Adam Roberts, in his Strange Horizons review of Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind (2007), sets up a cage match between Rothfuss and J. R. R Tolkien, specifically Tolkien's The Children of Húrin (2007). I read the review eagerly, followed the twists and turns of the bout, cheered on my favorite, and applauded when Roberts declared the winner: "I am not, in this review, saying that Tolkien is simply a better writer than Rothfuss; although, as it happens, I think he is. But Rothfuss is certainly an accomplished storyteller; it's just that he has not thought-through the implications of writing Heroic Fantasy in the way Tolkien did . . . Kvothe, an individual who overcomes various life obstacles to triumph has plenty in common with Lance Armstrong or that guy in The Pursuit of Happyness. His is a didactic and a feel-good heroism."
At that point, though, I hadn't read The Name of the Wind; I was just tired of and disgusted with interminable fantasy series that did little but imitate Tolkien. Now, having read both that book and its sequel, The Wise Man's Fear, I think that Roberts's review was written under a misunderstanding, one which arose in part from a letter that DAW publisher Elizabeth Wollheim sent to reviewers. In that letter, which Roberts quotes in his review, Wollheim calls The Name of the Wind "[a] tale told in classic high fantasy style" and goes on to reference all the usual suspects, George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Terry Brooks among them.
The thing is, though, Rothfuss doesn't write high or heroic fantasy. (Neither do some of those others, but that's another review for another time.) His main character, Kvothe, is not a hero, but he’s not exactly an anti-hero either; he exists in the tension between those two poles. If Wollheim had mentioned Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series she might have gotten closer to the mark: like the Gray Mouser, but unlike Tolkien's heroes, Rothfuss's Kvothe is forced to survive in harsh urban environments, and he becomes something of a trickster, not above using deception to triumph. But Tolkien outsells Leiber by orders of magnitude, and Wollheim almost certainly knew that his name, and not Leiber's, would attract the attention of booksellers.
The Name of the Wind begins and ends at an inn that Kvothe owns, a place where he has washed up after years of adventure. We're told that he has changed his name but not why he's hiding in this backwater town, only that something has gone wrong in the world outside and that he is possibly to blame. He certainly does not seem to have "overcome various life obstacles to triumph," and, judging from the story so far, a happy ending is by no means a sure thing.
Kvothe is telling his life story to a man called Chronicler. In the first volume we learn about his childhood among the Edema Ruh, a group of traveling players; about the destruction of the troupe, all but Kvothe, by creatures called the Chandrian; Kvothe's years of living hand-to-mouth on the streets; and finally his entry into the University to learn magic.
Right away we get one obvious difference between this book and any of Tolkien's: The Name of the Wind is written in the first person. Characters in high fantasy cannot be self-aggrandizing; they can't talk about themselves in heroic terms, can't say, "Then I did this wonderful deed and then this other one." They need other people to tell their tales for them. Kvothe, on the other hand, talks about his exploits in a style that is half bombast and half self-deprecating, with a leavening of humor to make it easier to digest.
The Wise Man's Fear begins where the first book left off, at the University. Kvothe has been trying to research the Chandrian, but since everyone thinks they're mythical he hasn't had much luck. A wealthy ruler, the Maer Alveron, offers to become the patron of someone who is good with words, and Kvothe takes the position, hoping to discover more outside of the University. He helps Alveron woo a woman and is sent out by the Maer to rout a band of bandits. On the way home he is initiated into sex by Falurian, a Fae who "kept men until their bodies and minds broke beneath the strain of loving her. She kept them until she tired of them, and when she sent them away it was the leaving that drove men mad" (p. 637)—and yet he seems to suffer no ill effects. He learns martial arts and philosophy from people called the Adem.
Much as I like this book, a lot of this made me uneasy. Kvothe is simply too good at too many things to be believable, and I haven't even gone into all of them; he's also brilliant at learning languages, at playing the lute, at magic, at invention. It's possible, of course, that he's boasting, an unreliable narrator, but stories about him from other characters tend to back him up.
But there's a lot to like here, first and foremost of which is Kvothe himself. Like his style he can navigate between vainglorious and humble. He leaps into things that most people would not even consider, and when he sees the danger he's gotten himself into he doesn't back away slowly but doubles down, doing something even crazier and more audacious.
