Sunday, August 12, 2012

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

It's difficult to put a reaction to this novel into words, so I suppose I will start at the beginning.

Patrick Rothfuss, according to wikipedia, was born in Madison, Wisconsin and received an MA at Washington State University in 1999. He took his sweet time with Name of the Wind, his debut novel, and won the Writers of the Future short story contest in 2002 with an excerpt from it. It was published in April of 2007 and the sequel, Day Two: The Wise Man's Fear, was published March of last year.

I first heard about this book from my Dad. As one half of my only beta readers (the other being, of course, my mom) he picked it up and immediately told me how much I needed to read it. My avid love of fantasy is something I largely attribute to my parents: when Harry Potter appeared on the scene my mom took it upon herself to read me the first book as a bedtime story and my dad, not one to hesitate, started reading The Hobbit with me at the same time. From there we moved on to The Lord of the Rings and it was all over. That said, I cannot stress how much he knew I needed to read The Name of the Wind. I groused and put it off and did a year of college, insisting that something that good would have to wait until I could read it nonstop. That much was true, but I'm still kicking myself under the table for waiting.

The Name of the Wind is the best book I've read in a year. More. I was ensnared by The Graveyard Book and Child Thief, but this one took hold and didn't let go. It took me probably a full week to burn through its seven-hundred plus pages and now:

Excepting, of course, that this one has a sequel.

The Name of the Wind features a complete world with well-thought out concepts and is populated by theologies, philosophies, and several languages. It has two differing and conflicting versions of a creation myth. It has established rules. It makes statements about social class and stigma. It is populated by rich, captivating characters who are nothing if not convincing.

But I think the thing that kept me reading the most is that Rothfuss carefully cultivates a sense of urgency in every aspect of this story. In the "present" strain which bookends (and interrupts!) the novel, there is an urgency in the mystery of how legendary Kvothe came to be reduced to unassuming (and potentially depressed) Kote, and an urgency in why his apprentice is so desperately attached to his old self. In the "past" strain of the story every single plot is motivated by a sense of fleeting urgency: Kvothe spends most of the novel hideously destitute, which makes everything more valuable and he willing to go to greater lengths to get the money necessary to continue his education; The Woman (as he calls her) is often described as wild and he is never certain of when he will see her again; the one thing he desperately wants to know the most about is largely considered a faerie-story by others and thus will get him branded as insane or childish if he pursues it.

A device which helps along this sense of urgency is that Kvothe is telling the story himself, so he often drops hints about the future and how the story will unfold and then takes his dear sweet time in getting to them or simply leaves it at "but that, as they say, is a story for another time." These sleeper-cliffhangers are sudden and can happen at pretty much any time; as a reader I personally was spurred onward, looking for the loose ends. The end of the book is one of these sleeper-cliffhangers, and it's possibly the most powerful line in the whole novel because it happens twice, once in the prologue, and once in the last chapter. When it appears in the prologue, there's no context with which to put it in place, it's just an intriguing hook. When it appears at the end, it turns into one of those lines that make you either want to huck the book across the room or try and find a bookstore open at midnight.

Another thing which deserves mentioning is Rothfuss' attention to female characters. He makes a point of the fact that women students are rare in the environment in which Kvothe is studying, but he goes to great effort to put several of them in very significant positions in the story. Each of them are unique, memorable, and each of them has a different kind of strength. For example, Mola is a distant upperclasswoman studying in the Medica who is analytical and efficient. Fela is a student who works in the Fishery (read: campus workshop) and is able to sell her products for profit. Devi is a former student and moneylender who doesn't take no for an answer. Denna is fiercely independent and more than once insists on not being "beholden" to anyone: in a word, she does what she wants. I think fantasy and sci-fi novels, especially epics, have a general tendency to lack strong female characters and The Name of the Wind breaks that stereotype wonderfully.

Coming up next is The Wise Man's Fear. I'm sure it'll be just as good as book one.
Cheers, and good-night.