“Here you go then.” The innkeeper laid down three pens, a jar of ink, and my receipt from the bookstore. “These gave me almost as much of a puzzle as why you had run off without your clothes.”
“I’m going to the University,” I explained.
He raised an eyebrow. “A little young, aren’t you?”
I felt a nervous chill at his words, but shrugged it off. “They take all kinds.”
He nodded politely as if that explained why I had shown up barefoot and reeking of back alleys.
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Synopsis: Unwilling to let himself go down misrepresented in history, Kvothe Kingkiller narrates his own story to the Chronicler. Over the course of this first day, he tells of his beginnings in a troupe of the performing Edema Ruh, of destitution when the Chandrian destroy the life he knows, and of becoming a gifted musician and arcanist and joining the University.
Notes: While much of epic fantasy focuses on the saving of worlds and the motions of kings and armies, The Name of the Wind—the first in a trilogy known as The Kingkiller Chronicles—focuses in on a single character, known as Kvothe (which, Rothfuss helpfully points out early on, rhymes with “quothe”, which I believe is supposed to be “quoth”, but that may just be my spelling nerdery up against unstated reasoning from the author.) Kvothe is genius, wizard, musician, performer, hero, failure, naive yet street-smart, dangerous but compassionate—more than enough character for what should eventually be three 600-page books.
Though ostensibly told in third person, the bulk of the narrative is Kvothe’s own: an older-and-wiser, sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous telling; something like what might have happened if The Wonder Years had been written about Aragorn son of Arathorn.
From its beautiful title and short, haunting first chapter, Kvothe’s story sets itself among the great works of fantasy. Prose-wise, it’s not the only great work to contain annoying stylistic quirks, but said quirks are comparatively few and the book reads smoothly overall. Kvothe’s insistence on giving his own story in his own unedited words, once Chronicler has talked him into it, provides a nice little bit of theorizing about storytelling—nothing too deep, but enough to leave the reader feeling as if they’re in the hands of a master.
As soon as he starts talking, Kvothe himself is immediately human. The reader gets all the vicarious experience of life as a poverty-stricken, exceptionally intelligent wizardry student, but they experience it as Kvothe, with his determination, his faults and strengths. Kvothe is no shell for the reader’s emotions. He insists on being known fully for himself, on account of which, he gains all he needs of the reader’s allegiance.
Rothfuss’ magic system is scientific, treated with all the informative detachment of the university professor. It is neither a sort of superpower, like Robert Jordan’s or J.K. Rowling’s, nor a summoning of supernatural beings, like Susanna Clarke's. Nor is it a form of religious derivative or sorcery; the religion in the book bears no apparent connection to the working of the arcanists at the University, with their sympathetic bindings and alchemical laboratories. It’s an intriguing setup.
Religion does have a presence in the book, but Kvothe comes across as something of an agnostic, more interested in scientific studies and being a man of the world than in the church of Tehlu. The story of Tehlu’s incarnation and conflict with the devil are interesting and full of relatively direct parallels to Christianity, but Kvothe’s closest experience with religious practice thus far is a curious piece of symbolism and a clear complaint about the world’s experience of religion and/or the church. It’s unremarked and beautifully done and therefore rather less irritating than bog-standard church-bashing. The perspective on religion is from the outside, however, for whatever that's worth.
Though technology and fashion are not current, the scientific mindset makes the story and characters comparatively relatable to the present day. Readers not usually interested in high fantasy may find this book to their taste for that reason, among others.
The tale itself, following more after the style of an old storyteller’s work than of a modern suspense novel, makes an honestly pleasurable read. It’s intellectual and witty, gripping but not necessarily out to destroy your workday or your sleep, funny and sad and hopeful, and certainly fascinating enough to hook this reader on the notion of picking up the sequel eventually.
Advisory: The scrael basically seem to be automatic, dog-sized killer spiders. They scared the pants off me in the first couple of chapters, and I was relieved to discover that they had almost no role in the rest of the story. I suspect they’ll show up in future installments, however. Be ye forewarned.
Recommendation: Read it for excellent, thoughtful development of an intriguing character.