Large fantasy novels sometimes get off to a slow start. When tackling a new one, I try to give it 125 pages before I decide whether to go on or bail out. By that point, if not before, a writer should have made his or her intentions clear.
The Name of the Wind is a fat paperback — more than 700 pages. I figured I really ought to give author Patrick Rothfuss 200 pages before I rushed to judgment.
It was tough sledding. I really wanted to give up around page 150, but I forced myself to stagger onward. Such is the price of virtue.
First the good news: His prose is very good. Very readable. The problems with the book have to do with the plot and the lead character.
In the opening we meet an innkeeper named Kvothe. A local farmer comes into the inn one night with the remains of an evil creature he has killed — a black spider the size of a wagon wheel. Knowing these creatures never hunt alone, Kvothe goes out into the woods and kills five more. Single-handed. Clearly he’s not an ordinary innkeeper. What he’s doing hiding out on the backside of nowhere, pretending to be an innkeeper, Rothfuss does not trouble to explain.
An invasion of giant spiders could be the inciting incident of a vivid dramatic story. But it’s not. Once the spiders are dead, the incident seems to have no further importance. Kvothe is not worried about why the spiders showed up, or what they might portend. He does not summon the villagers and give them a stern warning about what to watch out for. He doesn’t even lay out any special defensive measures. He just goes back to his inn, tends a few scratches, and that’s the end of the business. The novel’s opening incident is, in essence, a fake — a cheat. It’s intended to grab the reader’s attention, but the real story seems not yet to have begun.
A scribe arrives at the inn. He has been seeking Kvothe, who is apparently famous for some reason, though Rothfuss doesn’t bother to explain his fame to the reader. Miraculously, the scribe has stumbled upon his quarry. Whereupon he whips out a sheaf of paper, and Kvothe begins telling the story of his life. Starting from when he was a lad.
At this point the book shifts into first person — great swaths of first-person narrative, interrupted by brief chapters in which the scribe takes a little break. In theory, Kvothe is dictating the story of his life to the scribe, and we’re reading what the scribe wrote down. However, the narrative is far too detailed for that to be believable. We aren’t actually reading the manuscript narrated by Kvothe. Rather, the incident of the giant spiders is a frame-tale for the real narrative, which is a conventional first-person novel with young Kvothe as the narrator and lead character. The frame-tale has by this time dawdled on for more than 50 pages — but hey, it’s a fat paperback. Why be in a hurry?
Young Kvothe is a kid in a traveling theatrical caravan. His father is the caravan leader. It seems a rather idyllic childhood, and indeed there doesn’t seem to be a cloud on the horizon. We’re told that young Kvothe is very bright. Oddly, he has not a single friend his own age. There seem to be no other children in the caravan, and the adults aren’t very colorful characters either. Why aren’t there any other children? Does Kvothe wish he had playmates? We’re not told.
An old guy starts traveling along with the caravan. He teaches Kvothe some magic. Real magic, that is, not stage magic. The old guy is a sorcerer. But after a while he leaves the caravan.
Shortly afterward, the entire caravan is massacred by some demons, or fae or something — the exact nature of the evil creatures is not made clear. Young Kvothe, of course, is off in the woods when this happens, and he is miraculously spared.
This is a terribly traumatic event. Kvothe goes into shock. He retreats into the woods and lives there for months, all alone, playing his father’s lute and trapping rabbits to eat. Only when three of the lute strings have broken does he figure out that he needs to get back to civilization. Figuring a small town is unlikely to have lute strings for sale, he heads for the big city.
The possibility that the demons might come back and hunt him down while he’s camping in the woods seems not to have occurred to him. The possibility that ordinary outlaws might find and kill him — no, the woods are a safe haven, apparently. He has no desire to tell anybody what happened. Warn the nearby villagers that demons are roving around? No. Arrange for the bodies of his parents to be buried? No. Young Kvothe has no motivation at all. He’s numb.
I’ll buy that this sort of trauma could make an 11-year-old boy retreat emotionally for some weeks, and would have lingering repercussions for years. But we’ve been assured that young Kvothe is exceptionally bright. From the moment his parents are butchered, he starts acting like an idiot.
Naturally, his father’s precious lute is smashed the day he arrives in the big city. He then spends three years as a beggar — a homeless boy, often half-starved, clad in rags, getting beaten up more than once. And during this entire period, he makes no friends among the other beggar children. He doesn’t try to find work. He doesn’t use the magic the old guy has taught him in order to get money, nor does he show a trace of normal intelligence. He has become an idiot and a victim.
Even by the age of 15, he has no motivation. He’s not trying to do anything other than keep from freezing when winter rolls around. Find a place to sleep indoors? Nope. Get a job sweeping out some stable somewhere? Nope. Make friends with bigger, stronger boys who can protect him? Nope. Notice a pretty girl? Nope. Vow to get revenge for his parents’ death? Nope. Take a bath, even? Apparently not.
That’s the point at which I stopped reading. There’s no rising action or motivation in the frame-tale, and there’s none in the first-person story either. I don’t like stories in which the lead character behaves like an idiot, and that’s exactly what young Kvothe is doing. He isn’t even a very interesting character. He’s not colorful or clever or eccentric. He’s just a punching bag.
Yes, sometimes a story takes a while to reveal itself. But along the way, the reader needs to be given some reason to keep turning the pages. If the lead character is not going to roll up his sleeves and tackle his foes, we need to meet some colorful characters, or be drawn into a fresh and exotic world, or at least get a few laughs. Rothfuss gives us none of that. The Name of the Wind is grim and motionless.
Am I going to keep reading? Nevermore.