A Breath of Stagnant Air

It’s the busy start of a new school semester, but a trusted friend has been urging me to read this book since he fell in love with it last summer, so I cracked it open on the plane ride back to campus.

And couldn’t stop reading this entire MLK long weekend.

As you can imagine, I didn’t quite manage to readjust my sleep schedule back to normal people hours yet.
front cover of The New York Times Bestseller, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, first book in the Kingkiller Chronicle

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ | Goodreads | Amazon

First line:

It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn.

TLDR: The Name of the Wind is a gorgeously written high fantasy novel where every  minor plot detail and turn of phrase seems to be meticulously planned. Kvothe (pronounced Quothe) is an orphan-turned-myth who seeks to understand and then exact vengeance upon the demons that derailed his life. It hits all of the genre’s cliches in a satisfying way that kept me turning page after page until the quietest hours of the night snuck up. However, those same cliches (and the fact that I’ve read so much mindblowing, genre-redefining fantasy this past year) also made it feel a bit flat, like Rothfuss could have put his intricate skill to better use with a different story.

Full Review:

MY NAME IS KVOTHE

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

This is classical high fantasy at its finest. The Name of the Wind is set in an incredibly detailed world of medieval cities and arcane University courses, moonshadows and wandering minstrels, demonfire and love’s first touch. Rothfuss breathes life into this creation with beautiful, lyrical prose, punctuated liberally with songs alternately outrageous and mellifluous. The protagonist Kvothe (pronounced Quothe) is quick-tongued in humor and anger, ambitious and unafraid to break a few rules to get what he wants, and, despite his tragic youth and street-hardened instincts, sweet as a puppy in front of the girl he loves.

“Daisy is a good one,” I bulled ahead, not letting her distract me. “Tall and slender, willing to grow by roadsides. A hearty flower, not too delicate. Daisy is self-reliant. I think it might suit you… But let us continue in our list. Iris? Too gaudy. Thistle, too distant. Violet, too brief. Trillium? Hmmm, there’s a thing. A fair flower. Doesn’t take to cultivation. The texture of the petals…” I made the boldest motion of my young life and brushed the side of her neck gently with a pair of fingers. “…smooth enough to match your skin, just barely. But it is quite close to the ground.”

“This is quite the bouquet you’ve brought for me,” she said gently. Unconsciously, she raised a hand to the side of her neck where I had touched her, held it for a moment, then let it fall.

The adherence to the standards and cliches of high fantasy are also The Name‘s weakest points though. Tarbean feels like Westeros’ cities in A Song of Ice and Fire. Kvothe is another young orphan who thrives due to his flawless memory and quick thinking, just like the protagonist of The Lies of Locke Lamora. Elodin is an eccentric but respected Master who unexpectedly becomes a mentor, kind of like Dumbledore in Harry Potter. There’s an aloof and unattainable girl, an arrogant and influential schoolyard bully, and a University Master who immediately hates Kvothe. I came in prepared to love this novel, hoping to love this novel since I haven’t had many great reads recently. And it was good; it kept me turning pages in bed until the quietest hours of night. Despite its beauty and suspense though (which was built rather heavy-handedly at times), The Name felt a little flat, like something was missing.

I both love and am annoyed by the fact that this is Kvothe’s first-person accounting of his deeds to the Chronicler. (I developed a fondness for unreliable narrators after reading Lolita.) He’s shameless in painting himself as underdog in the only way that he can, by emphasizing his poverty. This is fair, but at the same time he’s super-intelligent and super-resourceful with an inherent knack for mastering sympathy (magic) and saving his friends or even random villages that he encounters. I’m pretty sure Rothfuss simply used poverty as a device to show that Kvothe’s path isn’t obstacle-free, though of course poverty is a cycle that is realistically difficult to break out of. What annoys me more is that all of the women in this novel are eventually pinned as beautiful, and, beyond that, they don’t contribute much. After he comforted a thirteen year old girl who was worried that the Chandrian will kill her, Kvothe notes “I hadn’t noticed before, but she was beautiful”. Even Denna is written in such a way that her mysteriousness doesn’t feel quite human (though I just read an article connecting Denna to the moon, which would completely change my opinion).

Ugh. This is the problem with too many white, male writers. I suspect that the protagonist is an idealized, dream version of the narrator and I can’t tell if unattractive females either don’t exist or aren’t worthy of his attention. Nevertheless, I will excuse these annoyances with the understanding that 1) Kvothe is spinning a legend about himself and 2) Kvothe has actively fed myths about himself before, so perhaps Rothfuss doesn’t expect us to believe all these claims anyway.

I have many more thoughts about many more of the themes in The Name since I’ve read quite a few fantasy novels this past year that made me reshape my expectations for the genre. In fact, if I had read The Name of the Wind a year ago, before N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, it would’ve easily hit five stars in my heart. Absent of frills, I think Rothfuss is brilliant at wordsmithing, but I really wish he would have applied his skill to a different story.

Let this convince you. The Chronicler on his book The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus: “I went looking for a legend and found a lizard.”

Then later Kvothe turning his words back on him: “So you went looking for a myth and found a man.”

Old wine, smooth and pale? Honey mead? Dark ale? Sweet fruit liquor! Plum? Cherry? Green apple? Blackberry?

One thought on “A Breath of Stagnant Air

  1. Pingback: Off the Margin

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