Fantasy, like few other genres of popular culture, is the land of giants. Metaphorical ones, of course, but I can’t think of many more artistic endeavors where the playing field is dominated by a mere few authors. One only has to pick up any Terry Brooks novel, for instance, to see the long shadows cast by JRR Tolkien (Classic Fantasy Hero’s Journey) and CS Lewis (People Magically Transported to a Strange Place). More recently, JK Rowling (Manichaean Battle with Scholastic Backdrop) and George RR Martin (Gritty World That Ignores All The Genre Rules) have exerted their own tidal pull on the genre. Writing truly original fantasy is, in a way, like trying to make a reggae record that doesn’t rip off Bob Marley: the degree of difficulty is high.
So where does that leave us? How does a fantasy author navigate this minefield and bring something new to the table? Some authors go completely off the reservation (I’m thinking Steve Erickson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, or China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, as quality, bugfuck examples of such), or they use other literary traditions as foundational templates (like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, fantasy and noir and the Western canon put on puree by a mad cackling Welshman), or they put a new spin on an existing template. Lev Grossman’s Magician books, for instance, are fascinating, adult syntheses of Rowling and Lewis.
The Name of the Wind, the first book of a trilogy (and Patrick Rothfuss’ first novel), at first glance doesn’t really distinguish itself from the pack. Kvothe is our hero, and his childhood as part of the Edema Ruh, Gypsy-like travelling entertainers, is first idyllic, then considerably less so. Of course he’s an extraordinary child. Then he goes off the the University, where the bulk of the book’s action takes place. Of course he proves to be one of the cleverest students in school, achieving in days what usually takes years. Of course he almost immediately makes a mortal enemy of another student but also makes boon companions of people he basically meets by accident.
But this rather stock system of story points conceals a story of substantial emotional weight that’s told in a fairly interesting way. At the beginning of the book, Kvothe is already a legend, albeit a legend with a price on his head who is hiding out as an innkeeper in a backwater village. A newcomer called the Chronicler manages to convince Kvothe to tell his story, whereupon the boom shifts from third to first person, and we get the story of Kvothe’s childhood told in deep retrospective. It’s a cool concept, one that allows for all sorts of fun metatextual shit. It’s telling that, less than halfway through the book, I ordered the sequel (which I’ll certainly be reviewing at some point).
But then, the way the story is told isn’t the only attraction. Rothfuss does some fne worldbuilding here. The magic system, for instance, is fantastic, speaking as an amateur critic of various such systems. It brings to mind the old “any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic” saw, as there’s a fairly scientific underpinning to, well, weird things that people can do with their minds, should their minds be so constructed. There are various branches of magic, including sympathy (telekinesis, seemingly the most common), sygaldry (runes), and most importantly, Naming. It’s the last that introduces enough noise to a well-ordered scientific system to provide some of the book’s significant story moments. As a child, Kvothe saw a peddler speak the Name of the Wind. That peddler turns out to be a magician (or arcanist), and shortly becomes Kvothe’s tutor. Kvothe’s search for the Name of the Wind not only gives the book its name, it provides the backbone of the overall story.
And oh, the music. No lay of Beleriad or drunken rendition of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” can hold a candle to what Rothfuss does with music. It’s the glue that holds the book together, it’s what gives Kvothe so much of his depth, and it’s cleverly used as exposition as part of the book’s recursive stories-within-stories structure. Various lutes, in fact, are stronger supporting characters than many of the actual supporting characters, which of course is both a good and bad thing.
And the supporting characters are many. Kvothe’s school chums, and his great enemy, are right out of the Hogwarts playbook, though Rothfuss gives class issues a deeper look and sharper bite than Rowling ever did. Sad to say, almost everyone at the University ends up being fairly one-note, which is one note more than most of the folks in the present-day framing story. The Chronicler is given a bit of depth, and Bast, Kvothe’s student, definitely has an agenda. But make no mistake, this story is all Kvothe’s.
According to the book’s wiki page, it’s been optioned as a potential TV show. There’s an argument to be made that A Song of Ice and Fire’s current place in the fantasy firmament owes much to Game of Thrones, much more so than, say, Harry Potter, as the boy wizard was a global phenomenon well in advance of the films. The Name of the Wind is copyright 2007, and I wonder if Rothfuss wouldn’t be making the rounds of late-night talk shows if Eddie Redmayne had been playing Kvothe since 2010. Fantasy has become a sexy medium over the last decade, thanks in part to the massive success of the Lord of the Rings movies. And thankfully, as the spotlight has shined brighter on this once-dismissed genre, the authors that provide the stories have been stepping up their games. All told, fantasy is a considerably richer genre than it was when I was tucking into Shannara and Wheel of Time and Dragonlance books in my misspent youth. Rothfuss may not have the q-rating of Martin or Rowling, but the tale he spins is one that any lover of great stories should pick up
(Image via Marc Simonetti at deviantart)