Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest of hearts. –Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss’ debut fantasy novel and first volume in the Kingkiller Chronicle, is seemingly the simple tale of one man’s life. However, it becomes rapidly apparent that Kvothe is no normal man, and this is no simple tale. Told through a frame narrative, it begins in the present day with Kvothe—a one-time hero now in exile—as he commits his life story to paper. The tale weaves between the present and past of Kvothe’s life, following him from his tragic childhood when his family is murdered to his time at the University, an institution committed to teaching mundane subjects such as grammar and arithmetic to magic. As Kvothe grapples with various challenges, from childhood homelessness to the class and economic struggles of University life, he remains determined to learn more about the mysterious group of people who killed his family, known only as the Chandrian.
The Name of the Wind manages to be an unique work in its genre, despite sharing many of the common characteristics of fantasy fiction. We get a vaguely medieval European setting, an orphan boy protagonist, and a school that teaches magic. However, the setting is written so well that one can almost reach out and touch it; the protagonist is compellingly flawed; and the school of magic is stacked to the rafters with tantalizing mysteries. The first-person point of view provides a deep, intimate look at the main character’s inner thoughts: Kvothe is incredibly clever, and he knows it. His intelligence and wit make him larger than life and a worthy hero of any tale. What he does not know—and what perceptive readers soon discover—is that he is rash, emotional, and prone to making bad decisions. He is a liar, a thief, and a trickster. Deliciously worse—he is unapologetic about it: “I also felt guilty about the three pens I’d stolen, but only for a second. And since there was no convenient way to give them back, I stole a bottle of ink before I left” (218). Kvothe is flawed, but despite his failings, he remains sympathetic. His characterization is refreshing in a genre oozing with knights in shining armour.
The novel employs a distinctive magic system that combines rule-based, logical magic with a more mysterious and unpredictable power. This combination allows readers to learn the rules of magic along with Kvothe, and later, solve problems along with him. It also gives readers the same sense of wonder at the more fickle, enigmatic magic that sometimes occurs in the book.
Rothfuss’ writing walks the tightrope between prose and poetry. He draws from legend and fairy tale to give his story an enchanted atmosphere, but often it feels as though the real magic lies in the words, in how exquisitely he describes the biting cold reality of homelessness in winter or the tragic destruction of Kvothe’s father’s lute: “My body was almost too numb to feel my father’s lute being crushed underneath me. The sound it made was like a dying dream, and it brought that same sick, breathless ache back to my chest” (150). These haunting, mythical passages drive The Name of the Wind into the territory of the exceptional, where his world becomes fully immersive. The nursery rhyme about the Chandrian, for example, is charming and bone-chilling at the same time:
When the hearth fire turns to blue
What to do? What to do?
Run outside. Run and hide.
When your bright sword turns to rust
Who to trust? Who to trust?
Stand alone. Standing stone.
See a woman pale as Snow?
Silent come and silent go.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian. (568)
The setting is vibrant, the magic is unique and complex, but the real reason you will want to read The Name of the Wind is its protagonist. Through the frame narrative, we see Kvothe as an adult—defeated and in hiding—and then we are transported into his past to discover why he is in exile, and why he is no longer the hero he used to be. If the story is a tale of one man’s life, then we inevitably ask the question, who is Kvothe?
Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. DAW Books, 2007.
Review by Amanda Dawson, an MFA in Writing student at the University of Saskatchewan.