For those of you who are behind the times in your reading of outstanding fantasy novels (as I was), this is for you. I recently breezed through The Name of the Wind, the first book of the Kingkiller Chronicle, by Patrick Rothfuss, published in 2007. Do not be daunted by its length, as the story and the storytelling carry you along like a leaf on the autumn wind.
It is the story of Kvothe (pronounced almost like “quothe”), who became famous or infamous, depending on one’s perspective, at an age before many men even dream of accomplishing what he had. He is a gifted, intelligent, talented young man, but with a tragic flaw. As he puts it: “I was clever and I knew it.” Pride—that trap that has brought down many a great person. In fact quite literally, we see him fall after a moment of pride over one of his feats.
When we first meet Kvothe, he is the unassuming owner of the Waystone Inn, going by the name of Kote, trying to remain incognito in a backwater village, accompanied by his student Bast. He has already gained his notoriety, but in the hauntingly beautiful prologue we learn he is “a man waiting to die.” Enter Chronicler who figures out the innkeeper is Kvothe, the man of legends. The two of them strike a bargain: Kvothe will tell the truth of his life for Chronicler to record over a period of three days. (Of course, we have to wonder if it is the truth.)
Kvothe begins his story at the time he was about eleven and traveling with his family as a troupe of court performers. We follow him through tragedy, hardscrabble times, and finally his early years at the University, where he makes friends and enemies and advances from E’lir to Re’lar, speaker of names, more quickly than any student ever had.
Just as intriguing as the story of his youth is the outer narrative shell comprising the events that unfold at the Waystone Inn. Why have demons appeared? Has Kvothe’s cover as an innkeeper been blown? Who is Bast? What is the significance of the sword labeled folly? Why is Kvothe waiting to die? Questions that I hope are answered in sequels.
I’m always curious to see if and how the theme of sacrifice is woven into a fantasy novel. I certainly do not believe that Kvothe is going to be an archetypal hero and sacrifice himself soon for anyone or any cause. However, at one point he encounters a man named Trapis who cares for orphans and children with disabilities, and it is obvious that he does so at great personal cost. Trapis tells the story of Tehlu, the creator of the world, who became incarnate and sacrificed himself in order to destroy the demon Encanis, “the swallowing darkness.” I can’t help but wonder if this story takes on deeper significance later in Kvothe’s tale.
Overall, the story is intriguing and intricate, and the telling of it superb with nary a wasted character, event, or image. The magic is the most involved and well thought-out of any fantasy I have read. The character of Kvothe has talent to throw away, a voracious mind, but a tongue that gets him both into and out of trouble. In spite of his arrogance, I found myself rooting for him, yet with an undercurrent of sadness, knowing his pride and ambition were bound to be his undoing.
This review can hardly do justice to the novel. I encourage you to read it for yourself. The Prologue itself is a masterpiece and will draw you in like no other prologue ever has.