When he discovers, for example, that Ambrose, one of his enemies at the University, has made a sorcerous copy of him, Kvothe knows that he has to break into Ambrose's rooms to steal it. His method of stealing it, though, is to set fire to the rooms and then run inside to put it out. When Ambrose sees him coming out of the rooms and swears at him, Kvothe's response, of course, is to act injured and to point out that he had been helping Ambrose—but he doesn’t stop there: in the middle of the argument he lifts Ambrose’s purse. You have to laugh, half admiring and half rueful.
It's also becoming clear that Rothfuss is very much in control of his material. Songs sung in passing, fairy tales told around a campfire, turn out to be important clues. Denna, a woman Kvothe meets casually in a caravan, is much more than she seemed at first. (And may I say a few words in favor of Rothfuss's treatment of women? At one point Kvothe follows Denna, only to find her first protecting a young woman and then giving her advice on how to live on the streets. Denna's advice to the woman sounds natural, both pragmatic and understanding.) There are whole threads on the Internet about who Kvothe's mother will turn out to be, who Denna's patron is, why Kvothe is so reduced from what he once was, and what he keeps in his triple-locked box—and from the way Rothfuss handles his tale we can be confident that he'll supply the answers.
In his review Roberts quotes a passage from The Name of the Wind, Kvothe talking to two of his friends at the University, and then says, "This could be three pals from any novel set in the 20th or 21st centuryl [sic]; and hundreds and hundreds of similar passages serve only to show the author has not entered into the pre-industrial medieval mindset that his medieval pre-industrial world requires." But Kvothe's world is not medieval; the Artificery at the University comes up with all kinds of inventions, and Kilvin, the Master there, seems to have invented the light bulb. (This raises another question, though: why is there such a bare minimum of technology, considering what goes on at the University? Where are the steam engines, the railroads, the cameras? In other novels of this type magic takes the place of technology, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.)
Roberts is right about the conversation between Kvothe and his friends, though. Too often Rothfuss uses modern words and phrases, giving his characters a jarring contemporary sensibility, and I found myself thrown out of his world more times than I liked. To keep Ambrose busy while Kvothe and his friends are setting fire to his rooms, for example, they convince a woman to go out on a date with him. "'[Y]ou're the only irresistibly attractive woman we know,' Simmon chimed in. 'Our backup plan was to stuff Wilem into a dress. Nobody wants that'" (p. 251). It's funny, but it sounds more like sarcastic undergraduates joking around today than someone from the world Kvothe inhabits. Another woman, Devi, wants to join the plot, and says, "I want a piece of Ambrose . . . And yes, we have a past. . And no, it’s none of your business" (p. 252), which could be from a discussion of a bad relationship on a soap opera. Then there's "I continued my usual classes in sympathy, medicine, and artificing, then added chemistry, herbology, and comparative female anatomy" (p. 943), which almost makes me want to retract what I said about Rothfuss's treatment of women.
There are other flaws in this novel as well, minor annoyances for the most part, but they interrupt what is otherwise a terrific reading experience. For example, whenever Kvothe and another character, Bast, are in a conversation, they mention the other person's name nearly every single sentence. Are they in danger of forgetting their own names?
Though I feel that Roberts has mistaken Rothfuss's intended style, his point about the language of fantasy can't be stressed enough. A fantasy world, a world created from nothing, has to be strictly consistent; one misstep and the reader is bounced rudely back into his or her own time. When a character starts using, for example, modern terms to describe a relationship, it's a shock, a jolt, and continued use of these terms over time begins to undermine the world the author has created. It violates the contract between author and reader, in which the author promises to take the reader to an entirely new place, made with entirely new materials.
It's always been an article of faith with me that good fantasy has to be written well, from the point of view of its own created world. But The Wise Man's Fear is so entertaining, so much fun, that its problems of style don’t bother me as much as they usually would. I’m starting to think that it’s worth a few infelicities to find out what Kvothe does next.
And it may well turn out that Kvothe and Bast are in danger of forgetting their names. At this point, considering how well Rothfuss has structured his series, I’m not putting anything past him.
Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.