Rothfuss, Patrick (2008), The Name of the Wind, DAW Books
Once every few years, a new star rises from the murky depths of the fantasy mainstream. His or her work is subsequently hailed as original, new, groundbreaking, mostly inaccurately. In 2007 the rising star was a young man named Patrick Rothfuss. His debut novel The Name of the Wind made a deep impression upon the scene and had success far beyond the usual circle of fantasy readers. However, while the book is certainly an outstanding read, a huge amount of fun, and quite smart, much of the hype that has aggregated around Rothfuss’ novel, the first in a projected series of three (we know how that usually works out…), is not due to any specific excellency of his but to the dire and formulaic writing that dominates this genre. Even writers such as Tad Williams, who have a lot of talent, a great imagination and energy to spare, spend much of their time coasting along on the gentle waves of a genre the closeness of which to Romance writing (I’m currently making myself read a Sandra Brown novel, hence, perhaps, the association) betrays the conservative bent of the thinking that fuels much of it. Writers like Samuel R. Delany or China Miéville are the exception, not the rule in the field. Before embarking upon the proper review, let me tell you that Rothfuss does not break much new ground, if any. He does, however, rise above many of his colleagues, since his is a smart and self-reflective take on well-worn material.
The protagonist, a man by the fetching name of Kote, runs a bar in the middle of nowhere, as we enter the book. Strange things happen the origins of which are not explained (yet), but in the course of which we learn that Kote is anything but a measly barkeep. He has certain powers. When a man who calls himself Chronicler, apparently a, well, a chronicler, a collector and teller of tales, turns up at the Waystone Inn, Kote’s auspiciously named bar, we find out that Kote used to be a hero and a legend that went by the name of Kvothe, or to give his full name: Kvothe the Bloodless. Kvothe vanished and Chronicler hunted him down to write down his story. Kvothe demands full control over the result and subsequently dictates his life story to the writer. They agree to take three days for this. Hence the full title of Rothfuss’ novel: The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day One: The Name of the Wind. The present, wherein Chronicler and Kvothe and a mysterious friend of Kvothe’s sit and create stories, keeps butting in, providing commentary but mainly disrupting the reading in a most pleasurable way, drawing attention to the telling. That is, generally speaking, something the book keeps doing, in different ways. It’s quite remarkable how consistently Rothfuss flaunts his concern with signs and narrative and how much this dominates the book. Basic genre assumptions of telling and authority are thus interrogated, if in a nice and gentle way. Rothfuss makes it easy to overlook many of these things by making them basic construction principles not objects of debate, but any good reading of the book would need to focus on these things, I think. His world is completely and utterly convincing, even now as I think back on it the smells and sounds and looks of his world rise before me. This is because he owes a large debt to Dickens, I think, at least as much as to his fellow fantasy wroters. But we’ll return to that.
Now we’ll return to Kvothe and the Chronicler. The full control Kvothe demands is not easily granted. Chronicler is used to be the storyteller, the shaper, the framer of stories, the man who writes and in writing constructs, creates an artifact that contains the basic, the salient facts of what people tell him orally. In Rothfuss’ vaguely medieval world, writing and reading is still a province of a few elite scholars, stories are proliferated by storytellers and singers. Songs especially are important. The connection between fabulation and truth-telling is a close and interesting one here. Rothfuss far exceeds most of his colleagues who, like him use songs both as described objects and as reprinted songs in the books, but, unlike him, use them for decoration mainly. Yes, Rothfuss uses them as decorative elements as well,but songs have a deeper significance, too. Most revealingly in a section early in the novel. Kvothe is part of a traveling troupe, a highly decorated and accomplished one; at the same time he is of a people called the Edema Ruh, who are but a thinly veiled allusion to Roma. All this is related in a series of nice vignettes, anecdotes, it’s all rather cozy and nice to read. Until, well, until Kvothe’s father decides to find out the truth about the Chandrian, a mythical figure that’s said to cause senseless massacres now and then. No one knows why exactly. Thousands of stories and songs about the Chandrian exist and Kvothe’s father listens to a slew of them in each village or town they pass.
He’s like a one-man Grimm brothers, but he is just interested in the story. By and by he assembles a mental library of tales and starts reading them closely, applying hermeneutic methods to these texts (which are at no point actual texts) and extracts from them a version of the truth which he then starts to turn into a song. The proof that the song is actually and emphatically true is in a gruesome event that ends Kvothe’s happy childhood. The Chandrian appears and murders the whole troupe, only Kvothe’s life is spared. Don’t come running and complain about spoilers. It is one of the book’s most interesting aspects that it constantly tells you what’s about to happen, its suspense is of a different kind. So, early in the book, Rothfuss rubs our noses into the fact that in his book, legends, fairy tales and songs can be made sense of within the limitations of truth-telling. Clearly, it suggests a similar reading might be applied to The Name of the Wind, too. I’m a bit befuddled tonight so the only thing that directly occurs to me is the Sinti and Roma tangent. See, traveling people such as the Roma always had a hard time, and today it’s getting worse again. Stories are told by all sorts of people but they are written down and kept and filed by authorities and in turn they help stabilize and reinforce them. The Edema Ruh just as the Roma do not get to write their stories, they sing songs, but when they die the songs die with them. Kvothe’s father’s song is forever lost. He was able to raise his voice but not to record it. So when Chronicler turns up at Kote’s bar and expects to exert full control over the material that Kvothe has to offer, Kvothe, with a lifetime of experience, stops him in his tracks and turns him into a tool. He’s using the writer, but controls him, checks what was written and decides what will be told and what won’t. His song will not be lost. His is a tale of disenfranchisement and of rising to the top despite of that. And it’s not just or even primarily about race, it’s also to a large extent about questions of class and power.
