The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.
The Waystone Inn was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as Autumn's ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die. (p. 1)
When Tad Williams concluded his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series back in the '90s, one intrepid reviewer dubbed it "The War and Peace of fantasy novels." With the advent of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, this ceased to feel like an entirely honest statement. The hard-edged realism and psychological density of Martin's series has usurped the Tolstoy comparison and made Martin the man to beat for sprawling epic fantasy. Indeed, it has become necessary to mentally separate Martin from his contemporaries, lest the enjoyment of new epics begin to pale in comparison. Or, perhaps less melodramatically, it has become necessary for audiences to recognize that there are various modes of epic storytelling, some thriving on minutia and realism and some harkening back to a time of more lyrical prose and mythological abstraction. Williams's work falls into the second category, more wondrous than gritty, as does The Lord of the Rings and now, quite strikingly, a new epic by first time novelist Patrick Rothfuss called The Name of the Wind. It is a book that, while posing no serious threat to Martin's reign, still carries a certain weight. I defy anyone who has read it to contradict me when I state that it is the David Copperfield of fantasy.
Like Dickens's novel, The Name of the Wind centers around the trials and hardships of a truly magnetic central character, in this case, Kvothe, a former hero (depending on who you talk to) now masquerading as a mild-mannered innkeeper for reasons known only to himself and his servant, the equally enigmatic Bast. As in Mr. Copperfield's narrative, it is a tale filled with wit, humor, and danger, and if it sometimes lacks the complexity epic-addicts have been trained to expect from Martin, the loss is trifling. This is a refreshingly different epic, the mostly first-person narration creating a sense of intimacy and comfort, reminding us that you don't necessarily have to dig down into the raw neurosis of a character (or an entire cast) in order to find yourself deeply moved. By the end of the story, the rousing exploits of Rothfuss's hero have earned the Copperfield comparison a hundred times over and Rothfuss himself, with his poetic prose and deeply empathetic vision of a world out of time, a legitimate comparison to Tolkien.
The story picks up, in third person, at The Waystone Inn where a traveling scribe named Chronicler stumbles upon Kvothe's early retirement operation. Times are hard. A war rages in the land and there is talk of evil stirring in the form of the Chandrian, mysterious figures of legend whose harbingers include sightings of blue flame and the appearance of some rather deadly spider-like creatures called scraels. The land could use its hero back—Kvothe himself hints he may even be partly responsible for the current tide of societal woes—but the innkeeper nurses a secret pain and isn't talking to anyone.
At first, the all-too-familiar setting—small town, dusty roads, rickety inn and boozy bar patrons—is barely fleshed out above the level of a white room. But hold on. Unlike Jordan or Goodkind, Rothfuss prefers to reveal his world slowly. We soon learn that we are witnessing the end of the story. The mysterious state of the world and the truth about its former hero need to be explained and Kvothe must abandon his silence. Over the course of three days, he agrees to tell Chronicler the truth of his origins and the secrets of his rise to fame (or is that infamy?). The Name of the Wind, soon to be followed by two sequels, contains the first day of this worthy narration—and what a yarn it is.
As the story switches into first person we learn that Kvothe grew up in his father's caravan of performers, excelling at the acting and singing which will become so vital to his survival as an adult. Along the road he is mentored by a traveling apothecary named Abenthy in the arts of medicine, science, and "sympathy" (otherwise known as magic). With his quick and eager mind he excels in these studies like John Nash on a bender. Of course, before you can say Huzzah! tragedy strikes: the demonic Chandrian kill his family, setting him on a lonely path of revenge and self-discovery as he seeks to understand why.
