January 8th, 2009
|12:24 am - You May Have Heard of This Book|
A few months ago, Ravi randomly recommended a book to me: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. He directed me to look at the author's shirt, which made me realize I had heard of the book and this guy—he had probably been linked on Whedonesque at some point—but I wasn't really interested since I don't do epic fantasy. The very next day, Seanan posted a book review...of The Name of the Wind. She gave pretty much no specifics at all about the book beyond drooling over its awesomeness, but what struck a chord for me was that she, too, had an aversion toward epic fantasy yet still loved the hell out of this book. Her short post made it sound like this was a book that was and will be Talked About, a book that once you read you must tell other people to read (as I am doing right here). And the reviews, which make it sound like the Second Coming of fantasy—or, perhaps, the novel itself—support that notion. Thankfully, I didn't read all those reviews before tackling the book myself. Having read it, however, I can see where they're coming from.
The Name of the Wind is the story of Kvothe (pronounced nearly the same as "quothe"). Kvothe is a legendary hero, the kind of hero people tell stories about. Oh, the stories they tell. Kvothe killed a demon with his pinky, Kvothe slept with every woman in five towns, Kvothe punched God in the face, etc. Some of the stories are hogwash. Some are true. The only man who really knows which is which is Kvothe himself. Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, Kvothe Kingkiller...Kote the Innkeeper? This is but one of the many ways Rothfuss turns the common fantasy tropes on their heads: you rarely see the Hero after his adventuring days are over. He doesn't play it for laughs, however; instead he takes the opportunity to examine Kvothe the man, the man behind the legend. What kind of a person does those things? How does he get there? Where do the stories come from? As I said before, the one person who can answer those questions is Kvothe himself and, luckily for us, he is all ready to tell his story in his own words.
And what a story it is! I will admit that in the beginning, I was a little wary of being In a Fantasy Novel, with the strange names and the medieval towns and the made-up languages. But beyond the expected trappings, the world and story are very grounded; Rothfuss has clearly put a lot of thought into what this world would really be like. There's enough detail that your mind can conjure up the scenes and images without much trouble; it's really almost effortless the way the story comes to life. There are a great many evocative descriptions, especially of fucking music, which is difficult to do even when you're not talking about a lute (and he talks about the lute a lot). After a while, you just get sucked in. Although the general plot is "Kvothe has a life," a central, driving plot does emerge and come into focus, fading in and out of the story when appropriate. It, too, involves stories, stories that perhaps are not just stories. Many stories are told in The Name of the Wind, and by now you should know that I am a great fan of stories about stories. Patrick Rothfuss is a man with a great respect for stories and storytelling as a human necessity.
And on the subject of storytelling: Rothfuss cleverly pulls the same trick as season four of Lost by casually spoiling the audience about certain events. Incidental characters mention some of Kvothe's deeds. Kvothe begins his tale with an introduction that recounts some of his more famous exploits. They are but vague, brief soundbites, so you spend the whole story waiting for the full explanations. As soon as you come across a familiar name or event, you wonder how Kvothe's description will come to pass. Here's a hint: it won't be how you expect. Rothfuss continually defies the expected fantasy conventions while at the same time working with and embracing them. It's a fine line, but he walks it masterfully. He and Kvothe are self-aware enough to know that fairy tales are just tales, after all.
The book really picks up once it hits the Harry Potter section; that is, when Kvothe enters the University. Stories about wizarding schools were around long before J.K. Rowling, but Hogwarts is the cultural touchstone of our generation, so the comparisons are inevitable. There's a pretty clear Snape and one-and-a-half Dumbledores. Kvothe does get himself a Draco Malfoy. Hermione is a boy. Dobby is a girl. But, in all seriousness, the Harry Potter-ness is largely superficial and mostly unavoidable. The University introduces us to a lively set of likable characters; Rothfuss could have easily created his own wizarding school series, but that's not his goal. The University is simply one important stage in Kvothe's life.
Kvothe's life is still going on, however, as he's telling the story. Throughout the book are William Goldman-style interludes wherein Kvothe reflects on how best to tell his story or gives his audience a chance to respond (Chapter Seventy-Five is a hoot). And Kvothe's autobiography is bookended with scenes from the present that hint that while he may have left his adventure days behind, they haven't left him behind. I craved more of them, as they were just as intriguing as the continuing mysteries emerging in Kvothe's tale, but I also knew that they were obviously intertwined: the past informs the present. Scenes from the present take on new meaning when you learn more about Kvothe's past. Throughout the book, Rothfuss pulls yet another neat trick: he will tell you something that, to your uninformed ear, will sound like it means something altogether different from what you realize it actually means some pages down the line. In fact, when you flip back, you'll wonder whether you were supposed to understand the original meaning to begin with because it seems so obvious. In his most impressive feat, a simple sentence—nay, a phrase from the beginning of the book takes on a different meaning at the end of the book and makes you see everything you've just read in a new light.
Isn't it great how I've tried to gush about the book without telling you anything about the book at all? Like Seanan, I don't want to spoil anything because there are so many surprises in store for the reader. Throwaway details reappear as plot points later on, so I don't even want to give any indication of what may happen in the book! It's a very well constructed narrative. Kvothe's life is never boring, but it is also not eventful to the point of ridiculousness. It just...is. As I said, you just get sucked in. The book is not without its flaws. Kvothe can be a little overwrought with his descriptions and feelings. Rothfuss's clever cop-out of using "You just wouldn't understand" as a perfectly valid excuse not to attempt to describe something can get annoying. The predominance of beautiful women—which Kvothe's audience does rightly point out as implausible, but they're in no position to verify the beauty of every woman he's come across—does make the story feel like a bit of a male wish fulfillment fantasy, despite the fact that Kvothe is not perfect and is not someone you'd really want to trade lives with and that none of the women are mere sex objects (although Kvothe is a horny teenager during the story). The many strengths of the book far, far outweigh any flaws, however. It's definitely good escapism, and a bit more.
But the worst thing about the book is that it ends. The Name of the Wind is the first in a trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle, and I need the other two books right now. Luckily, if Wikipedia and Rothfuss himself are to be believed, they are already written: Rothfuss originally wrote the whole thing as an insanely long book called The Song of Flame and Thunder, but it's been split into three books, which requires editing. Or I'm misunderstanding and it was just pitched as one insanely long book and the other books are not written yet, in which case Patrick Rothfuss better not get hit by a bus any time soon. I don't know when the second book is scheduled to come out (ETA: April?!), but there's enough in this first book to talk about until then. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it all over again.
Current Mood: enthralled
Current Music: Muse - Take a Bow