Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind” (2007) – A lot of people like this book. There was huge hype and lasting affection around it when it came out in the late 2000s, that magical time when we thought we had seen how bad it would get. It came highly praised by the likes of Ursula Le Guin. I have a lot of friends who like it. The friends I have who like it (when I posted about it on my social media, other friends with other opinions emerged, but that’s neither here nor there) use words like “poetic.” And Patrick Rothfuss himself seems like a decent sort, a harmless, fun-loving nerd who doesn’t appear to be using that performance of self as a guise to exploit others, as we see done (:cough: Joss Whedon :cough:) elsewhere in the nerd-o-sphere. His blog is all raising money for charities and pictures of his nice family.
So you can see why I might want to go easy on this book. Respected writers like it. More importantly, friends like it, and use language for it I feel weird challenging- am I really going to just diss my friends’ sense of aesthetic? Most pertinent of all, most of the time, when I really gun for a book, the author sucks in some way, like Mike Ma being a fascist or Sheila Heti contributing to tweeness and pretense in literature, to cite two recent examples. I can’t really say that about Rothfuss, who, I reiterate, seems like a decent, blameless guy.
But I will not go easy. I will reflect my experience. This book baffled me with its utter mediocrity. It bored and frustrated me. A lot of the time, when millennial critics say something bored them, they mean it offended them. This is not the case here- I would have taken some offense if I could’ve gotten it, just to spice things up. Similarly, when they say a piece of writing frustrated them, they imply there was something else they wanted the piece to be, or in non-fiction, wanted the author to acknowledge some hobby horse of theirs. I guess I wanted this to be good fantasy, but I’ll damned if I can say specifically how other than “be more exciting and interesting, and maybe shorter.”
“The Name of the Wind” is, mostly, the tale of one Kvothe. Kvothe lives in what we could see as a generic post-George-RR-Martin fantasy land- roughly medieval European technology level and social arrangements (though with post-Columbian-Exchange crops, like chocolate- I will admit that took me out of things a little early on), magic and monsters largely in the background… for now. Because this was supposed to be a big deal trilogy, there is an extended framing device, a good seventy-five pages or so dealing with demon spiders emerging in this little rural town, before we get to the meat of the story. The owner of the inn in this little town isn’t all he appears. A Chronicler shows up who knows who he is- Kvothe, big time badass wizard warrior. Chronicler wants his story and Kvothe, after some back and forth, agrees to give it, and that provides the action for much of the rest of the book. The demon spiders don’t come back- presumably they do in the second book or in the third book that Rothfuss probably at this point won’t write.
The biggest problem, if I had to pick one, with this book is that Kvothe is, as pointed out to me by a fan of the book, an utter Marty-Stu, a wish-fulfillment of the most banal fantasies of badassery that the first decade of the twenty-first century could conjure up. Kvothe relates his upbringing amongst traveling performers. From the beginning, he’s whip smart and savvy. He also talks like a twenty-first century adult, but we’ll get into that issue later. He meets an old wizard who teaches him some magical basics and of course, he picks it up faster than anyone. His lows are heroic lows- his family slaughtered by mysterious wights from ancient lore, first he survives in the woods all on his own, then makes his way by his wits on the streets of the big fantasy city of Tarbean. He then makes his way to the University to learn magic (and about the wights) and impresses the masters so much they pay HIM for his first term! He makes enemies — a mean professor, Snap- I mean, Hemme, and a snooty aristocratic boy Malf- I mean, Ambrose — and shows them up magnificently with his magic chops and street smarts. He’s a musical genius, too, and girls totally want his fifteen year old self. Above all, he’s collected and self-contained.
“Well, it’s HEROIC fantasy,” I can hear some of you say. Sure. And there’s a number of ways to make such a character interesting. One would be to make him a less reliable narrator, like maybe he has to dial back some of his stories (there is an interlocutor character along with Kvothe and Chronicler). Even if you want to keep him that heroic, you can make the challenges he faces interesting, or ones to which he isn’t suited. You can also set him in an interesting world, worthy of the hero’s talents.
Rothfuss fails to deliver on any of those options. Kvothe is understood to be reliable throughout. The lack of interesting challenges and the failure of worldbuilding reenforce each other. Magic and science aren’t separate in this world, so Kvothe learns a lot of both, seemingly more of the latter, but he does so so effortlessly it’s basically uninteresting. The details of the magic system, laid out in pseudo-scientific trappings, were left underexplored but were also so dull I didn’t really want to know any more.
Rothfuss seems to have been going for “gritty,” which led to one of his more interesting decisions- making young Kvothe constantly worry about money. He’s poor and the University costs, at least after first term. This is something of a departure for fantasy, but it isn’t handled well. It’s sort of a low-grade irritant throughout the book, worrying about Kvothe’s finances and doing exchange rates on the various units of currency he uses.
Most of the action takes place in generic medieval city-space and while several cultures are mentioned and attributes ascribed to them, none of them are particularly distinct. There’s lore, intimations of old, deep mysteries (like the murderous wights), but none of it is anything fantasy readers haven’t seen many times before, interspersed with similarly anodyne action. There’s numerous songs and poems but I’ll be damned if I remember any of them, and I finished the book the day I’m writing this.
Then there’s the writing. He didn’t want to do exalted high-fantasy diction. I get that. He doesn’t make even as many concessions to it as does George RR Martin- fine, I guess, you want to stake your own territory. But god help me if Kvothe and basically everyone else in the book (except some yokels done in painful yokel-speak) don’t just talk like anodyne twenty-first century people, with the occasional lapse into flowery language of the kind a marketing intern would make up for a renaissance faire. If your magic is (mostly) science and your cultures aren’t any different from ours except for having lords and ladies (which we might as well have, given where inequality is going), and everyone is going to talk more or less like the people at your friendly local gaming store — a little more verbal and descriptive than at the other stores in the mall, but basically the same dialect — why the fuck did you bother writing fantasy? What was the point?
What this most forcefully reminded me of was less another given piece of literature and more a moment in my life. That’s the moment in college — around the time this book was probably being written, in fact — that it dawned me that most nerds are boring as shit. They might be good or bad, smart or dumb, but nerd culture as a whole did not represent what I wanted out of culture. Cruelly, one of the better things about nerd culture, the participatory element found in role-playing games, fan fiction, etc., bore this out the most. Given the vast scope of possibilities laid out before them, most nerds will ineptly reproduce what came before, the ones who won’t just turn the creative possibilities before them into their personal toilet, that is. Rothfuss presents himself as an every-nerd, and, god love him, after reading “The Name of the Wind” I can’t disagree. I feel about as good about this as I would about roasting some of the decent nerds I knew, but wasn’t friends with, in college- but the hell with it, he made his pile and is doing fine. I’ll give him the extra half star for being a decent dude and deserving more honor, for at least trying fantasy, than shitty litfic gets, not that he or anyone really cares. **