The Name of the Wind is a bit of a puzzle. On the one hand, the novel has some interesting ideas and does a few things very well; on the other hand, it has some very notable problems.
The book starts out in third person, opening with a well-written prologue. There are some elegant passages here, and it really starts the book off on a high note. As we continue, a handful of characters are introduced, doing all sorts of interesting things that should be the start of a lengthy novel. Evil spider things that might be demons? Count me in. A mysterious guy who looking for someone specific that just might be in this tiny town? Sure, why not. Another mysterious guy whose eyes turn blue when he’s attacked by some kind of magic? Now I’m good to go!
But, then the characters sit down to listen to one of them, Kvothe, tell his story. The world is going to hell, but in this tiny part of it, a scribe is looking for the legendary Kvothe’s life narrative. Fair enough, for Kvothe holds the secret for why this world has gone to hell.
And here is where the problems begin. The story is framed thusly: three characters are in the Wayside Inn. They are sitting around a table listening to Kvothe tell his entire life story which will take three days time. The bulk of the novel is Kvothe’s first person narration of his life story, starting when he was young and living with a traveling group of performers.
There are certain expectations one has when going into a true life narration told orally. We expect the narrator to have memory gaps, to stumble with his words, and to offer asides and explanations. We expect stretches of the truth and outright lies at some points because such things spice up the monotony of life. We expect flaws in a story that’s only been lived and never once told from start to finish.
For the most part, we don’t get those things.
Kvothe narrates the first third of his life in this book with no problems of narration. He never stops and goes, “I don’t quite remember what happened next but…” or anything of the like. He remembers giant conversations from when he was ten years old and tells them perfectly. He remembers specific and intricate details about his time in school, even though that time was long ago. He simply remembers too much. It’s just not believable.
There is also way too much dialogue in the novel. Conversations abound, and they can get a bit tiresome, especially since the entire story is being told verbally at a table. Paraphrasing is useful, and Kvothe needs an editor. It doesn’t help that some of the dialogue isn’t the best out there. Much of it comes off as awkward, as if all of the really smart characters are talking down and lecturing to those around them. Passages just wreak of “No one talks like that!”
Kvothe himself is his own problem as well. He has lived an interesting life, but he isn’t an interesting character. Oh sure, he has his ups and downs, but the summation of his parts is: he is clever and really good at everything he tries to do. He’s a character who has suffered, but he’s also a character with no real flaws to his name. He is boring. Every challenge thrown before him is overcome, mostly with ease and self reliance. There are few struggles to his struggles, and so it’s really difficult to empathize with him.
A boring character with an interesting life makes for a puzzle of a novel.
The pacing to this novel is also a bit of a problem. Too much time is spent on the various areas Kvothe has visited, and considering Kvothe himself has only three days to tell his story, you’d think he’d pay more attention to the details thrown in. A huge section is devoted to him being a poor beggar in Tarbean, and that section is fine and dandy at first, but it quickly grows stale. Much of the information given in this section doesn’t seem all that relevant either, making it all the more aggravating. This is the “Kingkiller Chronicle” after all, so start getting to the juicy parts where you kill some kings. I don’t need to know how you got your first pair of Tarbean-made shoes.
Thankfully, once Kvothe moves to the University, things pick up. We are introduced to some new characters that are all pretty fun and likeable, and the University itself is an interesting place. The reverse to that is Kvothe only has three days to tell his story, so spending the entire first day talking about his experiences at school seems an inefficient use of time.
Kvothe, being the clever sort that he is, has no problems with the schoolwork or mastering difficult concepts of Sympathy (a kind of magic), so his obstacle is affording the tuition, and much of the novel revolves around that. It’s cute at first, but it grows a bit dull. I enjoy the idea of magic schools—I love the Harry Potter books—but Kvothe’s story is more than his time in school, so why are so much time, energy, and stress spent there?
But, I love the way this book treats magic. I’m a sucker for books that try to describe magic—even though that’s counterintuitive—and this one does a fun job of it. Magic here is a kind of mix of alchemy and thermodynamics. Since everything is made up of matter and energy, Sympathy simply controls the way matter and energy link together. It’s fun to see the uses of Sympathy and the academic explanations of it, though since the laws of thermodynamics didn’t show up until the mid-1800’s, the whole thing becomes a bit of an anachronism. Kvothe’s time of living surely isn’t the 1800’s.
While Kvothe isn’t all that interesting, the characters he runs into are. Simmon and Will become his two friends, and they are likeable chaps and work well together, offering a nice handful of laughs on top of everything else. Ambrose makes for a fine school antagonist, even if he is a tad on the cliché side. The people that run the school are all fun and eccentric, and the former student Auri that Kvothe runs into is a perfect mix of adorable and broken. Their relationship is well written, sweet, and a bit sad too. She stands out as being the best part of this novel.
Denna, the love interest, is also pretty interesting and a nice mirror to Kvothe. Whereas Kvothe overcomes all of his obstacles by being clever, she has to use more normal and less law-abiding methods. She’s not above leaving an inn without paying her bill, and though it’s never stated, it’s assumed that she sleeps with rich folk looking for a pretty lady to shower with gifts. Whereas Kvothe can be manipulative, she straight-up uses people. She’s a great foil and the two make for an interesting, if not awkward, pair.
It’s a shame that the story doesn’t have much of a climax or buildup. Things happen, and then it’s pretty much over. I can pinpoint what is supposed to be the climax, but it isn’t all that exciting and ends with Kvothe being the hero because he has to be. What comes after is a bit on the boring side, though thankfully the last third person section is fairly enjoyable and well written. The problem is that story is told like there are two parts to follow, and so the more important climax is somewhere in the second or third novel.
If you can get over the framing issues, there are some good things in this novel. My biggest gripe here was the way the book was framed; it’s just not an efficient way to write a story. Patrick Rothfus’s third person sections are great, so I don’t know why the entire novel isn’t written that way. And though Kvothe might not be an interesting character (and though he might be a bit long winded in his details), the world he is in sure can be, and the characters he encounters surely are. It’s a book that’s hard to recommend since there are better fantasy novels out there, but it’s also not a book that is straight out bad. I had some fun with it though, notable problems notwithstanding.