The Name of the Wind
Author – Patrick Rothfuss
Book One of the Kingkiller Chronicles
While some might consider this a review, and in many ways it will be, it’s also meant to be an examination of Patrick Rothfuss’ writing style. There is a lot to be learned by reading someone’s work. It gives some insight into their mind, how they process, and their interests.
‘Why,’ you might ask, ‘are you reviewing a book that came out over 12 years ago?’ I tend to reread a series every couple of years. I’ve read The Stormlight Archive three times, the Wheel of Time twice, the Lies of Locke Lamora twice, all of Joe Abercrombie’s work a few times, the Sword of Truth a couple of times (though I’ve since pulled this from my rotation). I know there is a lot more fantasy out there, and I do read other works, but I’m slow to add to my recurring rotation.
This is my third time reading The Name of the Wind, and the same with the other works I reread, I get more out of it with each reading. Each series has something that it brings to the table, and what begins with page-turning excitement transforms into a hunt for new layers, deeper understanding.
Alright, enough rambling. On with it.
The story itself
The premise of the Kingkiller Chronicles isn’t that atypical in the realm of fantasy. A young man with the innate ability to learn quickly and overcome great personal trials grows into a kind of hero. The difference here is what happens between the scenes, the narrative that drives the story forward. The reader knows, very early on, where this story will end up. In a way, you’re told the end before the story even begins.
That alone is worth the price of admission. In many stories, you don’t know what’s going to happen right away, or even what the end goal is. Here, you know because the story begins at the end (or, at least, an end). I find that to be a relief. If I know where we’re headed, then I can settle in and enjoy the journey. Don’t get me wrong – the stakes are still present, but there is no time wasted on asking ‘Where are we going?’
He is likable enough, being smart, witty, and obviously quick to grow in his ‘power.’ Rothfuss does a fantastic job of showing how trauma can impact a person, especially trauma that happens at a young age and how that trauma can influence our behaviors and choices.
Most of the other characters tend to fade into the background a bit. The affable friends are there for the occasional exchange helping to keep the protagonist grounded, as well as the villainous nemesis that provides tension, but there is only one character that pushes everything else into the background, even more so, in my opinion, than the protagonist himself.
The Love Interest
This character steals the scene every time she enters from the wings. There is a vagueness to her, trauma only hinted at, that makes her so enigmatic and intriguing. She plays more prominently in the second book, but here is why I think she is so fundamental to this particular writing style:
The story is written from the perspective of the protagonist, in fact, it’s told by the protagonist. That perspective isn’t used often, and when it is it isn’t always done well. Here, it’s done masterfully, and the love interest is exactly the reason why. Very few other characters leave a mark or stand out. This character, suitably, becomes the center of attention, even when she’s not present. Why? Because she is the primary focus of the protagonist, the narrator, the storyteller. It’s fascinating. It’s done so well, in fact, that I’ve always found the love interest to be more interesting than the protagonist himself.
Gold, silver, copper?
None here. Patrick Rothfuss clearly has a love for currency. It shows in his work and is a bigger antagonizer of the hero than anything, or anyone, else. You can feel the tension, the struggle that the currency creates, the constant tightrope the protagonist must walk. It plays a bigger role than the magic system that the Rothfuss creates, and has a bigger impact on the world than any magically formed fire or lightning.
Don’t believe me that it’s complex? Check this out.
That which thwarts the hero
This is where I begin to struggle a bit, and where I want to dig into the perceived writing style. There are threats – the hateful teacher, the spiteful peer, a sect from ancient mythology, incredible creatures – but none of them pack a punch. The threats never create a tension that keeps me turning the page.
This is where Rothfuss diverges from many other authors. Brandon Sanderson (another prominent fantasy author) taught a course on writing at BYU a couple of years ago and had it recorded and posted on YouTube. In his first class, he proposes that there are two kinds of writers – Discovery writers, and Outline writers. Discovery writers write and learn about their world and characters as they go, where Outline writers focus on having as much figured out as possible before they write a single scene.
I would argue that Rothfuss is a Discovery writer. Don’t get me wrong, he clearly has an idea of where he wants to take this story, but the structure of his books tends to meander, never feeling cohesive. This is greatly offset by his descriptive, evocative language, making you feel what the character feels, drawing you into the internal angst, or the soaring victory.
The threat, as I recently said, doesn’t pull the story along. The ending, as a result, felt disjointed, almost tacked on. Not only was it sudden, but it removed you from the setting that had been established early on, where the protagonist spent most of his time. All the threats that had risen were left behind in a clatter of hooves. An apt comparison is if J.K. Rowling had removed Harry Potter from Hogwarts in the last eighth of the first book, leaving Malfoy, Snape, and his friends behind to face some new threat that was only loosely tied to his past.
No end in sight
I can’t know Rothfuss’s mind and his process, but I do worry that he has written himself into a corner. The first book in this series was released over a dozen years ago, his second book in 2011. He’s released a book from the perspective of a side character, but the third book still hasn’t seen the light of day.
See, he wrote the first two with the idea of tying everything together with the third. By the end of this book very little had happened toward the grand events he frequently alludes to. The second book shows some progress, but not enough that I think he can neatly tie the bow on the trilogy with a third. I don’t know that that is still possible, not with the current story pacing. I’d imagine he needs two more books to get where he’s wanting to go. He’s admitted he’s something of a perfectionist (which I get), however, part of me is convinced that this project continued to grow as he worked on it, expanding until it could no longer fit within the parameters he’d set from the beginning.
This isn’t abnormal. Not by a longshot. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time wasn’t supposed to be more than six books. It ended up as 14. Brandon Sanderson has built in ‘pressure-valves’ as he calls them, limiting the first section of his Stormlight Archive to five books before tackling another five from a new timeframe to keep from getting stuck in an endless series. See the trend? Here we are, eight years later and the final book isn’t complete.
To be super clear here, I’m not coming down on Rothfuss at all. I’d imagine writing a best-selling fantasy series, beloved by people like the McElroy brothers, Lin Manuel Miranda, the cast of Critical Role, and millions of others works to create an astounding amount of pressure – so much so that it is all but impossible to live up to. I look at his situation through the lens of my own insecurities and can’t imagine what I’d do.
I imagine the fear of failure, the pursuit of perfection, and the impossible expectations of his fans are standing in the way of him being able to complete his beloved series.
Here’s to hoping he can manage to finally wrap it up, if for no other reason than to let himself move on to other projects.
Are you still reading?! Ironic that I talk about an author who discovers as he writes and then post this nearly 1,500-word rambling mess.
If you enjoy fantasy and haven’t yet read The Name of the Wind, I really do recommend you pick it up. Rothfuss has earned the respect he’s gained in the writing community.