You know what you’ve got the moment you catch sight of Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel, The Name of the Wind. There it is, your standard, big, fat, epic fantasy. If you’re an experienced fantasy reader, you can tell from the cover of the guy with the lute (one of two dust jackets with which the book was published) that it’s heroic fantasy in a world with magic, Faery, fighting and words of power. And, in fact, upon reading the novel you will find that all the tropes are here, from the university where magic is taught to mysterious beasts to the power of cold iron.
However comfortable the tropes are, though, this book offers something new within a familiar framework. For one thing, The Name of the Wind is so well-written that you will reach page 662 wishing this weren’t the first of an unfinished trilogy (though you’ll be happy that Volume Two, The Wise Man’s Fear, is available). It is written with far greater skill than the usual massive fantasy tome, the interchangeable Lackeys, Brookses and Goodkinds. According to his website, Rothfuss has lived with his hero, Kvothe, for many years, and the effort is obvious. The prose is largely transparent, allowing the story to leap to the forefront, seemingly unhindered by the words. Yet every now and then, a passage is told with sufficient poetry to stick in your memory:
Kote tried to relax, failed, fidgeted, sighed, shifted in his seat, and without willing it his eyes fell on the chest at the foot of the bed.
It was made of roah, a rare, heavy wood, dark as coal and smooth as polished glass. Prized by perfumers and alchemists, a piece the size of your thumb was easily worth gold. To have a chest made of it went far beyond extravagance.
The chest was sealed three times. It had a lock of iron, a lock of copper, and a lock that could not be seen. Tonight the wood filled the room with the almost imperceptible aroma of citrus and quenching iron.
Who can wait to find out what’s in that chest, and where it came from? And why it’s locked three times, once with an invisible lock? Nearly a week after finishing the book, I was still wondering about that chest.
This sort of writing is combined with good, understandable explanations of the mechanics of magic, sharp action writing and strong dialogue. Rothfuss can write.
Framing devices are rarely truly necessary, but the one used here works. Kote is an innkeeper in a tiny town in The Four Corners of Civilization. The Four Corners feels like the medieval England that serves as home for most epic fantasies, no matter what the carefully drawn maps always included in such books call the towns and countries. Unbeknown to his regular customers, he is not really Kote, but Kvothe, a hero of song and story who has “been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller.”As a hero he is larger than life; as a man, he is smaller than his legend, but still an incredibly gifted man, strong, smart, and good.
A man known as Chronicler, a scribe who makes it his life’s work to record histories is looking for Kvothe to take down his story when he comes upon Kvothe in the woods one night. The two are almost immediately attacked by vile creatures whose tale is yet to be told; Kvothe saves Chronicler’s life. In return, Chronicler almost immediately identifies Kvothe after they’ve returned to the inn — he’s had hints in other taverns in other small towns. He works to persuade Kvothe to tell his tale, but little persuasion is necessary once Chronicler agrees to take down every word, for as long as it takes for Kvothe to tell his tale.
The bulk of the novel, then, is Kvothe’s story of his childhood to his mid-teen years. The tale is familiar to most fantasies: a boy bright beyond his years, one who learns so quickly that everyone is unbelieving and, forcing him to prove himself many times over. Kvothe tells Chronicler of his childhood among the Edema Ruh, a troupe of players who roamed the land, and of his early learning at the knee of an arcanist named Abenthy. He portrays the terror and dire poverty of his feral years, when he lived on the streets of a ruthless and ugly harbor town called Tarbean. He hits his stride when he tells of arriving at last at the University, where one who gains admission can study chemistry, mathematics, rhetoric, sympathy (the name for magic here) and the art of naming.
It’s all familiar, yet all new. For instance, Rothfuss formulates a magic that is akin to science, with laws and equations as useful and dangerous as E=mc2. Chemistry in this world is more closely aligned with alchemy than chemistry in our world, though magic seems to follow similar rules, based on the bonding of different forms of matter one to another, or a smaller piece to a larger. While some few fantasy writers have attempted to systematize their magic, Rothfuss is one of the first I know of to have worked out a system that makes a sort of scientific sense. It is not usual to read about the law of conservation of energy in a work of fantasy, but here it is essential to the plot.
Another difference between this tale and the typical fantasy is that Kvothe carefully demythologizes himself. Why is he Kvothe the Bloodless? He explains how he prevented bleeding with a vasoconstrictor when he was whipped at the University for malfeasance. Did he really kill a dragon? The appearance of this creature will initially disappoint the reader; it jars her right out of Rothfuss’s carefully constructed original fantasy and makes her start thinking about Piers Anthony. But Rothfuss immediately saves his tale by having Kvothe explain to his listeners that it wasn’t a dragon at all. Instead, it was a rare creature native to the Four Corners with its own biology; he even offers a possible scientific explanation, based on the creature’s diet and the nature of the digestive process, for why it breathes fire.
And Kvothe neither gets the girl nor loses her tragically. He is her friend. Friendship between men and women is rarely explored in fantasy unless romance is totally out of the question. Kvothe adores Denna, but her circumstances and his poverty make it impossible for them to be lovers, at least during these years. Instead, they talk and laugh and have adventures — not adventures in which Kvothe is always rushing to the rescue of a fainting Denna, but adventures in which she is a full participant. Denna is a creature of her world and her time, not an Amazon who daringly wears pants and wields a sword, but within her framework she is extraordinary while remaining outwardly typical.
These sorts of invention take this book beyond the ordinary. Rothfuss attempts something imaginative while remaining within genre conventions, and he succeeds.
Nevertheless, one wishes that Rothfuss had taken China Miéville, Steph Swainston or Neal Stephenson as his role models, rather than Robin Hobb, Tad Williams and Kate Elliott. I enjoy books written by the latter three writers, and have spent many happy hours immersed in their meticulously crafted worlds. But Mieville, Swainston and Stephenson take fantasy and stand it on its head, producing stories that are strange and exciting — that obliterate the framework, rather than merely seeking to manipulate the framework in new ways. As Steph Swainston said in an interview at UK SF Book News a few years ago, if more writers didn’t write ‘fantasy’ so self-consciously and follow imagined “rules” of the genre then the whole thing might not be so hidebound and repetitive. It should be the most creative writing around but is frequently the most conservative.
Writers like Swainston make Rothfuss’s imagination look caged, even strangled by convention. Miéville gives us a world previously unimaginable to anyone but him, one that is neither past nor present, this world or another, fantasy or science fiction. Is there any analog anywhere in fantasy literature to Lin, the woman with a human-like body and the head of a scarab, who extrudes the material she molds into art from the back of her head? Where can one find a character like Steph Swainston’s winged antihero Jant, or creatures like the Insects that are destroying Jant’s world? Is Tim Lebbon’s Noreela like any other place you can find on the page? Call it institial, call it New Weird, call it whatever you like, but these sorts of books are the true future of fantasy.
I want to read Rothfuss’s New Weird novel. I want to read the novel where he sets his imagination off to places that I’ve never visited in my worst nightmare or my wildest imaginings. I want something so new that I have to struggle with it, that I am mesmerized by it. I want fiction that makes me no longer recognize my own home for a moment after I stop reading. I long for Rothfuss to set himself free.