After his parents are killed, Kvothe travels to the next town where he lives on the street for the next three years, living the life of a street urchin. Far from having Gavrotte’s sunny demeanor, his experience in the streets is darkly Dickensian. This episode and much of what happens in the academy later is ‘realistic’, but in a critical manner. These early episodes of living on the street are about fear, first and foremost, about relearning one’s place in society. The trope Rothfuss is using to exemplify that are Kvothe’s feet, which he cut up during his first weeks and months, but which healed and grew thick and strong, sturdy enough to serve as shoes in the absence of money for those. Rothfuss’ gift is visible in the fact that he doesn’t merely use the trope to show Kvothe’s process in his time on the street, to be abandoned once shoes become affordable again. No, he returns time and again to his trope, refining it, proving it to be an apt metaphor for adaptive development. In fact, Rothfuss seems to use the three years in the wet and the cold, hunted by policemen and fellow urchins, sleeping in cellars and on roofs, as a launching point for his exploration of class. As I said, Rothfuss is rather mild-mannered about these issues, but his world isn’t Jordan’s where class is used a decoration, at best. The Name of the Wind returns to class as a factor in answering the question of What will I eat? Where will I sleep? Who will listen to my story? Most impressively in the events after Kvothe leaves the town that has raised him and decides to enter the academy to become what other colleagues would have called a wizard.
A school for people who want to become proficient in magic? Right. J.K. Rowling’s books clearly must be part of the frame of reference here. Harry Potter‘s become so inordinately famous that it needs to be considered and it’s the closest comparison that I could come up with. Usually arcane academies are less hands-on, contain less descriptions of what we would consider normal school routine. What’s more ,a comparison would be profitable, because Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts is so thoroughly different from Rothfuss school, and the main difference is probably this: Rowling’s books, especially the first one, are a paean to consumerism. Without being the least bit critical, she provides, more or less, a series of low-key fantasy examples for what Marx called the Warenfetisch, and constructs a consumerist wonderland. Yes, even in Harry Potter, there are poor people such as the Weasleys, but their poverty is exoticised, it’s cute and all in good spirits. They are jolly people who can’t always afford new brooms so younger kids have to take older siblings’ old brooms, etc. even though it’s a horribly outdated model. Compare this to Kvothe’s bloody feet. No-one, to my knowledge, is really threatened with having to leave Hogwarts on account of poverty, and is thus barred from knowledge. This, however, is the constant threat that hangs over Kvothe’s head and the academy takes steep rates, and is not in the habit of handing out scholarships, thereby ensuring that the skills and the arcane knowledge that can be gained in the academy stays in a certain circle. Kvothe has to fight and scramble to stay in the university and not starve. It’s just as realistic as necessary, but it is fantasy, after all. The mixture makes for addictive, sumptious reading. Kvothe’s struggle dominates the rest of the book, which also contains his quest to find out what exactly happened to his parents, the first beginnings of his legend.
Kvothe is a hero, as exceptional (compared to the common man) as any within fantasy. He’s almost supernaturally smart, agile and talented. But here’s exactly where he differs from the Rand al’Thors (and Harry Potters): his main superpower are his smarts. Rand al’Thor is thick as a brick basically and so are Goodkind’s and a good deal even of Hobb’s heroes. Kvothe is a born scholar, able to hold incredible amounts of knowledge in his head and break a cypher within minutes. He is more brain than brawn, although he fares well on that as well. But there, again, not something that he was born with (one of the most problematic constants in fantasy) but something that he acquired through his family business first and fighting for survival in the streets later. With this, Rothfuss cedes to a demand of the mainstream of his genre, as he frequently does; not without putting a twist to it. Rothfuss, as I mentioned before, is adamant in handing us key pieces of the plot beforehand. We know what will happen to the hero. He channels the reader’s suspense into his curiosity about the world, about its secret, its workings. To do this, one the one hand he uses and repeats certain tropes; on the other, he sends his hero off on a search for the Chandrian, fattening up the narrative with mysterious children’s songs like this
When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to o?
Run outside. Run and hide.
When your bright sword turns to rust?
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing Stone.
See a woman pale as snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Just as this song, the book as a whole is rather simple, it wears its complexities lightly, it’s first and foremost a good fantasy read. I read it in all of two days, and enjoyed it every step of the way. Rothfuss writing is not remarkable in any way, not in a bad, as in Goodkind’s case, or in a good way, as Miéville’s. The book is a solid read, but Rothfuss proves himself a smart writer, who is aware of many undercurrents of his genre and turns that awareness into constructing devices of his book. If you like fantasy, you can’t really bypass this book. If you don’t, I guess you could be unhappy with many genre trappings that Rothfuss kept and reproduced. The Name of the Wind is, perhaps, not a very good book, but a very enjoyable one. It’s very much worth reading. I hope this review has made a good case for that.
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