The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear are the first two volumes of a fantasy series that’s getting a lot of positive attention (The Name of the Wind came out in 2007, The Wise Man’s Fear in 2011). I’m usually leery of starting series that the author hasn’t yet finished writing (who knows how long I’m going to be waiting for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire?) but in this case, while I enjoyed reading these two novels, I think I’ll be able to survive till the next one comes out.

Rothfuss has created a memorable character with a strong first-person voice (the book doesn’t immediately start first-person; the first couple of chapters set up a frame story in which the main character can tell his life story). The character is Kvothe, who grows up in a troupe of travelling players and shows unusual ability in — well, everything, actually. Acting, music, language, and even magic, which he learns from an old magician who travels with his family for awhile. There’s just nothing that Kvothe’s not good at, but when a horrifying act of violence destroys his family and everyone he knows, he’s shattered and has to learn not only to survive, but to avenge those he loves.

Sounds like a great set-up, doesn’t it? And it is, in a way. Interest in the narrative is heightened by the fact that in the frame story Kvothe, though still a young man, has retired from his adventures as a legendary magician/superhero, and is living incognito in an out-of-the-way town, running a roadside inn and, if you believe the prologue and the epilogue, “waiting to die.” Why? What brought him to this place? These are the burning questions that … won’t get answered, at least not in the first two volumes. Which kind of gets to the heart of the problem with an otherwise very good series of books.

Rothfuss has set himself up with a challenge right from the start, because it’s very hard to take a character who’s brilliant and good at literally everything he tries, and make him interesting (and not too annoying). I think he succeeds fairly well with Kvothe, partly by making him a little dumb socially in some ways — he’s still a teenager throughout the first two books, and he often has poor impulse control and annoys people he shouldn’t annoy, with unfortunate consequences. Despite his tendency to succeed at everything, I had no problem liking Kvothe — perhaps because we first meet him as a man who’s clearly been defeated and lost everything, so you know that he’s not as untouchable as he seems.

The only frustration with this highly readable series is that it’s taking a long time to get to the point where we see that happening. So far, for the first two books of what looks like it’s being set up as a trilogy, Kvothe experiences numerous challenges and setbacks, but he always — always — comes out on top eventually. Bad things happen to him, but he overcomes them. Nothing (apart from the initial inciting incident, the brutal murder of his entire family) has a permanent negative effect on him, so you do begin to get the feeling that you’re dealing with a Teflon Hero here. Lots of exciting things happen to Kvothe, but none of them moves the plot forward in any significant way. It’s hard to imagine how the story will be resolved in the next book when so many things have yet to happen and none of them has even begun to happen. We’re told early on that Kvothe was kicked out of University at a younger age than most students get accepted to it, but by the end of the second book he’s still enrolled with no immediate signs of getting kicked out (though he has had several near-misses with expulsion), so even that begins to seem like something that’s going to need a much longer series to resolve.

Given how completely episodic and not plot-driven it is, it’s amazing this series has gotten as much positive acclaim as it has. I think we’d have to put that down to good writing, a strong character and some nice world-building, because the plot is definitely weak — and I’m not a reader who demands a lot in the way of plot. I do like a sense that something important is happening to keep the pages turning, though, and there’s little sense of that here. Each of Kvothe’s adventures is interesting in and of itself but the structure is very episodic — there’s no sense that any one episode adds a piece to the puzzle that makes the next step inevitable. I really enjoyed reading these two books but I could at any time have put them down and walked away for days or weeks without feeling I was missing out on anything, because there’s no narrative drive forward that makes the reader feel she must carry on reading to find out what happens.

Having said all this, I must say that I definitely will pick up the next book when it finally comes out — partly because I enjoy reading about Kvothe and his world, but partly because I want to know if the story ever really gets moving and if so, how is it ever going to get resolved? To get Kvothe from the place he is at the end of Book 2 to where he is in the frame story — not to mention to resolve the “waiting to die” threat in the frame story itself — book 3 is going to have to cover a LOT more territory, plotwise, than both of the first two books put together. 

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