The Name of the Wind is the first in a planned trilogy of high fantasy novels by Patrick Rothfuss that follow the adventures of the improbably named Kvothe. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe is a young boy traveling with his minstrel parents and their trope. Ha ha, sorry, I meant “troop.” Bit of a Freudian slip there. Regardless, Kvothe soon finds himself homeless and scrounging to survive on the streets of a large city. The lad is gifted, though, so he weasels his way into University where he sets about learning magic. Only Rothfuss thinks he can trick us by calling it “sympathy” and talking about it like it’s a science, but we’re not fooled –it’s magic. Anyway, the bulk of the book follows Kvothe through his rapid but trecherous rise within the school’s student ranks. Also, there’s a girl.
I liked The Name of the Wind pretty well as pure entertainment and an example of the genre. It’s a little offsetting that Kvothe is a bit of a Mary Sue character, in that he’s super smart and mature beyond his years from the offset. He learns an entire language in a matter of hours, for example, and more than once he easily grasps advanced academic subjects for the sake of moving the plot along and letting Rothfuss engage in some quick world building. But in the end Kvothe is flawed enough to avoid falling into this trope entirely and he faces his share of genuine adversity. Most of the conflict in the book comes not from swordplay or spell slinging, but from the young student’s struggles against his poverty. He’s constantly living on the edge of destitution and scrambling to not only make ends meet, but save up enough to pay for next term’s University tuition. He works multiple jobs, borrows funds from a convivial but nonetheless dangerous moneylender, launches a career as an entertainer, and scrounges wherever he can. Kvothe is also a bit of a prig and despite his best intentions to make friends and influence people, he can’t help making enemies of a few people in positions to make his life difficult. This was a novel source of conflict for a high fantasy book. You’re used to seeing the youths in these books fight bandits and slay monsters, not pinch pennies and eat out of garbage cans. So if nothing else, it’s unlike other stuff in the genre and it’s very readable even if we do catch ourselves rolling our eyes at Kvothe’s improbable aptitudes.
And while we’re on the subject, don’t let anyone tell you that this book is “like Harry Potter, but for adults.” It’s nothing like Harry Potter except that they both feature young boys learning magic at a school. Past that, there’s nothing alike, neither in character, larger setting, or tone. The Name of the Wind isn’t exactly dark, but it’s not the imaginative, fanciful romp that the Harry Potter books are at their best. I also get the feeling that Kvothe isn’t going to stay at the University once subsequent books are released. And while we’re on the subject, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the prospect of waiting years before a series is complete and available for reading, you may want to hold off on this one; as I mentioned, it’s only the first of a trilogy, and we all know that those have a habit of blooming into quartets, and then five or six book series, and then so on until the author finally dies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.
Still, Rothfuss is a snappy enough writer and an imaginitive world builder that I was able to look past Kvothe’s “I’m an orphan but I’m totally noble in spirit and can do anything really super effectively” pastiche. As a character he’s kind of “meh” but I’m hoping that Rothfuss moves past that in subsequent volumes. At any rate, I’m along for the ride if he can get them to me before the close of the next decade.