Friday, 8 August 2008

Review - The Name of the Wind

I like Patrick Rothfuss. He’s sort of an academic Renaissance man having studied under any discipline that interested him while he was at university. The mere fact that he identifies so strongly with the philosopher Diogenes is enough to make me respect him right off the bat. His story is also a real Cinderella-story of fantasy writing: he works for years and finally releases his debut novel to critical and public acclaim. The man seems to be genuinely surprised by his own success. His is a real story to inspire writers toiling in those dull corridors of obscurity.

Consequently I really wanted to enjoy his first book, ‘The Name of the Wind’. I made sure I could devote proper care to its reading; I finished any tertiary and secondary books I was reading. In the space of a week I finished both ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ (good in a plain entertainment way) and ‘The Age of Reason’ (like all Sartre’s fiction, he hides the philosophy behind mundane amounts of scene detailing) and became ready to tuck into what was hyped as the greatest fantasy debut in years.

Nothing ever lives up to the hype and while ‘The Name of the Wind’ is brilliant, it’s not the greatest fantasy novel ever. The series has the potential for true greatness so it’s hard to judge this book as it is very obviously the first chapter in a longer story. The story of this first book ends rather abruptly: it doesn’t have any real conclusion which is unfortunately unsatisfying after 600 pages. In fact the future scope of the series works against this first instalment: there’s a great fantasy-style map on the first few pages (you can tell it’s a fantasy map because the sea is in the west. Most fantasy maps copy Tolkien’s design and put the sea to the west) but within the story the protagonist, Kvothe, stays within a very small area and the reader is left wondering why such a large-scale map would be dangled before us to tantalise us so. The blurb on the back-cover also works against it: it’s basically a list of heroic deeds performed by Kvothe. I somewhat expected the narrative to tick off more than one or two of these.

I’m only complaining because I expected more – this is why optimism is a bad thing. Having heard tales of the book’s raw splendour, I was bound to be slightly disappointed.

There is a lot to like. The writing is magnificent: Rothfuss makes some astounding observations about life that strike home immediately. He’s also very good at analogy painting up some great metaphors and similies. The narrative is taut with some scenes being brilliantly tense, the characters are compelling, and the world-building is realistic. The author makes a point of establishing rules for the use of sympathy (magic) and gives a good sense of the currency of his fantasy world. This allows the reader to sympathise on a deeper level with the character’s plight as we understand what troubles are facing him, both personally and financially. Ultimately the book was successful in drawing me in. I could clearly see the tale as it was crafted around me. It was good to have a book that so delighted in the art of story-telling: it was less a narrative than a celebration of the fantasy writer’s craft. That is certainly no bad thing.

Orson Scott Card compared it favourably to Harry Potter. The comparison makes a lot of sense – brave youth, childhood trauma, school of magic, harsh teachers, good friends, etc. However while Potter has more of a popcorn-feel (good while you’re reading it but leaves you unsatisfied), Rothfuss’ debut is a lot more intellectually satisfying - although it could do with more resolution than it has. The novel works wonderfully and I really cannot wait for the next in the series if only to have more of Rothfuss’ astoundingly true-to-life writing style. Until then his blog will have to do.

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