“Read The Name of the Wind, Kam. You’ll really like Kvothe, I promise, he’s awesome.”
“Sure, sure – when I get to it. And only if you read the Gentlemen Bastards.“
The above is, in a very paraphrased format, a conversation I had with my friend Chris in the aftermath of another friend’s LARP party during Halloween last year. I’d been trying to get other people to read Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series for a while now, and I’d already managed to make some headway: most of the people I’m closest to have already read the books and loved them. But Chris is part of another set of friends whom I haven’t managed to convert to the joys and miseries of Lynch’s writing, so I decided to start in on him, first. And if he wanted to get me to read another book as trade, I thought it was only fair: a book for a book, what could be better?
But I kept putting it off and putting it off, partly because I’ve got a bit of a magpie brain and will read whatever catches my attention first; partly because it’s my To Read list and will read whatever I damn well please whenever I damn well please; and partly because none of my closest friends had tried it out, and I’m a touch leery of reading anything that hasn’t been given a test run. Of course, I’m willing to take one for the team, so to speak, but I was distracted by my magpie brain and was reading a lot of other things, though I did keep it in the background of my thoughts as something to read – soon.
And then when my friend Sian, who’s one of those handful of friends I mentioned earlier, said that she’d read The Name of the Wind and loved it, I figured it was high time I picked it up as well. So, to kick off the New Year, I decided to finally give it a shot and see if Chris and Sian were right in their assessment.
And I do have to say: they’re right. The Name of the Wind is a very good read for the most part, despite some very small reservations that some people might consider nitpicking, but which I consider relatively minor and which I expect will be more or less fixed or accounted for in the second book in the series.
The Name of the Wind is the first novel in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. Jumping between third-person and first-person perspective, it tells the story of the life of Kvothe, a bard who has done things worthy of story and song: fought battles, wielded powerful magic, saved maidens of high and low birth, and of course, killed kings and dragons and a great many other things besides. But he has long since disappeared from the world, and no one knows where he has gone – until a man calling himself Chronicler accidentally comes across him while on a journey, and from there begins to set down Kvothe’s story, as told by Kvothe himself.
One of the first things that hooked me about this book was the language. There’s a kind of musicality to Rothfuss’s language that I really enjoyed, and which anyone with an appreciation for that sort of thing will love as well. And it’s not just the descriptions: there’s plenty of internal rhyming as well, especially within the dialogue. Take this quote, for example, which comes from a bit of dialogue towards the beginning of the novel, when Kvothe first begins telling his story for Chronicler:
If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.
This internal rhyming happens quite frequently in the beginning of the novel, and then less so towards the middle and latter portions. I’ve come to see that the absence or presence of internal rhyming, especially in Kvothe’s dialogue or narration, is rather key to understanding his psychological state. It’s clear that Kvothe thinks of himself as a musician and storyteller first, and hero second (albeit not a very distant second), so there’s a certain musicality to his dialogue and his language. it comes and goes, though, so being able to catch it and follow its patterns is a good way of understanding what’s going on in Kvothe’s head even as he tells his own story. It’s a subtle thing, but I find that subtlety to be a good thing: if it were more obvious it’d get in the way of the storytelling.
And really, that’s the whole point of this novel: the power of stories and storytelling. Sure, it’s got action and feats of derring-do; it’s got magic and mystery; it’s got love and romance, but in a way they’re not really meant to be the focus of the novel at all. They’re the vehicle through which the reader understands the storyteller, Kvothe, a living legend who has done his best to fade into obscurity. Chronicler is determined to find out why one of the most famous men of his world wants nothing to do with the world anymore – and the only way he is going to get those answers is to hear and understand Kvothe’s story. And since Kvothe’s a bard, that story is going to be told according to the rules of oral storytelling.
Which is where I find a lot of other people have issues. Many people have complained about the way Kvothe’s story is written: too rambling, too cliche-laden, illogical in places. The thing is, I think these people don’t understand that Kvothe is telling his story according to a specific storytelling tradition, one that’s oral in nature, not written. It’s very clear in the beginning that Kvothe is telling the story to someone, and that other someone is writing it down to preserve the tale exactly word-for-word, as Kvothe tells it.
The conventions for oral storytelling are very different from the conventions used for written storytelling. The flaws I listed above are actually necessary cornerstones for oral storytelling. Rambling allows for extra flair on the storyteller’s part, or gives them time to think, or explain something they think needs explaining. Cliches, on the other hand, are shortcuts, allowing the listener to make quick and clear associations and imagery in their heads without burdening the storyteller, or themselves, especially in a long tale like the one Kvothe is telling. And as for the lack of logic in some places, this is again expected in an orally-told tale. In-depth description and explanation works well in writing, but not in oral storytelling – or at least, not in every single aspect of the story. If a storyteller tried that, they’d be out of a job, because oral storytelling is as much performance as it is tale-spinning, and anything that slows the flow of the performance is disastrous. It’s also quite obvious that Kvothe is glossing over some things for personal reasons, and so if he does do that then it might be a sign as to what’s really going on in his head, thus providing further answers regarding why he’s hiding out in the middle of nowhere. A subtle thing, like the internal rhyming, but there for anyone who can pick it up.
Here’s the thing some readers seem to forget: Kvothe is himself a storyteller – and it’s a skill he takes genuine pride in, above his magic and his fighting prowess. So it stands to reason that he would exert all his skill as a storyteller in telling his own story – and this also means that he’s using his own considerable skills to tell the story as he wishes it to be told. It’s not necessarily the true, objective truth – such a thing is patently impossible, and any journalist or historian knows that one doesn’t automatically take a story as truth without some kind of corroborating evidence to back it up. It’s something the reader ought to keep in mind, especially when thinking about the parts Kvothe emphasizes, and the parts he chooses to gloss over. It’s also made clear in the end that he’s not telling the whole truth, either, so it would do the reader good to pay close attention to not just what Kvothe is telling, but how he’s telling it, as well. This applies to everything, especially to the way he talks about the other characters, as well as the way he talks about himself. It’s best to go with the flow of his story, but to be conscious not to entirely trust him: he’s hiding something, not just from others but from his own self, and the reader needs to be aware of that.
Now, having said all that, and despite understanding why the story is told the way it is, I do think that this could have been told at a somewhat-faster clip. I understand why the pacing is as slow as it is, but I do wish it had been a bit snappier. I also rather wish that it hadn’t been written in first-person, but that’s only because it’s such a limiting narrative technique, and I would love nothing more than to climb into Kvothe’s world and learn everything I possibly could about it. But I’m also entirely aware that there’s a reason for the choice of narrative perspective and the slower pace, so I really think I’m just nitpicking about those two things.
Overall, The Name of the Wind is an enjoyable read, even if it does take some getting used to. Some readers might not quite understand or appreciate the narrative and stylistic choices Rothfuss makes, but just keep in mind that Kvothe is telling the story as opposed to writing it down, so it’ll take some adjustment in terms of how to approach the story and everything Kvothe says in it. He does so in very fine, musical language which I think some readers will enjoy just for the sheer pleasure of it, but do keep in mind that everything he says is biased, to a degree, so it’d be good to take his storytelling with a grain of salt. It’s slow to start, but this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten sucked into a slow-moving series. I can only hope that it picks up further down the line – hopefully in the second book.