Part coming of age story and part sword and sorcery adventure story, The Name of the Wind is a masters class in fantasy world building that unfortunately gets bogged down when the action switches to a University setting.
Kote spends his days running the inn on the side of a road in a tiny town. Dark days have descended on the land. Black spider like demons terrorize the populace, raiders are common on the roads, and whispers of an ancient evil are becoming louder. One day a scribe has a run in with bandits and is left bereft. He stumbles upon Kote fighting a swarm of demons and convinces the man to tell him his story. After a lot of convincing, Kote does.
We learn that Kote is actually the legendary folk hero Kvothe (pronounced Kuh-Voth). He recounts his story to the scribe (called only Chronicler in the book) detailing his childhood in his parent’s theater troupe, the tragic misfortune that left Kvothe homeless, his hustling on the streets of a city, and finally his arrival at the University to study magic in order to take his revenge on the Chandrian, an ancient mythological entity responsible for the death of his parents.
Kvothe is a difficult character. He’s brilliant but arrogant so he’s always in trouble. Much of this is owed to him being 15 for most of the story. There seems to be nothing he can’t do perfectly after a few tries, yet he stumbles again and again butting heads and making enemies. Part of that has to do with the age of the character but it is still frustrating. He’s like Harry Potter but without the common sense. Shortly after arriving at the university he makes an enemy of Ambrose, the son of a Duke and probably the most dangerous person at the university he could have run afoul of. He and Kvothe are constantly sniping at each other. Ambrose seems like he stepped out of an 80’s movie. He’s a prep-school villain and utterly boring. I cringed every time he was around and am disappointed that the story line with him seems to carry over in to book 2 (The Wise Man’s Fear) as it sees no resolution here.
Kvothe does make friends that bring some light and warmth to the book. In addition to classmates Simmon and Wilem (who are honestly interchangeable to me), there is Auri, a strange young woman that lives beneath the university, and Devi, a charismatic and not-to-be-screwed-with money lender Kvothe is forced to go to time and time again.
The writing style is easy to read reminding me a lot of George R.R. Martin’s seemingly effortless mix of world building and great characterization. There is an element of unreliable narrator built in to the story as well. During his recollections, Kvothe says at one point that everyone is writing their own story, and his apprentice Bast remarks that all of the women in Kvothe’s story are beautiful, casting aspersion on the idea with first hand knowledge on Denna, Kvothe’s star-crossed lady love. Denna is a difficult character to get a handle on as well. She’s a hustler and Kvothe is drawn to her but it’s hard to see why other than her beauty. She is a companion at times in the book but drifts in and out of the narrative before sticking around for the ending (for a while). Denna seems to be a goal more than a person and the tunnel vision Kvothe possesses with her, even when far more interesting and just as lovely women are interested in him, is frustrating to read. I never warmed to the character so I found these sections of the book largely uninvolving. Your experience may vary.
Even though the novel is fairly long it ends with no resolution to any of the plot threads so if you are going to start be warned that you are going to be in for the long haul. I’ve just started the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, and was a bit taken aback to see it is 1000 pages (vs the 600 or so here) so be ready for another brick.
Despite some of the problems and slow pace, The Name of the Wind is worth picking up for fans of fantasy novels in the vein of A Song of Ice and Fire. While not nearly as sprawling, the world building and easy writing style are very similar and make the book an enjoyable journey. I just hope the next book leaves the University behind quickly and puts Kvothe out in the world to become the hero he thinks he is.
*A note on the rating. I would have given this a 3.5/5 but without ability to rank on the half I chose to go up a point given the excellent writing and remarkable world building.