Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1)

I believe this review is spoiler free.

A confession: I like to act the part of  a book snob. Confession two: I've read a lot of fantasy novels. Confession two (b): Most of those fantasy novels have the words "Dungeons & Dragons" on the cover. I actually have a hard time reading non-D&D fantasy books. Being honest, I can't say it has anything to do with the quality of writing, but everything to do with the make up of the fantasy world depicted. Of course I like the Lord of Rings trilogy, which is basically the ancestor of all D&D fantasy; there's a familiarity there that settles well with me. I've read a couple World of Warcraft books too, which if Lord of the Rings is the grandfather of D&D then World of Warcraft and D&D are cousins if not siblings (everyone knows it's important to map out paternal hierarchy across generations in fantasy writing--there's nothing more sacred than the family tree).

This insistent adherence to D&D makes for a strange dichotomy. Many (most?) read fantasy as a sort of escape; it presents a place where rules are broken, where limitations are removed. It offers a place where we can easily imagine ourselves as, if not something more, at least something other than what we currently are. But when I read books in the genre that drift too far from the familiarity of the D&D world I can't get into them. I want the rules and laws I'm familiar with to hold. I want fireballs to work a certain way. I want the way you learn magic to work the same ways. I want orcs. I want dwarfs. Leave these familiar and sacred grounds and I'm hesitant to follow. I've started a few other fantasy books that are outside of the D&D landscape but usually I don't finish them. I'll even grant that the few I've started (that I can think of off the top of my head) likely have better writing than 99% of the D&D books I've read, but I just can't finish them. I quit reading the first "Game of Thrones" book after reading about a fifth of it (right about the point when Brann is pushed out the window). My friends praised "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" highly enough that I picked it up eventually and I don't think I made it halfway through before I discarded it.

So my great praise for "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss is this: it is completely unrelated to D&D and I finished it. I even finished it rather quickly. It has its flaws--these relate to my desire to be a book snob--but as far as a fantasy story goes it is top notch. The tension in the story is almost palatable in sections, especially later in the book. The plot and the speed at which the story moves is masterful. The magic is interesting and well thought out. The world feels whole and vast, even though we only get a fairly small glimpse of it in this story.

On I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars. Why not five? I think there was some weakness around the main character. I don't have a problem with precocious children as main characters (I love Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird and Ruth in Housekeeping) but Kvothe changed very little from about age 11 to 15. Outside of his magical prowess I didn't feel like he grew much at all. There almost felt to be a mild regression, he was a man at 11 and a young man by the end of the book when he was 15. Perhaps this was intentional but it felt accidental to me. Secondly, the character wasn't super interesting to me. I kind of disliked him. Again, it could be intentional, but I had the sense that I was suppose to really like the kid. That being said, I must have had some connection with the character since I was pulled along through his story eagerly and rapidly (I originally misspelled that word "rabidly"). There were also some stylistic ticks that bothered me. The author (or Kvothe) would, rather than try to fully explain a feeling, say something like, "If you've never been 'X' then you wouldn't understand." For instance, "If you've never been poor...", "If you've never been a musician...", "If you've never been stuck in a [literal] tight spot..." These are where a really great writer has an opportunity to shine, to let us who have never been in those situations gain some appreciation of them, but instead he punts on them. As far as the story went I was a little underwhelmed by Kvothe's life on the streets. I don't think it fully drew you into the misery and hardship he was suppose to be feeling there. And once he was in the University I grew a little bored of sentences that looked something like, "And I knew I was on the edge of disaster." Or "There was no way I'd be able to make it through another term." More broadly I felt, especially in the beginning, that while the author used the tools of writing well to move his story along, I couldn't help but notice the tools, it felt akin to looking at a sculpture that somehow made you think more about the chisel used to sculpt it than the final product itself.

I'll read more of the series though. I actually look forward to the post adolescence books more than this coming of age story.