What sets all this apart from your typical coming of age narrative is Rothfuss's refusal to trade in throwaway details. Each skill Kvothe learns becomes a vital part of who he is. Where some authors would simply give us a few rough chisel blows, Rothfuss creates a meticulous carving. Kvothe doesn't just play music, he breathes it, one of the most poignant relationships in the novel being between him and a series of ill-fated lutes. Likewise, every lesson concerning sympathy, medicine, or arcane knowledge goes into Kvothe's arsenal and is whipped out at exactly the right time. Convenient? Yes, but Rothfuss also makes it plausible. Often in fantasy we get the obligatory montage of characters learning sword and sorcery skills, and are then asked to believe that a few brief lessons have turned them into a bad-ass. Rothfuss, however, by long since revealing Kvothe's insatiable appetite for knowledge and by placing him in a position (a traveling performer) where the acquisition of knowledge would be the ultimate distraction from the monotony of constant travel, manages to sell us on the idea. Moreover, Kvothe's scrapiness, (certainly the hallmark of a traveling actor!) and his ability to live purely on wits and applied knowledge is what makes him so charming. One of the more brilliant scenes is an episode in which Kvothe, having lived as a beggar for three years in the aftermath of his parents' death, manages to get a bath at an obliging inn. Loathe to step back into his old rags, he then walks across the city in only a towel and uses his thespian training to bully a shop owner into thinking he is an aristocrat, thereby entitled to credit and clothing.
"If you haven't spent much time in court or in large cities," Kvothe says in a typically suave aside, "you won't understand why this was so easy for me to accomplish. Let me explain.
"Nobles...are one of nature's great destructive forces, like floods or tornadoes. When you're stuck with one of these catastrophes, the only thing an average man can do is grit his teeth and try and minimize the damage." (p. 201)
Once Kvothe manages to get off the streets, he makes his way to The University, where he hopes to become a student and gain access to the Archives, one of the few resources that might lead him to clues about the Chandrian. Here the novel really hits its stride, infusing what could have been a simple "Harry Potter for Adults" shtick with a subtle satire of academia that anyone who pines for their college days will relate to. One can only marvel as Kvothe holds his own against professors hostile, brilliant, and insane, befriends comically stressed out co-eds, and struggles mightily against outrageous tuition prices and a brilliantly irritating student nemesis. Kvothe's fight against classism and poverty (those classic Dickensian trappings) provides as much drama as anything else in The Name of the Wind (even Rothfuss's unique take on the fire-breathing dragon). Similar to the way we are moved by Adrian Brody's character in The Pianist, a penniless man forced to live without food, shelter, or warmth for long periods of time, we rejoice each time Kvothe manages to secure enough wealth for shoes, and plummet when he goes hungry. Luckily, Rothfuss possesses a ribald sense of humor and has a gift for wringing poignancy and laughs from his audience, often simultaneously. In this sense, it is as if Kvothe's story is one of the plays he has performed for his father's troupe, asking the audience to applaud the triumphs of a larger than life character.
And larger than life is certainly what Rothfuss is going for. Like Jordan's Wheel of Time, The Name of the Wind is largely concerned with the origins of heroism, deftly showing how Kvothe's actions are transformed into legend by gossip and circumstance. Ironically, he is a man capable of slaying a rampaging dragon, saving a damsel, and outwitting contract thugs all without picking up a sword—yet none of his actions stem from a particular need to be heroic. It is a motif we recognize from Jordan but Rothfuss does it with more humanity. A pivotal scene in which Kvothe and his love interest realize they are dealing with a gargantuan and drug-addicted dragon has to be read to be believed, filled with enough shrill hysteria to make you laugh out loud. (Fantasy romances can get tedious, but Kvothe's lady love, whose name I will withhold for plot reasons, reveals herself to be his perfect counterpart. Their romance, at turns erotic, tragic, and hilarious, is an unexpected delight in a book full of them.) The bulk of Rothfuss's supporting cast may pale in Kvothe's shadow, but they are always human: legends in the making who haven't realized it yet.
Lest you think, however, that Rothfuss doesn't have the weight to ground this rollicking tale, rest assured: like any good fantasy, the light here is tempered with darkness. Mysteries lurk, strange creatures abound, and, on the last page, the device Rothfuss uses to frame his novel knocks you for a wallop. It seems that this magical, effervescent story is just warming up, slowly tipping the scale towards ever-darker secrets. But then, how lucky for us. For like Mr. Copperfield, Kvothe is a narrative force to be reckoned with, and a character readers will long to follow, no matter how perilous the path.
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California and is pursuing her MFA in popular fiction through the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Her fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in The North Bay Bohemian. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.