Locus Reviews Patrick Rothfuss
by Faren Miller
from Locus Magazine, March 2007
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (DAW 0-7564-0407-9, $24.96, 668pp, hc) April 2007.
Reviewers swiftly acquire a healthy skepticism about pre-publication hype, but that needn't mean death to the sense of wonder. Even a doorstop-size debut from a familiar genre publisher, first in a high-fantasy trilogy with what seems to be the usual apparatus a Young Man of Destiny, a University for wizards, Words of Power, Magical Accessories, etc. -- can provide surprise and delight in equal measure. Not very often, maybe, but The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss turns out to be just as good as the galley blurb says it is.
When we first see Kvothe, he's an adult going by the name of Kote, an obscure innkeeper with very little fire or glamour about him (someone likens him to "a plant that's been moved into the wrong sort of soil and has begun to wilt") who shares the scene with both regulars and new visitors to the inn and never dominates it. By the time he finally admits who he once was and takes over as first-person narrator of a "book of deeds," speaking to a Chronicler who wants to take down his story, it's clear that both he and his world are damaged, but he doesn't take on the tragic air of the fallen hero turned antihero/destroyer.
His childhood in a troupe of wandering players and youth as a hardscrabble street-urchin seem to have taught him to favor the mundane over melodrama. When he looks back on his days as a flame-haired wunderkind -- swiftly multilingual, a natural actor and ambitious student with a gift for magic in both its occult and grubbier alchemical aspects -- he doesn't romanticize.
In one of the Intervals that return to the inn and third-person narration, Rothfuss slips in a bit of pertinent metafiction. Kvothe discusses why his life is not some clichéd "tavern tale," beginning with a question: "Think of all the stories you've heard.... You have a young boy, the hero. His parents are killed. He sets out for vengeance. What happens next?" This is familiar territory for the Chronicler: "He finds help. A clever talking squirrel. An old drunken swordsman. A mad hermit in the woods. That sort of thing." And then? "He finds the villains and kills them." But, this hero points out, such an account omits years of mourning, solitude and trauma.
And even though the "very real obstacles" he'll have to face before there's any hope of vengeance (poverty, low status, "the enemies I made at University") won't surprise any reader of Dickens, this is a far cry from rote heroic fantasy. Here's how Kvothe describes one of his first magical exercises, in "sympathetic binding".
I stuck the two bits of metal together with pine pitch. I fixed in my mind the Alar, the true belief, that the two bits were connected, I said the words, I pulled the coins apart, spoke the last word, and waited. No rush of power. No flash of hot or cold. No radiant beam of light struck me. ... It was magic, there was no doubt about that. But I felt rather underwhelmed. ... I don't know what I had been expecting. It wasn't this.
He also admits to naive blunders and psychological misreadings of both friend and foe, for neither innate brilliance nor hard-won street smarts can keep a teenager from screwing up badly -- usually at the worst possible time. That goes double for intimate relationships: "I was clever, a burgeoning hero with an Alar like a bar of Ramston steel. But first and foremost, I was a fifteen-year-old boy. When it came to women, I was lost as a lamb in the woods."
Writers like George R.R. Martin and Gene Wolfe are old hands at revitalizing old tropes, giving fantasy the depth and humanity of the great literary novels, but Rothfuss sets out to retell what should be the most familiar tale of all, in the most familiar mode (the triple-decker). Remarkably, he does make it fresh again in this opening book, complete with an interesting take on magic that adds both emotional impact and intellectual excitement. So bring on volume two!
This is one of over forty reviews from the March 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.