Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review - The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One)

The Name of the Wind is one of those books that's received a ton of hype for years and has been both on my radar and on my shelf to read for quite some time. For the past couple of years it's collected dust on my bookshelf largely because I felt a little daunted and wary of picking up a sprawling epic fantasy. This is the first book in (at least) a trilogy of books telling the life history of Kvothe (pronounced to rhyme with "quoth"). Seeing the book clock in at over 700 pages and knowing there are at least 2 additional books, I was a bit uncertain if I wanted to take the risk on that kind of investment (having been burned in the past by other sweeping fantasy tales that fell flat after hundreds and hundreds of pages). Still, the hype continued to build and so I finally picked it up and dove in.

The first thing I noticed is that the style, voice and language of this book are unlike many other fantasy books (and even many other novels) that I've read. In many ways, it doesn't feel like the stereotypical fantasy novel most people would expect. The author, Patrick Rothfuss, has an almost poetic style in that he adds flourish and stylistic elements to otherwise mundane sentences. There have been some books I've read where an author tries to do this and it comes off as pretentious. Fortunately here, the author presents his language casually and with enough fluidity that it made for a beautifully enjoyable reading experience that really made the world and the stories more vibrant and interesting. Additionally, Rothfuss' story includes many mundane details that most fantasy tales disregard...the banality of daily life such as eating, working, shopping, etc. In that regard it felt more like a sprawling 19th century fiction from someone like Charles Dickens rather than a 21st century high fantasy novel with magic and demons. To me, this was a very refreshing and exciting change but I can see where some readers might get bored or bogged down with the more methodical storytelling in place of constant intrigue, action and adventure.

The story is broken into a couple of different plot lines. We have the "present day" in which Kvothe is the owner/operator of a small wayside inn and bar tucked into an average little village. We catch a few glimpses early on that tell us he is more than a simple innkeeper/barkeep. These glimpses expand as a man known as the Chronicler shows up and asks permission to interview and write the biography of Kvothe the adventurer. This begins the second plot line told in Kvothe's own voice beginning during his early childhood with a traveling group of performers (Rothfuss' version of gypsies). We learn of his aptitude for acting, music and his interest in the magical science known as "sympathy" which he studied under a scholar traveling with the troupe. His passion for learning leads to a desire to go to University to learn more. His plans are struck with a major detour when tragedy strikes the troupe and sends Kvothe into homeless poverty. Once he eventually makes his way to University, he has more struggles to try and work his way into the system and become all he wants to become. The historical story is interrupted from time to time with Kvothe taking a brief break to deal with things in the inn...which provides opportunity for some foreshadowing/reminiscing that provide minor hints and spoilers of things to come.

The book did have a few sequences of high action-adventure but being spread over the course of 700+ pages, the book generally moved at a slow, methodical pace. Often we sit alongside Kvothe as he struggles to obtain the bare essentials such as food, clothing or shelter. Other times we are with him as he studies and learns to master the magical science of "sympathy" or researches and investigates the strange race of beings known as the Chandrian who are responsible for so much fear, destruction and tragedy in the world. Mostly though, we spend the book learning more and more about the nature of Kvothe as a person...the person he was as a child, the adult adventurer he hopes to (and eventually 'does') become and the person he is "now" (at the inn, narrating his story). These three distinct personas are all intriguing and yet they are distanced from one another in such a way that compels the reader to continue on with the story in an effort to reconcile the transition from each stage of Kvothe's life into the next.

As I read the book, I loved it more and more. I had a few people ask about my reading and when I told them what the book was and recommended that they give it a try, they said something like "Oh, but I don't really like fantasy." I tried to explain to them that this is a "different" kind of fantasy novel. I really do feel like this might be the kind of fantasy book Charles Dickens might write if given the challenge. It focuses on the language...on the personal dealings of the central character...on the minute comings and goings of life. There were times when I set the book down after an hour of reading having thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But as I then thought about plot progression or what sort of rising action happened, I realized that there wasn't a lot of action that I could put forth as a compelling argument to somebody looking for the "summer action blockbuster" kind of story. This leaves me stuck in the middle as far as how to recommend this book to others (hence my rambling review). I'm hesitant to recommend it to everyone because I know some will be turned off by the "fantasy" elements (even though they feel minimized by the art of good storytelling) and others who may love "fantasy" may be turned off due to the slower pace of the action or the lacking of what they may consider more sweeping elements of high fantasy.

Personally, I really loved the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the vibrant and elegant language. I am intrigued by the interesting mythos that Rothfuss has created in terms of the way he handles magic, the dynamics of society/culture and the "fantasy" beings we've seen so far. I've had fun getting to know Kvothe and trying to unravel him as a character. There's still a lot of character development I'm waiting to see with him, mainly to try and reconcile the differences between his childhood, past adulthood and "present" adulthood. I do feel like the development of some of the other main characters is lacking a bit though that lacking may be partially due to the overemphasis on Kvothe since he's the one narrating the story and thus it's "all about him." Still, I hope for more development of some of the other characters, particularly Denna and Bast. I look forward to reading the other books in the series. I know this review really rambled a bit but hopefully it gives you some sense of what to expect in terms of the "feel" of the book. I really think it's the sort of book that almost anybody should be able to enjoy as long as they get over any stereotypical prejudices they might have before picking it up and really give it a chance. It truly was a joy to read.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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