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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is a story within a story. It opens in the present (not our present, nor our world, of course), as a mechanical spider monster attacks someone outside of a local bar. The bartender, a man named Kote, listens carefully, and we sense that there is more to him than he lets on. Then a man called the Chronicler arrives and recognizes Kote for who he is–the legendary Kvothe, who has had a significant impact upon the world as we know it. Chronicler convinces Kvothe to tell his story, which makes up the vast majority of the book, with only brief interludes into the present.
Kvothe’s childhood is harrowing. After his parents are murdered, he lives on the streets for several years, each day a struggle to survive. But Kvothe has always been somewhat of a genius, and he eventually manages to make his way to the university, which presents a different sort of struggle entirely, and yet one that is no less difficult for Kvothe to navigate. It’s the wizard school part that earns The Name of the Wind comparisons to Harry Potter, which I feel are a bit unfair, because they make the book seem like something that it isn’t. This isn’t a crazy adventure, but rather, the kind of book in which very little actually happens. And yet, the lack of major action in the present didn’t bother me, and I felt that it struck a nice balance. It wasn’t like my bad experience with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, where I felt like there was zero plot, but rather, The Kingkiller Chronicle series meanders, builds suspense, and reveals its secrets slowly. It tantalizes you, making you beg for every scrap of detail about what’s going on in the modern world that can be gleaned through an understanding of the past.
I was more drawn by the minor characters than by Kvothe himself. For example, I was fascinated by Auri, the slightly crazy Luna Lovegood type girl who lives in the passages below the Archives (Patrick Rothfuss wrote a novella about her, which I need to read at some point). I also loved Bast, Kvothe’s snarky but protective apprentice, and Elodin, a batshit wizard who reveals just how stupid Kvothe can sometimes be.
I found the framing of the story fascinating because I have a thing for narrators of questionable reliability. Kvothe could be telling the truth, but I suspect that he is not, and that he’s either exaggerating or allowing his tale to be colored by his own perceptions. I got the latter impression because the female characters in the book seemed to be little more than plot devices, but then a bartender made a comment to young Kvothe about how hard a woman’s life was in this world, and Kvothe seemed dumbfounded by it. Or the part when Kvothe was talking about how perfect and beautiful Denna was and his apprentice was like “uh, she had a crooked nose.” So we’re seeing the world through Kvothe-colored glasses, not as it actually is. However, my friends and I had a book club discussion of The Name of the Wind, and we found that the framing doesn’t work for everyone. Several people in the group cared more about what was going on in the present, and felt that Kvothe’s backstory detracted from it.
The Name of the Wind had been gathering dust on my shelf for several years now, and I’m glad that I finally read it. I already ordered The Wise Man’s Fear, and am looking forward to seeing how the story progresses. During book club, we predicted that this is going to wind up being two trilogies, the first of which will tell the story of Kvothe’s past, and the second of which will focus on the present, so we’ll see whether or not our predictions are accurate.