The Name of The Wind is a first novel. It’s one of those “first” novels that blindsides the reader with such power and skill that one wonders how the author has managed to stay unpublished until now. The answer, of course, is that the author has been gathering experience and honing his skills; he has been writing for years, and only now has let his work loose to a grateful world.
That’s certainly the case with Patrick Rothfuss. His Web site implies he has been at work on this tale for at least 14 years, beginning in college. Along that road he managed to spend 9 years as an undergraduate, studying philosophy, medieval history, Eastern theater, anthropology, and sociology but majoring mostly in Undeclared. He finally consented to graduate with a degree in English. In 2002 he won first place in that year’s Writers of the Future contest, with a razor-sharp shard of this story, entitled “The Road To Levinshir.” Now the first volume of a true epic is revealed, and it’s wonderful.
It is the story of Kvothe, arguably the best and certainly the most infamous sorcerer in the world. Told primarily in flashback, it begins with Kvothe living incognito as an innkeeper in a tiny village. The events of his youth and young manhood are related to a chronicler (an amusingly accurate yellow journalist with a quill pen) who has tracked him down to see what’s become of the notorious sorcerer Kvothe. It’s tidily implied that he has a horrendous past, and has accomplished great and dreadful deeds in his time; by the end of this volume, it is also satisfyingly obvious that his story is far from over and, in fact, is about to resume. This is good news for the readers, because The Name of The Wind is a magnificent story.
Kvothe is the son of accomplished traveling players, roaming the roads in a string of wagons. His eccentric education begins among his parents’ troupe, at the hands of Abenthy, an elderly mage traveling as an itinerant tutor. The young Kvothe is brilliant, learning not only the performing arts from his parents, but the beginnings of sorcery. Abenthy finds Kvothe learns everything with appalling ease but little discipline, and impresses on him the necessity to attend the Arcanum of the University (the singularity of each is neatly implied in the narrative). Before Kvothe gets more than an inkling of what his life could hold, tragedy strikes: his parents and the entire troupe are slaughtered, and only the boy escapes.
The murderers are the Chandrian, mysterious and inhuman members of a band of damned black sorcerers whose names have survived only in legend. But Kvothe, though injured and traumatized, now knows they are real. He escapes with his teacher’s books, his father’s lute, and the vague intention of finding and destroying their killers. Badly damaged in soul and body, he gets as far as the huge city of Tarbean, where the essential helplessness of a child hits him like an avalanche. He spends the next several years as a feral child, in a state of degradation and despair. Gradually he heals and sets out to enter the Arcanum of the University — the only possibility still remaining from the wreckage of his childhood.
The remainder of this first volume of the Kingkiller Trilogy follows Kvothe’s scandalous progress though the University. He is naturally talented and incredibly skilled; also arrogant, careless, and self-centered. Being poor and orphaned at an expensive University gives him endless excuses for dishonesties large and small, and his skills as a nascent mage and lutanist make them possible. However, Kvothe is not evil. He is only young and driven, and Rothfuss makes his travails and compromises ring utterly true.
All the voices in this story are clear and natural. While young Kvothe is enrolled at a university for sorcerers, he is also still a poor boy struggling to force entry into a world beyond his means, and that gives his story an engrossing veracity. None of the characters are flat or shallow, not even the dreadful Chandrian, who have been pursuing their complicated damnation since the last age of the world. The implications of the world’s past and future are fascinating; the throw-aways that delineate an alien culture are elegant and well-crafted.
One wonders how much of Rothfuss’s university experiences flavor Kvothe’s educational adventures. There is certainly a familiar feel to the mornings-after the-nights-before, the rush to classes, the cliques and quarrels, the monthly stipend that only lasts three weeks — although the University has some marvelous oddities. We have all suspected, at one time or another, that insanity is common to faculty members and graduate students. The Arcanum actually maintains a hospital where those whose minds have cracked under the strain of learning sorcery are gently cared for. The best teacher at the Arcanum, who becomes Kvothe’s mentor, once was confined there as well — however, he now teaches. After all , he has tenure.
When I received the uncorrected proof for this, it naturally had no cover art (its cover ended up gorgeous; check the Web site). What it did have was a cover whereon the lovely Elizabeth Wollheim of DAW Books extols The Name of The Wind. In detail. All over. This was not a blurb; it was an exhortation, literally from front to back, to read this book and be enthralled. I was initially somewhat amused. I should have known Wollheim knew what she was doing. The Name of The Wind is a major fantasy novel, this is a brilliant debut, and there are still two volumes to go! For the first time in years, I am already regretting that an author is only planning a trilogy.
Originality cannot be over-valued in fantasy, especially in the cliché-ridden world of post-Tolkien fantasy. But Rothfuss’s is a detailed and well-realized world, owing no debts to anyone else’s imagination. The basic plots are, well, basic indeed: Good versus Evil, rich versus poor, need versus want, luck versus skill. But those are basics because they are real and they matter, and Rothfuss deals with them convincingly. His prose has authority and weight and yet can ascend to the lyrical. And it is captivating from page one. The reader settles into this world and is at home: which is the best treasure a story can give.
(DAW Books, 2007)