I have been curious about this book for quite a while. Not because of the praise it has received but quite the opposite. Vox Day has stated he was unable to finish it and has singled out Kvothe as the biggest gamma in fiction in one of his Darkstreams. Other writers have commented on the very slow progress of the series as well as the behaviour of the writer. So my curiosity is more akin to the kind that compels you to stare at a car crash. That is not to say the book is a disaster as it has been very successful with both it and its sequel selling many millions of copies. And though it is over fifteen years old, I still had to put one of the multiple copies at my library on reserve and wait almost a month before I could borrow it. Most authors would be happy to sell a few thousand and see one copy available in their local library. Especially in the genre of Epic Fantasy where even fewer authors find success.
I read the book while commuting over the last few weeks and it was a struggle at times though I wouldn’t say it is irredeemably awful. I came away thinking Rothfuss can write and there are some good ideas within the pages. The main problems are that Kvothe is an almost textbook Marty Stu, the novel is over six hundred pages and the plot goes nowhere. I don’t like this novel at all but I think Vox has given a good explanation of its appeal in the link above and I will add some more to this in what follows.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, March 27th, 2007
Firstly, when I say the plot goes nowhere, I am not exaggerating. This is the blurb in full:
‘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. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’
Of everything listed in above, only the burning of Trebon happens in the book. Even with two thirds of the novel devoted to his time at the University, he isn’t even expelled in the end. What makes this amusing is the sequel novel called Wise Man’s Fear is almost a thousand pages and still doesn’t cover many of the events mentioned in the blurb of the The Name of the Wind. This is supposed to be a trilogy but since the sequel released in 2011 not even a chapter of the third novel has been released. What makes this worse that Rothfuss promised to release a chapter as a reward for a charity fundraising goal that was met. This and other controversies get into territory I don’t want to cover here though. Funnily enough, George R. R. Martin released his last novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire series in July, 2011 so perhaps they are competing to see who can last the longest without publishing a new book. I certainly don’t intend to read the sequel and it has been speculated that much like Martin, Rothfuss will never finish the series. His editor has even given some corroboration to this.
Next, some might wonder how you pronounce ‘Kvothe’? I know I did. Is it ‘Kevoth’? Is the ‘K’ silent and he is just ‘Vothe’ or ‘Vouth’? Rothfuss annoyingly doesn’t reveal the actual pronunciation until page 53 in the paperback I read. To give the reader some experience of my frustration, I have held off until now when I could have easily put it in parentheses the first time his name was mentioned. It is pronounced ‘Quothe’. He is also known by a few other names for reasons. Rothfuss mentions Middle-earth, Narnia and Pern as inspiration and he might have thought it clever to give multiple names to characters as Tolkien did with characters like Aragorn and Gandalf. The difference is that Tolkien had good reasons for doing this and Rothfuss (at least in the first novel): doesn’t.
The novel actually starts pretty well and I found the first few chapters the most engaging of the whole story. This ends as soon as Kvothe begins telling his story to a character known as ‘Chronicler’ who has come to him for the express purpose of hearing his story. Kvothe is brimming with self-importance from the beginning.
‘The story will take three days,’ Kote [Kvothe] interrupted. ‘Starting tomorrow. That is what I am saying.’
Chronicler closed his eyes and ran his hand over his face. The earl would be furious, of course. No telling what it might take to get back in his good graces. Still . . . ‘If that ‘s the only way that I can get it, I accept.’
‘I’m glad to heard it.’ The innkeeper relaxed into a half smile. ‘Come now, is three days really so unusual?’
Chronicler’s serious expression returned. ‘Three days is quite unusual. But then again—’ Some of the self-importance seemed to leak out of him. ‘Then again,’ he made a gesture as if to show how useless words were. ‘Your are Kvothe.’
Chapter Six: The Price of Remembering
Reading this again after finishing the entire book is amusing given how little he actually told. Having the hero tell his tale to a chronicler at a country inn is not a bad way to start a fantasy novel but that he would think so much mundane information must be recorded is laughable. It is impossible for me to believe that the Chronicler would have thought the vast majority of what Kvothe tells him in the course of the novel was worth listening to let alone writing down. I can barely believe Kvothe thinks it is.
