Friday, April 15, 2011

Review of Name of the Wind

This is another book I struggled to rate; part of me is expecting to be lambasted for giving even this low of a score, and part of me wants to drop it down to a 3. I know how much this books means to so many people (and in fact one of the friends who loves it so much read it because I pointed it out in a bookstore and said "yeah, I've heard great things about this one..."), and I wanted to like it more than I did, but ultimately I felt it was Very Good, but not Unequaled.
 So what did I like or admire (not always the same thing)?  I give full marks to Rothfuss for writing an epic fantasy in first person, with the Hero of Legend telling his own story not-so-many years after the fact. Kvothe, once he gets on a roll, has a voice that must be paid attention to even if you don't believe half of what he's saying.  And the details of the world-building are terrific -- I really felt like I was "in" the cities with Kvothe,  the workings of the world make absolute sense, there's a great internal logic to everything that is clear and yet allows room for mystery.  The tactic of "here's the real story behind the story" has been used before (one of my favorite instances being Parke Godwin's FIRELORD, a novel of King Arthur narrated by Arthur, which starts with the classic phrase "who you are depends on who's telling your story.") but Rothfuss elevates it with his use of language, and what I perceive to be his willingness to allow us to dislike Kvothe.

Because honestly, when it comes down to it -- I do dislike Kvothe. And I'm sure I'm in the minority in that opinion, but hear me out. Framing sequence or not, what we get once Kvothe starts talking is a man who claims to want the truth of his story set down to contradict the legends and fabrications that have grown about him and his deeds, but who in actually is building that myth himself. There are points where the adult Kvothe says that events have been exaggerated and yet his own version of those events is structured to cast him as something larger than human and greater than those around him. Every woman he encounters eventually swoons in his presence or feels he can do no wrong; every man is either his fast-and-best friend or his sworn enemy, or not important enough to rate much more than a name (with the exception of a few of the University Masters, the only characters who seem truly ambivalent about Kvothe).  Now -- disliking Kvothe does not equal dislike of the book. Like I said, Kvothe has a voice that must be listened to, once he gets moving. For me, that took close to 300 pages; proportionately that's about as much time as I give any novel to make or break.

What did I dislike? The framing sequence and interludes slowed the pace of the book down -- and in a book where it takes 700 pages to lay out the hero's childhood (and not even all of that!) and only barely touches on the legendary things he supposedly did, a slow framing sequence feels deadly. I understand the reasons it exists (Why is Kvothe telling his story, and to whom? And what are the current events that may bring him finally out of "retirement"/hiding?) but everything that happens in the present feels unimportant at this point. I'm sure by the time the Chronicle is done, those events will have taken on greater significance, but by then I'll probably have forgotten the Smith's Apprentice's name and what he did to earn Kvothe's respect.  I also disliked the incredible amount of detail in Kvothe's rememberances -- again, for someone who claims to want his truth put down clearly, he spends an awful lot of time recalling details of what people were wearing and how often they sneezed (okay, that's an exageration, I don't think he ever mentions sneezing or any other bodily function -- but in retrospect it sure feels like he was that detailed in his account). There's a certain willing suspension of disbelief in first person narration -- no one can possibly remember exactly what everyone said in any given situation -- but I felt like at points Kvothe (thus, Rothfuss) took it a bit too far. Perhaps almost 800 pages x 3 books is a bit much for that suspension.

So, for me personally, the book doesn't quite live up to the hype. I'm glad I read it, and I will read THE WISE MAN'S FEAR (book two) when it comes out in paperback. The book is still good, and Kvothe's voice is still interesting to me.

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