The Name of the Wind, 672 pages
The Wise Man's Fear, 1008 pages
by Patrick Rothfuss
Review by S.F. Winser
In my ongoing heroic quest to reintroduce myself to epic fantasy I've done myself two major favours in the past month.
The first was watching the HBO series 'Game of Thrones' which, even though this is a TV series based on a book, I will digress long enough in this book review about a totally unrelated book to spray various rantings at you like 'fantastic' and 'awesome' and 'bloody hell, there's a lot of blood!'.
The other favour was to give in to the curiosity that I had about the first book of this trilogy: 'The Name of the Wind'.
I was twenty pages into book one when I started to make plans and reorganise budgets so that, at some point in the very near future – preferably before I finished this first book – I would hie me to a bookstore and purchase book two, 'The Wise Man's Fear'.
So in the space of four days – in the middle of every other task I actually need to perform to keep my family in foodstuffs and our house from descending into total squalor (rather than its usual state of borderline squalor) – I managed a handful of hours sleep, blew my book-buying budget and flew through about two thousand pages of awesome storytelling.
This is the story of Kvothe. Kvothe is a simple bartender in a tiny town. Except he's not known as Kvothe, he goes by another name because Kvothe is the name of a storybook hero. A swordfighter of note, an assassin, a wizard and a renowned musician. Kvothe the Mighty, Kvothe the Bloodless.
He's hiding in this out of the way town for several reasons. We don't know what most of them are, though one major motivation seems to be simply hiding from his own stories. There's definitely something else going on, though.
Kvothe has been tracked down by a man known as The Chronicler (because of his obsession with history), who has been looking for Kvothe for years. Eventually The Chronicler convinces Kvothe to tell his side of the story of all the legends that surround him. Reluctantly – very reluctantly – Kvothe agrees.
This makes up the body of the books: Kvothe telling the story of his life from childhood, thorough university, through musical quests, through university, through university, finally out in the world then back to university (seriously, there are a trove of awesome happenings, but my one major problem with these books is how long they linger on Kvothe's academic life). These are interspersed with minor (but dramatic) happenings in the bar that Kvothe now runs under a pseudonym. It is the clashes between the high heroics of the stories and the ineffectualness of Kvothe in the here and now that builds a real intrigue into the book beyond a collection of otherwise well-told happenings in a fantasy world. Kvothe is a genius and well-trained in magic, famed through the lands for his magical power. Why can't he cast spells? How does the master swordsman get his butt kicked by thieving bumpkins?
The Kvothe of the past is a tragic genius. There's a tendency to almost want to hate him. He's a gifted musician, a fantastic wizard, a clever inventor, great with words, too smart for his own good... It's this last that both saves and makes the book. Kvothe may have talents out the wazoo, but he's also always, always in trouble. Often tragic, heartbreaking trouble. And much of it of his own devising. Kvothe isn't some mystical hero – he's an extremely-bright, overly-confident kid with a sad history and a completely believable need to prove himself.
There's a thoroughly intellectualised magic-system. Magic in this world is complicated, takes concentration and training and is mainly used by the highly-educated. There's a femme fatale at the heart of a sad love story that runs through the book. There's believable world-building full of intricately described cities and countries with their own individuality. There are quests (with only an exception or two) of a completely worldly base. What killed Kvothe's loved ones? How will he survive on the streets? How will he find his love? How will he get tuition money? And along the way he almost accidentally causes legends to spring up around himself. The quest of 'make love to as many women as you can just to prove how good I am at teaching lovers' that Kvothe is given by a fairy lust-goddess is one of the less 'serious' quests that start to strain believability. For the most part, all of this gels into believable characters in a fully-realised world acting from truthful motivations.
It is also, quite often, hilarious. Rothfuss is brilliantly wry. It's also creepy here and there. The 'all seeing, yet evil, talking tree' may not sound ominous, but I admit that it caused me a few day of philosophical ruminations caused by the concept of a malevolent being with pure foresight who can influence the future with its words. Any reaction you have to meeting it – is the wrongest possible reaction. Including trying not to react to it.
This is (so far) a great series of books. At turns funny, dark, exciting, sad and always well told. This is a book, in many ways, about the nature of story and Rothfuss is a brilliant teller-of-tales.