We are introduced to Kvothe and his family who are ‘Edema Ruh’ which is like an ethnic cross with Jews and Gypsies. It will not surprise you that (((Rothfuss))) is himself a Jew. There are plenty of hints that other races consider them lying, sneaky thieves and Kvothe’s actions in the novel do nothing to dispel this prejudice. He is quite happy to lie and even steal throughout the novel and this is never considered wrong when he does it. He talks about lying in particular as if it were part of normal everyday human interaction.
His family are killed by an evil entity known as the ‘Chandrian’ who we learn virtually nothing about for the rest of the book. Kvothe is then a beggar on the streets of a large city called Tarbean for about one hundred pages before getting to the University which takes up the last two thirds of the book. The only major event outside of the death of his parents is the trip he takes to Trebon which does at least get burned down. The book mostly consists of inconsequential subplots at University. He doesn’t have enough money. He needs a job. He’s in debt. He like this girl. Not really the stuff of fantasy.
Et tu, Nightwish?
Apart from the agonising irrelevance of his time at the University, it is a generally typical hero’s journey narrative. He even has an elderly mentor named Abenthy who he calls ‘Ben’ which is not at all like Ben Kenobi in Star Wars. He is an original character, do not steal! Early in the novel Ben tells his parents how great Kvothe is:
‘Think back to when you learned to play. Can you remember how old you were? Can you remember the sort of difficulties you had? My father continued to tug on his beard, but his face was more reflective now, his eyes far away.
Abenthy continued. ‘I’ll bet he learned each chord, each fingering after being shown just once, no stumbling, no complaining. And when he did make a mistake it was never more than once, right?’
My father seemed a little perturbed. ‘Mostly, but he did have trouble, just the same as anyone else. E chord. He had a lot of trouble with great and diminished E.’
My mother broke in softly. ‘I remember too, dear, but I think it was just his small hands. He was awfully young. . .’
Chapter Twelve: Puzzle Pieces Fitting
You have to keep in mind that Kvothe is supposedly dictating all this to the Chronicler. Much fun has been made by critics of how good Kvothe is at everything and how quickly he learns and acquires various skills. This is no exaggeration and I could give many more exerts beyond the one above as evidence. He learns everything faster, better and often even younger than everyone else. When he begins at the Arcanum (University) at the age of fifteen, he is mockingly given the opportunity to teach the class after asking the master for more advanced lessons. He stands up and delivers an excellent impromptu lecture and humiliates Master Hemme who becomes one of his many enemies. The students all applaud this and he gains notoriety but somehow still only has two friends who aren’t very popular.
His main enemy is another student named Ambrose who becomes a thorn in Kvothe’s side. The exert below is illustrative:
Entering the reddish light of the Archives I found both Ambrose and Fela sitting behind the entry desk. A mixed blessing if ever there was one.
Ambrose was leaning toward her, speaking in a low voice. She had the distinctly uncomfortable look of a woman who knows the futility of a polite refusal. One of his hands rested on her knee, while the other arm was draped across the back of her chair, his hand resting on her neck. He meant for it to look tender and affectionate, but there was a tension in her body like that of a startled deer. The truth was he was holding her there, the same way you hold a dog by the scruff of its neck to keep it from running off.
As the door thumped closed behind me Fela looked up, met my eyes, then looked down and away, ashamed by her predicament. As if she’d done anything. I had seen that look too many times on the streets of Tarbean. It sparked an old anger in me.
Chapter Forty-Three: The Flickering Way
One can read more into Rothfuss from this than anything else. This reads like what he wants to imagine the girl is feeling more than what she actually is. I can picture a young (and fat) Rothfuss seeing a woman with with men that aren’t him and believing they are really uncomfortable. In reality, Fela could have stood up at any time if she wanted to. I will come back to Kvothe and women later but for now, this part is more relevant to the plot than it would appear. If Kvothe is ‘Harry Potter’ then Ambrose is his ‘Malfoy’. They both immediately take a dislike to each other. Ambrose is on duty checking people into the Archives where Kvothe needs to go to learn more about the Chandrian to advance the plot. Although he is super smart and better than everyone, he is tricked by Ambrose into paying to enter the Archives and taking a candle inside which is forbidden because of the danger of fires. He is caught and banned from the Archives and there is no resolution to this until near the end of the novel. Fans will jump in and say he was under the affect of painkillers he had taken before receiving a whipping as punishment for another offense but this is still absurdly contrived. It makes no sense for this supposed genius to get tricked in such an obvious way by someone who had already shown intense dislike for him. That this keeps Kvothe doing nothing much relevant to the overall plot for hundreds more pages makes it all the worse.
