I read this book because people who love the same kinds of books that I do dearly love this book. At the risk of offending the true blue fans, I did not exactly love this book in the beginning. I think it’s worthwhile to talk about it for others who might be put off by the same things I was. Spoiler alert: I ended up loving it. Also, this review really is mildly spoilerish, so make your own choices as to whether to read it.
Part of the problem is, I’m just not much of a fantasy fan. Sci fi has always been my forever girl. I will happily read C-list sci-fi over perfectly decent fantasy—I have read about a quarter of the Star Trek books (the Diana Duane Rihannsu series is really good). Sure, I’ve read Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, and The Book of the Long Sun. Does the Kushiel’s Dart trilogy count? I read that too. I read the really good stuff and the cultural touchstone stuff. But something about fantasy has always seemed… fedora adjacent. All of the women are beautiful and there’s a preoccupation with the exact aspects of European history I find least interesting (i.e. monarchy and religion). There’s also a tendency to engage in Deep Thought-ing.
All of the women are beautiful in this book, and there’s a preoccupation with religion and the social structures set into place by the nobility, and the very first paragraphs are concerned with outlining The Three Silences in a way that I found a bit Deep Thought-y. The book opens in a nowhere town during a conversation with people who are not compelling, and The Barkeep Is Not Who He Seems. He’s also very dramatic, turning on a pin from being overly protective of his identity to insisting that the Chronicler who tracks him down spend three nights at his pub to listen to his life story. Perhaps it was internalized gingerphobia, but I did not enjoy our protagonist at the beginning.
I’ve heard so much about how important beginnings are, because a book can lose a reader if it doesn’t hook them. I can see the hook-y things Patrick Rothfuss is doing—after all, The Barkeep is Not Who He Seems. There are giant demon spiders and it seems like something Big and Dark is coming to this nowhere town. I’m sure it worked for other people, particularly those who really like fantasy in the first place. However, fuck beginnings, because once this story gets started, and you bypass the Mary Sue-ish “I am the smartiest of smarties” aspect of the protagonist, the story sucks you in, and God help me I started actually liking the protagonist. Partly it’s because he has the most realistic fault of very smart people: they know they are smart and they cannot shut up about it or stop being clever AT people, and it gets them into a lot of social trouble. Kvothe is clever, but he is not wise, and a lot of people in his life seem to recognize that, and he absolutely doesn’t. Not by the end of the book, anyway.
I found myself reading this thing everywhere, putting off social engagements to read, turning to this book when my friend turned to a text, and people would see what I was reading and tell me how much they loved this book. Probably my favorite, most satisfying kind of narrative fix is the stories-within-stories genre. Red Earth and Falling Rain and The Sandman are both favorites of this kind. The Name of the Wind does this genre quite well—the stories that are told within the story are interesting in and of themselves, and end up driving your interest in the narrative of Kvothe. The stories that are told within the story that is told within the framing story (if that makes sense) serve to drive forward the central mystery of this book, which is who exactly the Chandrian are, what do they do, and what drove their creation. Thus far, they are a fantastic Big Bad. Nowadays I think we put a lot of stock in the Big Bad who is relatable, like Killmonger from Black Panther. I like that the Big Bad here is so mysterious that I’m not actually sure if he/they are actually bad at all, or if there is some explanation that makes sense of their actions.
Even though all the female characters are Extremely Beautiful, I’d also like to shout out the fascinating character of Denna. Patrick Rothfuss seems to understand something about beautiful women that not many men understand: attention from men is a mixed blessing that doesn’t necessarily solve all of your problems or make your life easier, and some women use that attention to their own ends because they don’t have much of a choice. That doesn’t make them bad people, and besides, more often than not women who make that choice don’t even really get what they want in the end. The sexual attention of men in a patriarchal society is not a power that any woman can really control to advance her position. Denna kind of uses it to sail through the world as much on her own terms as she can. I also really like that Kvothe’s main romantic interest has a life and interests apart from his own, and that he respects that, and her, as a person in and of herself.
Kvothe’s non-fantasy-adjacent struggles are also really compelling, because the game-playing machinations of the nobility that are so often endemic to the genre are far above his head. As a person who is at one point on the absolute lowest rung of poverty, Kvothe is just trying to survive and get an education throughout this book, and that is a struggle that I relate to more than I wish, particularly his tendency to hide or underplay his true economic status from his more privileged university friends.
In the end, I am really glad I made it through the first couple of chapters of this book, because I haven’t been taken on a ride like this in years, and I’m glad I haven’t read it up until now, so that I won’t have to wait as long as other fans for the third book to be completed.