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The Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussUK edition3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn the publicity materials for The Name of the Wind, DAW’s grande dame Betsy Wollheim describes Patrick Rothfuss’s maiden effort as nothing less than the best fantasy debut she’s read in her entire career. Given DAW’s storied legacy, and the number of fantasy debuts they’ve published in thirty years by authors who have gone on to join the genre’s superstars, this judgment could seem a little rash and potentially even insulting to any number of seasoned pros. Mark me, The Name of the Wind is a good book, even a very good book in its best moments. But it’s got as many first-novel flaws as I’ve seen in just about any other debut I could name, and it eventually commits the one sin I’m adamant no series novel should commit: when you get to the end of its 660 pages, you realize that everything you’ve read has only been setup for books two and three and ever onward.

10th Anniversary EditionRothfuss is working from a deep well of natural talent. You don’t have to get much more than half a dozen pages in before acknowledging that you’re looking at a skilled writer. His ease with language and unpretentious, flowing prose are a pleasure to behold. Such craft makes this lengthy novel fly by. Indeed, his writing is so good that unattentive readers may overlook a few glaring plot flaws, as well as the fact that at the end, quite literally nothing is resolved. Of course, in series fiction, one expects much to be left open for resolution in subsequent books. That’s the point. But I have this kooky idea that good series novels still ought to work in the same way good stand-alone novels do. Each book ought to have its own set of conflicts that achieve narrative closure, the resolution of which acts as the springboard for the next book’s conflicts. A great example would, as usual, be Martin (with the general exception of A Feast for Crows). The unforgettable climactic battle in A Clash of Kings settles that book’s major plot concerns, but opens up all new conflicts for A Storm of Swords. David Gemmell’s Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow resolved its narrative, and Shield of Thunder built its narrative upon that. Et cetera. There’s no closure to anything at all, really, in The Name of the Wind. It’s all a 660-page preamble. 

But Rothfuss has chops. This is a briskly entertaining read. Our hero is Kvothe (pronounce the “v” like a “w”), and when we meet him, he is living out his days incognito as a small-town tavern keeper. The land is plagued by evil, unrest, and scary monsters. Kvothe is tracked down by a historian calling himself the Chronicler, who knows the man is more than he seems. Thus we begin Kvothe’s story, in flashback, as we learn of his youth, and how he eventually became one of the most important and influential men living, responsible, it would seem, for massive wars and the fate of nations before ending up in a small town to while away his days in obscurity.

The Name of the Wind concerns us only with his youth. Kvothe’s childhood is spent blissfully among his father’s popular troupe of traveling performers. Here he meets an Arcanist, Abenthy, who teaches the precocious boy the fundamentals of sympathetic magic and encourages him to attend the famed University to hone his talents. After Abenthy departs, having filled the mentor role adequately, the troupe comes to grief at the hands of the Chandrian, evil creatures long believed (and still believed by most) to be mythical. Kvothe, the lone survivor, makes his way to the nearest city, Tarbean, where he spends three harrowing years as an orphan. At 15, he finally ends up — still destitute, but not exactly living like an animal either — at the University, where his training under Abenthy gets him enrolled.

We’re about a third into the book at this point, and the writing is excellent the whole way. Rothfuss’s accessible voice gives his story’s sense of place a gritty authenticity. Still, vexing plot flaws mar the experience. If Kvothe’s father’s troupe was as famous as he says they are (“We were court performers.... Our arrival in most towns was more of an event than the Mid-winter Pageantry and Solinade Games put together.”), then you’d think word would have gotten out about their massacre. But it’s never mentioned in passing by any supporting character. Why aren’t the roads alive with men-at-arms banging on doors and seeking out the killers? Late in the novel, a similar massacre happens at a wedding among people presumably less famous, and the next day it’s being gossiped about in taverns 70 miles away. Wha?

Also, if Kvothe is an expert actor, gifted lute-player, and a skilled novice in the use of sympathetic magic, why does it take a whole three years of starving as an urchin on rooftops before it occurs to him to use those talents to better himself? I understand he’s bereaved about his parents, but survival instincts are what they are, you know. Time and again we see him beaten as a beggar, but all at once, the day he decides to leave Tarbean for the University, he gets the bright idea to pretend to be a haughty nobleman’s son to trick a merchant out of some clean clothing. Why didn’t he do this ages ago? And, once at the University, indigent and in perpetual worry about earning enough to pay his upcoming tuition, Kvothe buys a secondhand lute with his last coins so he can earn money playing at taverns. He immediately begins feverish practice, worried that he’s gotten rusty in three years. But Rothfuss seems to have forgotten that on the road to the University less than six months before, Kvothe borrowed a lute and played a masterful solo that left his fellow travelers slack-jawed in awe.

So you see, there are a number of sloppy inconsistencies. Fortunately, most of these are limited to the first half. But they’re visible. It’s just a bit much to ask readers blithely to accept that your hero, having barely managed to survive the past three years as a mangy street rat, then turns up at the most prestigious University in the world and, within days, practically takes charge of the place.

Yet Rothfuss’s writing remains absorbing. As the book moves into its second half, a number of genuinely intriguing mysteries are introduced, building your investment in the tale as Kvothe inches closer to the secret of the Chandrian and his hoped-for vengeance. Happily, any fear the the University scenes might be overly reminiscent of Rowling’s Hogwarts are quickly nullified, even though familiar tropes put in appearances. Kvothe finds himself with both loyal friends and a bitter, vindictive rival. There is also a love interest in Denna, an enigmatic girl with a penchant for appearing and disappearing at whim. Frankly I didn’t like her much, because she’s more of a symbol of the Unattainable than an actual person. It’s dead obvious Rothfuss has something up his sleeve where she’s concerned. Late in the story there is a tragic event at which Kvothe is surprised to find Denna present, as there is no good reason for her to be there. So we know something’s up.

But other characterizations feel more vivid, and there’s some artfully timed suspense, wit, and a handsomely rendered world. It’s enough to earn The Name of the Wind a recommendation despite reservations. You’ll find a story that is, on balance, some nice escapism, by a writer who became a major name in the field in no time.

Followed by The Wise Man’s Fear.