Sunday, February 10, 2019

February's Book: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Fantasy (2007 - 722 pp.*)

I mentioned last week that February's book would be part of an aggressive 2019 reading list. After a surely excruciating three-day wait, the mystery is over.

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel, is the origin story of a hero named Kvothe. Our hero starts the book as an innkeeper, who is then visited by the Chronicler. Chronicler and Kvothe's friend Bast urge Kvothe to recount his life story up to when he became known as a hero, which takes the reader through approximately the first sixteen years of Kvothe's life.

The story within the story is unbelievable at times, and is likely at least partially fabricated by Kvothe. This becomes glaringly apparent near the end of the book, when multiple characters argue over what happened. (681-685) Rothfuss's use of an unreliable narrator here isn't meant to distort reality for the reader, or to call into question the narrator's personal integrity. Instead, it raises Kvothe's notoriety in the reader's perception, as for a broken telephone to happen, all these other characters must have been calling each other.

As Kvothe's story spirals in on itself, Scheherazade-style, it simultaneously becomes increasingly fantastical and a truer reflection of what it is: a guy telling a tale in a bar. There's even a bar fight in which Kvothe throws a bottle of brandy at someone who may or may not be possessed by a demon - which, I repeat, is not part of Kvothe's tale about himself. (690) Kvothe's tale describes apprentice magic, growing up on mean streets Ender's Shadow-style, learning the lute, romancing women and attending a university - exactly what a young man who happens to be a fantasy hero should be doing. Although Kvothe is scarily talented, there is usually an explanation for it, such as when he barely bleeds from being whipped due to his recent consumption of blood-clotting drugs. (303) Other times, Kvothe is incompetent, such as when he brings a candle into archives full of valuable old books. (315) The reader has to assume this is all this is an extremely pro-Kvothe version of events. The idea of fantasy as propaganda predates the fantasy genre, and Rothfuss has nailed this tradition.

Rothfuss's world-building is top-notch. I could picture a map in my head without needing to see one, could feel where the river was in respect to the University and Imre, and could see each character in my head as though they were standing in front of me. (Which worked especially well in the case of Fela!) The attack on Kvothe's troupe is especially vivid, including one of my favourite Rothfuss similes: "I felt as if I was trying to think through syrup." (125) There are many others.

My only qualms with The Name of the Wind are its inconsistent use of constructed language and frequent wordiness. The book's languages appear mixed and matched at random, with English-language names (e.g.: Dianne, Ambrose, Devan), quasi-English names (e.g.: Simmon can be either "Simon" or "Simeon"), Gaelic-sounding names (e.g.: Deoch), names with Xes added (e.g.: Elxa Dar, Jaxim) and completely fantastical-sounding names (e.g.: Keth-Selhan the horse). That's just character names, not the italicized text littered with apostrophes. Who is communicating in what?

At one point Kvothe remarks that "The fellow sounded rather sinister to me, like a fugitive from the law or someone hiding from his family." (557) Rather sinister? (As opposed to mildly sinister?) A fugitive from the law? (As opposed to the other kind of fugitive?) Or someone hiding from his family? (Which one is it?) Although removing a few words from such a long book seems inconsequential, there are hundreds of these sentences in The Name of the Wind. The book could have used serious greening, perhaps as high as 10%. Cut 72 pages of superfluous adjectives and adverbs, and you have a 650-page book that packs the punch of 722 pages.**

On a multimedia comparison note, American fantasy fiction has a lot in geographic common with heartland rock. Each has a stable of artists from the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Fantasy examples are Rothfuss (Wisconsin), Terry Goodkind (Nebraska), Brandon Sanderson (also Nebraska), Roger Zelazny (Ohio) and Margaret Weis (Missouri). Heartland rock examples are Bob Seger (Michigan), John Mellencamp (Indiana), and arguably later Wilco (Illinois). Each also has a notable artist from New Jersey who fits in anyway: for fantasy, it's George R.R. Martin; for rock, it's Bruce Springsteen. Yes, this makes Martin "the Springsteen of fantasy", a moniker I think he should start using at official events. Springsteen went so far as to name one of his most successful albums after Goodkind and Sanderson's home state.***

In case you were wondering, I won't compare The Name of the Wind to any other fantasy novel. With Barnes & Noble recommending 105 new SF&F book releases for 2019 alone, and fantasy consistently clocking in well longer than other genres, I can't possibly read them all.

The Name of the Wind, though?
In some ways, it began when I heard her singing. Her voice twinning, mixing with my own. Her voice was like a portrait of her soul: wild as a fire, sharp as shattered glass, sweet and clear as clover." (56)
It's as though Rothfuss had the cojones to describe his own book in the text.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

*In e-reader-friendly terms, The Name of the Wind is 243,020 words. In general Patrick Rothfuss terms, that's nowhere near as long as the next book in the series, 2011's Wise Man's Fear. In this blog's terms, that's slightly longer than Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, and almost as long as Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Remember, not every page has the same number of words! If it did, Robert Munsch would be writing science textbooks.

**This is not meant as a shot at Rothfuss - I already said here, he's a great writer - nor is this sin limited to him. Within fantasy, this type of fluff is endemic. Outside of fantasy, the otherwise fantastic A Simple Plan by Scott Smith (which I read last month but didn't review here) has enough adjectives to fill... whatever a Lake Superior full of adjectives is called. As for my use of adjectives and adverbs on this blog, it's a blog, not a novel. I wouldn't even use "seems" in the latter most of the time.

***The irony in this entire paragraph is that the most fantasy-oriented rockers of the late 20th century were actually the metal guys. Ronnie James DioMetallica (72-minute audiobook to compare) and Megadeth (book) all paid homage to various speculative fiction heroes and villains - but especially villains, because hey, that's what metal did back then. P.S.: I'm still waiting on the remastered Bruce Springsteen album Nebraska: A Tribute to Sword of Truth and Mistborn. I think it'd sell.

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