I suspect the reason so much time is dwelt in the University is because Rothfuss was writing what he knew and his adult life had been nothing but college at the time he wrote it. He went to University up to the graduate level and even wrote a guidebook to college before he found success as a fantasy author. Looking at a picture of him suggests he hasn’t spent much time as an outdoorsman, boxing or even exercising in general. I also think this is a major reason why the novel was successful as he has (inadvertently or not), written Harry Potter goes to College. The final book in the Harry Potter series came out in late 2007 after The Name of the Wind was published and many children who had grown up with Rowling’s series were at college age around this time. I suspect that there is a significant crossover with fans of both these series and Harry Potter is himself a Marty Stu. This fits neatly with Vox’s observation in the linked post above that certain types of readers (gammas) project themselves onto characters like Kvothe instead of reacting with disgust and contempt as I and many others do.
If you’re in any doubt that one should react with disgust toward Kvothe, then what follows should put that to rest. On Kvothe’s journey to Imre where the University is located, he meets a girl named Denna who also irritatingly goes by a few other names. She is said to be beautiful and by Kvothe’s own description, very loose with other men. All except Kvothe anyway. Kvothe is obsessed with her nonetheless and I will quote a large exert of what I found to be the most pure gamma prose ever published below. This is not even all of it and you have been warned.
The Eolian was always my best be for finding Denna, and as the weather worsened I found her there more and more. By the time the first snow fell, I usually managed to catch her one trip of three.
Unfortunately, I rarely managed to have her wholly to myself, as she usually had someone with her. As Deoch had mentioned, she was not the sort who spent a lot of time alone.
Still I kept coming. Why? Because whenever she saw me some light would go on inside her, making her glow for a moment. She would jump to her feet, run to me, and catch hold of my arm. Then, smiling, bring me back to her table and introduce me to her newest man.
I came to know most of them. None were good enough for her so I held them in contempt and hated them. They in turn hated and feared me.
But we were pleasant to each other. Always pleasant. It was a game of sorts. He would invite me to sit, and I would buy him a drink. The three of us would talk, and his eyes would slowly grow dark as he watched her smile towards me. His mouth would narrow as he listened to the laughter that leapt from her as I joked, spun stories, sang . . .
They would always react the same way, trying to prove ownership of her in small ways. Holding her hand, a kiss, a too-casual touch along her shoulder.
They clung to her with desperate determination. Some of them merely resented my presence, saw me as a rival. But others had a frightened knowledge buried deep behind their eyes from the beginning. They knew she was leaving, and they didn’t know why. So they clutched at her like shipwrecked sailors, clinging to the rocks despite the fact that they are being battered to death against them. I almost felt sorry for them. Almost.
So they hated me, and it shone in their eyes when Denna wasn’t looking. I would offer to buy another round of drinks, but he would insist, and I would graciously accept, and thank him, and smile.
I have known her longer, my smile said. True, you have been inside the circle of her arms, tasted her mouth, felt the warmth of her, and that is something I have never had. But there is a part of her that is only for me. You cannot touch it, no matter how hard you might try. And after she has left you I will still be here making her laugh. My light shining in her. I will still be here long after she has forgotten your name.
There were more than a few. She went through them like a pen through wet paper. She left them, disappointed. Or, frustrated, they abandoned her, leaving her heartsore, moved to sadness but never as far as tears.
There were tears once of twice. But they were not for the men she had lost or the men she had left. They were quiet tears for herself, because there was something inside her that was badly hurt. I couldn’t tell what it was and didn’t dare to ask. Instead I simply said what I could to take the pain away and helped her shut her eyes against the world.
Chapter 91: Worthy of Pursuit
Denna is the main object of
Patrick’s Kvothe’s desire but there are other women. At one point he heroically saves the previously mentioned Fela from a fire and is later rewarded with a cloak:
She took the cloak out of my hands and stepped close to me, spreading it over my shoulders, her arms circling me in something of an embrace.
I stood there, to use Fela’s words, like a scared rabbit. She was close enough that I could feel the warmth of her, and when she leaned to adjust the way the cloak lay across my shoulders, one of her breasts brushed my arm. I stood still as a statue.
