst the fan base (young and old) was the icing on the cake. The fact that a 15 year old author could copy the storyline of the Star Wars trilogy scene for scene, dress his wooden characters up in Tolkien-esque skins, and get a publishing deal for it was beyond my capacity for imaginative thought. Paolini has even been quoted as saying "In my writing, I strive for a lyrical beauty somewhere between Tolkien at his best and Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf". Really?
I returned to the things that influenced Tolkien's stories; the histories and mythologies of the Scandinavians, Germans, and Celts. I re-read Beowulf and devoured books on Celtic and Norse mythology, supplanting fantasy fiction for historical fiction and the occasional other work by Tolkien. It seemed the snobbery that had kept me from the genre in the first place was somewhat justified. Thus, I left the notion of fantasy behind, at least where the medium of books were concerned.
In about 2007, as I perused the aisles of Barnes and Noble and other book stores, I began seeing a fantasy book cover that grabbed my attention (there were 2 different covers, by the way). I picked it up a few times, read the synopsis a few times, but never bought the book. I keep a running list of books to read, adding new ones as I find them, but this one never quite made the list. The sting of the burn of those awful fantasy stories was still too fresh for me to take any new offering seriously yet. After about a year though, I looked the book up on Amazon and did a bit of research on it. I decided to give Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel of fantasy, The Name of the Wind, a try. It was in paperback by the time I picked it up--less money=less risk as far as I was concerned. I would come to regret, first, the decision to wait and, second, the decision not to buy the hardbound version.
Given the long-winded introduction to this review and its subject matter, you might think that I am about to tell you that Mr. Rothfuss is the second coming of Tolkien and that The Name of the Wind is every bit the equal of The Lord of the Rings. I am not going to tell you that. In fact, there's very little that is similar about the two tales.
You may know by now that I'm not a fan of reviews that reveal plot points and/or spoilers of the book, so I will keep my summary very brief.
The Name of the Wind is a book that recounts the life of Kvothe (sounds like quote), a boy who dedicates his life to becoming a great sorceror. The book is told in the first person as Kvothe recounts his life's experiences to a biographer known as The Chronicler. The reader is treated to front row seats as we watch Kvothe grow from a boy to a young man. The plot is based on the basic theme of revenge .
So, with a summary like that you may find yourself wondering, "What's new?". We have a boy who is wronged by a mysterious foe, and subsequently dedicates his life to having revenge on said foe. Nothing new under the sun, right? Sounds a little like Harry Potter even, you might say.
Rothfuss, though, takes the seemingly well trodden revenge-fantasy plot and makes it brilliantly interesting by developing a well drawn protagonist and supporting cast, describing a vibrant yet brutal fantasy land populated by many of the usual suspects like dragons, bards, knights, and magicians. But Rothfuss takes nothing for granted. He puts his own spin on just about everything, making the tired and overused fresh and original again. Most of the characters break the bonds of stereotype, including a good portion of the characters that play more minor roles. The magic used, known as Sympathy, is well conceived and, as far as I know, original.
But the thing that Rothfuss manages to do, without the tedium present in other High Fantasy novels, is World Building. The made-up becomes real, as though it were some history previously unknown to us. Though he doesn't go so far as to create whole languages for his characters, as Tolkien did, his characters will occasionally speak sentences in an invented foreign tongue. Names for things, places, and people are so numerous and well crafted, and there is a sense of cohesiveness that lends credibility to it all. One does not get the sense that Rothfuss created names out of thin air and threw darts at them to decide how he would distribute them amongst the cultures in his novel. It all seems very organic, very evolved. Also, made-up songs and folklore are recounted and sung by characters throughout the book, some of which recur, giving the sense of an overall, well-established mythology within the context of the story.
The most alluring aspect of this book, though, is the wordcraft itself. If ever there was an appropriate use of the phrase silver-tongued it is here, in description of Rothfuss. Scenes and events are described in such beauty and detail, and with such rich language that I caught myself going back and re-reading sections just to roll my tongue around certain phrases and passages again. The good and the terrible are described in equal measures, rising above just mere writing, and nearly becoming lyrical at times.
The Name of the Wind restored my faith in a genre known for hacks who have made careers from standing in the shadow of a giant, J.R.R. Tolkien. I highly recommend it to anyone, and I eagerly await the rest of the trilogy.
Is Patrick Rothfuss the second coming of J.R.R. Tolkien? No. But his craft with World Building, characterization, and wordsmithing should put him at least on the same shelf with the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Robert Jordan.
Take it for whatever its worth.
The sequel to The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear is due out sometime in... well, nobody really knows when. For more on that check here.