REVIEW: THE NAME OF THE WIND
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Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind
– July 9, 2021
So I tried The Name of the Wind. I picked it up because it is said -- or I have heard it claimed -- as being "literary" fantasy, and I gave a copy in a store a test read and liked the language. (Though, I bought my copy online, a nice hardback for next to nothing.) Great first page, but that is usually an illusion, as it is here. And the book does bear the stain of that phenomenon of the first page seemingly having been given more attention, in terms of language, that any other twenty pages combined. But I will give Rothfuss a little credit in that his writing never becomes wholly pedestrian. Not that I would call it terribly artistic, but he can turn a phrase, and it is far better than the likes of Sanderson. (Well, on page 79 he whips out an "insatiable lust for knowledge," which is so trite a phrase it might on its own disqualify a book from being "literary.")
Unfortunately, the plot does often become pedestrian. I quit reading at page 225, when Kvothe reached Inma, after the rather poor chapters of the journey thereto and his momentary infatuation with Denna. Which I found pointless fluff used only to fill out the journey. But, then, it seemed that much of the last many pages were just filled out with fluff -- which is to say the whole of his time in Tarbean. Yes, granted, this is the nature of the book, a long biographical narrative, but that does not preclude the author from having a reason for including whatever parts of the biography -- that is, a reason beyond "this is what happened next." Indeed, that is greatly the difference between a poor biography and a good biography: the latter is building up a picture of something, usually (but not always) the person who is the subject of the biography. A poor biography merely proceeds from time period to place to time period to place simply because "that is what happened next." And that is how The Name of the Wind reads.
At least, once it gets to Tarbean. And once it gets to Tarbean, things really slowed down. The story got monotonous, and the telling often repetitive. But that is not the only problems with The Name of the Wind. Where does the book start? In a tavern/inn. How terribly clever. Where does the story quickly get to? A young but extremely talented boy being taught by an equally talented master. Again, standard, fantasy fare that might be setting up the story of the boy but really is just slogging something done ten thousand times previous. And, just to say, what the hell happened to all that teaching once he got to Tarbean? It seemed it all went out the window. He could not somehow use it to establish himself in town in some way? That to me was a major problem in the story. One the road the boy is being built up as having all these abilities, and they all disappear the second he steps foot in Tarbean.
It is always an issue -- an extremely large issue at that -- when some major part of the story is conveniently forgotten so that some other part of the story can proceed.
A similar narrative issue occurs when Kvothe first starts telling his story, for which he demanded a night's preparation (am I remembering correctly? a night?) And yet, when he begins, he begins with a stuttering "I should start with X, but there's Y. So I really should start with T, but there's U. So maybe I should start with N . . . ." etc. If he wanted the night to prepare, how could he have not at all decided where to start? Again, an instance where the book ignores one part in order to do something later on, and I found it annoying. Indeed, once you know about what happens to his parents and the troupe, and who apparently enacted it, it seems absolutely absurd that he would think the story should start anywhere else.
Rothfuss also has problems with logic. A major example is when Kvothe binds his breath to the air (98-99). We are told afterwards that doing such "would make it impossible for him to breathe." Yet, the story went: "I drew in a deep breath and spoke the words to bind the air in my lungs to the air outside. I fixed the Alar firmly in my mind, put my thumb and forefinger in front of my pursed lips, and blew between them." So, which one? Impossible? Or possible? Rather big screw up that Rothfuss should never have let happen.
Worse was the core of the first interlude (90-95), where the Chronicler tried to attack Bast. Just think about that scene. Here you have a fellow who has come a long way to interview Kvothe; who knows who Kvothe is and what he is capable of, which includes killing him and burying him in the back; and who has had to convince Kvothe to tell him his story. And yet he attacks Kvothe's friend?? That makes no sense whatsoever. None. I almost stopped reading right there.
Plus, did you notice that in this scene the Chronicler is portrayed as someone willing to take on the likes of Bast, yet, earlier, in the burned out barn, fighting the scrael, he is portrayed more as a bungling idiot, incapable of defending himself? Another clash where what is said in one place is ignored to make way for something opposing in another place.
Anyway, I knew I was not going to read anything but this volume. And, with Tarbean being little more than shallow -- if not in part contrived -- narrative, and the idea of The Name of the Wind as "literary" fantasy easily cast aside, I was done with it. As I say every time, I am not interested in genre fantasy. Though, it did take two hundred-odd pages for me to grow weary of The Name of the Wind, so that is something. But it is really little more than shallow narrative. (I know, I said that already.) And I would rather be reading meat than milk. And, putting it aside, I did. I reread George Bataille's Story of the Eye, which I recommend. But try to get the Penguin edition with the essays by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. Those, too, are worth the read.
It is curious how true literature has the traits of true fantasy. (Something Sontag points out.) And Story of the Eye is true fantasy. But, then, we are not talking about genre fantasy.
Pick up Moby Dick, and read it as a fantasy novel. (You will need the Norton edition for the notes, the book assumes a lot of info that would have been common knowledge in 1850.)