Fantasy Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
So I finally read The Name of the Wind after it had been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year. Actually, I’d picked it up, tried to get through the Prologue, and given up more than once. There was just something about that melodramatic, purple-prose-y introduction that turned me off. But eventually, a recommendation from my sister got me to power through and give it an honest go.
Now, I don’t want anyone to get all up in arms about this being a two star review; it’s probably actually a 2.5 as it was better than okay and I really did like the story. But this is another book that, for my tastes, could have used a heavy-handed editor. There is no doubt in my mind that Rothfuss is a talented writer. He has built an intriguing world, the mechanics of magic are well thought out, and his prose has moments of stunning clarity and true beauty in equal measures. But much of what I liked about this book was drown out by a lot of over-written, repetitive metaphors and a tendency to belabour ideas until I stopped caring about them.
I think The Name of the Wind is a five star book that is being smothered by itself. In my opinion, Rothfuss would not have needed to add anything to gain a five star review from me; it’s in there. He just needed to trim the fat a little more closely—okay, a lot more closely—for it to be visible. And I also recognize that this style of writing is exactly what some people love, and I do understand why so many people have given it 4-5 stars. I get bored reading Tolkien, too. So shoot me.
My biggest issue with the prose is that much of the imagery just doesn’t make sense. For example “The man had true-red hair, red as flame.” (Pg. 1, and elsewhere). Now, I don’t know about you, but I have pretty much never seen a red flame. A candle-flame is nearly white, with soft yellow and orange edges. Flame in a fireplace is mostly yellow and orange as well, with some white and blue. I’ve even seen green flame; try lighting a Cheeto on fire. But I’ve never seen a red flame. Am I crazy? Is there some magical red fire that I don’t know about? Please tell me I’m not the only one! And the image is used constantly throughout the text. This might seem like nit-picking. If it was the only image that seemed off to me, I’d probably let it slide. But The Name of the Wind is rife with them.
And the images that do make sense are often followed immediately by other, less ideal images. “[The cuts] gaped redly against the innkeeper’s fair skin, as if he had been slashed with a barber’s razor or a piece of broken glass.” (Pg. 40) Do we really need both? The image of broken glass, to me, is the more effective one. It evokes a violent, ragged wound. The barber’s razor would leave comparatively cleaner, more sanitary looking cut. Either way, the two images are at odds with one another. Which is it?
Similarly, “Kote’s voice cut like a saw through bone…He spoke so softly that Chronicler had to hold his breath to hear” (Pg. 45). I find these images contradictory. It’s distracting to have one thing described in multiple, contradictory ways. These two examples are not the worst, they are just the ones I happened across on a brief scan of the first few pages. I actually wish I’d made note of the imagery I liked and the imagery that didn’t work so that I could articulate this issue more clearly. But I didn’t. And I’m not going to re-read the thing just to prove a point. Other reviewers have gone to the trouble already, I’m sure.
Other things that bugged me: too many types of currency (can we at least have an index to reference, please?), unnecessary changes to days of the week (again, please proved a reference, because the names themselves are arbitrary and confusing), names of languages do not necessarily match their place of origin (again, this would be fine if there was an index, but there’s not and it’s confusing), the constant use of names in conversation (when two people are talking to each other, they don’t usually start every sentence with the other’s name… that’s just weird), the story within a story within a story format (sometimes it works great and I like the effort and detail Rothfuss has put into the mythology, but the main Chronicler/Kvothe bookending comes across as extremely contrived), the convenient plot resolutions (there is literally no conflict that doesn’t just magically resolve itself without direct input from Kvothe)… but not enough for me to dwell on. I can forgive the convenience of the plot because I found the rest of the world satisfyingly complex. I recognize that the Arabian Nights style narrative is just not to my personal taste. The other issues on their own wouldn’t bother me that much, but together they cry out for an editor.
There is one issue that is difficult for me to get past, however. And that is how everything is “the best.” Sure, Kvothe’s a Gary Sue, but that doesn’t really irk me. It’s a common enough problem that, if the rest of the book is up to snuff, I tend to just ignore this problem. But not only is Kvothe a Gary Sue, but it’s like everything he touches is the best of the best.
The Edema Ruh (the name of which will always remind me of the terrible swelling I had during pregnancy) are Gary Sue style performers. Everything they do is described as so completely without compare that I don’t believe in them. They don’t make mistakes. They know every song and story that ever existed. They are flawless and boring. Kvothe’s mastery of the lute and his song-writing are so heartbreakingly beautiful that he stuns everyone wherever he goes. But this doesn’t leave any room for people who don’t like the lute, maybe, or who prefer a different style of music. No. He is just amazing and everyone who hears him recognizes it instantly. And every time I read one of the songs he’s written, I am heartbroken. Heartbrokenly underwhelmed.
Similarly, Kvothe’s description of the love of his life is so over the top perfect (in Kvothe’s mind) that she is immediately disappointing when we meet her. And the problem is that what one person finds attractive may or may not jive with what another person finds attractive. We don’t all have the same taste in men/women, or music, or wine. There is no such thing as “the best,” nothing is perfect to everyone. It is self-defeating to describe anything so simplistically. These characters couldn’t live up to their own hype. No one could. And it’s not that Rothfuss isn’t up to the task, it’s that no one is. There is no perfect description of anything that will satisfy every reader. So don’t even try. Seriously.
Anyway, enough of the negatives. I want to get back to what I like about this book. Rothfuss has done a great thing in building this world. It may not be the most unique fantasy world ever created. And it doesn’t need to be. It is whole and believable. The magic works without becoming a convenient plot device (one of the few easy outs that isn’t taken advantage of, interestingly), the world mythology is rich and complex and integral to the story (this is a huge, impressive achievement), the characters are varied and interesting, the story is multifaceted and engaging. There are a lot of good things going on with this novel. Sadly, I really do feel like it’s a 5 star book hiding in a 2.5 star body.