Chapter Sixty-Eight: The Ever-Changing Wind
This breast is the closest Kvothe comes to the opposite sex though he still somehow imagines they all desire him. Even a female loan shark named Devi propositions him on at least one visit. Fela later invites him into her room when she answers the door wearing only a bedsheet. Kvothe is apparently too much of a gentleman though and rebuffs this apparent advance. If you remember the “tips fedora” meme, you will be unsurprised to learn that Kvothe literally refers to Denna as “M’lady”. And yes, Patrick Rothfuss is an atheist as well as being an overweight man with a beard.
Despite Denna being obviously unchaste, Kvothe continues to treat her as Rothfuss imagines a supreme gentleman would his fair maiden. The below quote takes place when they have both been camping outside of Trebon and Denna is in a delirium from a substance she mistakenly consumed.
Denna insisted on bathing. I washed up a little, then moved a discreet distance away and listened to her sing several rather racy songs. She also made several none-too-subtle invitations that I could join her in the water.
Needless to say, I kept my distance. There are names for people who take advantage of women who are not in full control of themselves, and none of those names will ever rightfully be applied to me.
Chapter Seventy-Nine: Sweet Talk
With gammas, it is best to assume the opposite of their moral pronouncements and I expect Kvothe would have definitely taken advantage of her. I will spare you the excruciating description of him spooning with her from around the same point in the book. There is one more woman or young girl that Kvothe befriends who lives in tunnels under the university named Auri. Her subplot only becomes relevant because the ‘Underthing’ she lives in allows Kvothe secret entry into the Archives which as mentioned, he was banned from entering. Why Rothfuss felt compelled to write the following I really don’t want to know but I would be interested in asking his female editor why she didn’t strike it out immediately after reading it.
I hesitated, unsure as to how she would respond to my request. ‘I was wondering, Auri. Would you mind showing me the Underthing?’
Auri looked away, suddenly shy.’Kvothe, I thought you were a gentleman,’ she said, tugging self-consciously at her ragged shirt. ‘Imagine, asking to see a girl’s underthing.’ She looked down, her hair hiding her face.’
I held my breath for a moment choosing my next words carefully lest I startle her back underground. While I was thinking, Auri peeked at me through the curtain of her hair.
‘Auri,’ I asked slowly, ‘are you joking with me?’
She looked up and grinned. ‘Yes I am,’ she said proudly. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’
Chapter Eighty-Seven: A Heavy Question
This dialogue is at the level of that found in pornographic films though there is still no physical pay off for Kvothe. With this and the other pervy exerts above, I really wonder what kind of conversations went on between Rothfuss and his editor. If she didn’t suggest striking them, did she at least ask him why they were necessary? Did he insist on putting them in? Were they worse before she edited them? I’d be seriously interested to know.
I think it is clear that in more ways than not, this is a story about the life of young Rothfuss in a heroic fantasy setting. He was probably a brighter than average student growing up and did pretty well at university. While there he probably had a few good friends he hung out with and with the musical focus, I’m guessing he played the guitar. I expect he was also friend zoned by a girl he really liked who slept around with many men but never him. Given what I’m told happens in the second book, he might have finally lost his innocence to a particularly theatrical prostitute who praised his non-existent prowess in bed. Then he finished college, got a job, wrote a book and became a successful author. I can understand why men like Rothfuss might find appeal in Kvothe but no normal man would. I should add that I wasn’t popular with girls growing up either but I also never allowed myself to believe fantasies about them secretly liking me.
There isn’t much more to say than this. I’ve already mentioned atheism and though it is fantasy, there is generally a naturalistic explanation for everything from the magic system through to the existence of dragons. Rothfuss also has the same stereotypical understanding of the Medieval Church that most midwits do and this is demonstrated whenever priests and church authorities are mentioned.
I should also explain the title. At one point when Ambrose breaks Kvothe’s lute late in the novel, he utters ‘The Name of the Wind’ in his rage which causes a violent gust of wind to strike and seriously injure Ambrose as well as cause damage in the vicinity. This I would interpret as what a gamma imagines is the power of his rage. Rather than making people laugh or shake their head as is the norm when an obese man with a neckbeard stomps about yelling; he might imagine it akin to commanding one of the elements. Gamma rage can certainly be dangerous but certainly not in the way they imagine. Along with the pervy quotes above the novel is really only useful as a window into the mind of a gamma.
I’ll finish with what is perhaps the most honest part in the book uttered in the end by the character Bast:
‘It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.’
Chapter 92: The Music that Plays
If you replace ‘everyone’ with gammas then it makes sense.