Kote is just a simple barkeep at an quiet inn, but when a stranger comes to town, we learn that he’s so much more than that. He’s Kvothe, the man who has faded into legend, and he’s finally ready to tell his amazing story.
This is one of those books that comes with Baggage. And by Baggage, I mean reviews like this one from the A.V. Club:
“Shelve The Name of the Wind beside The Lord of the Rings…and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals.”
So let me get this out of the way: I genuinely liked this book, I’m planning to read the sequel, and I regret buying a pocket paperback copy, because when the third book comes out, I’ll be stuck with a mismatched trilogy on my bookshelf. But.
For me, this book failed in two ways: in its protagonist’s struggles and in its world construction.
Re: the first. The main criticism I’ve seen and heard of this book is that Kvothe is too perfect and textually, the evidence is pretty damning. Kvothe’s skills are never simply passable or just okay or even pretty good. He’s amazingly talented at just about everything he does, which includes, but is not limited to: acting, languages, memorization, persuasion, all things magic, playing the lute, surviving in the woods, surviving in the streets, figuring out puzzles and patterns, and on and on. Kvothe is accepted into magic school at a younger age than everyone else, is admitted to the Arcanum and moves up in rank faster than anyone else, and he finishes an apprenticeship in half the time it would normally take. He’s confident, driven and rarely if ever doubts himself, plus he has great skin. I loved that – even his complexion is better than everyone else’s.
But protagonists who are super amazing at stuff don’t bother me. Heroes, especially in fantasy, are always going to be extraordinary in some way. Harry Potter is the best Quidditch player Hogwarts has ever seen. The kids in Avatar the Last Airbender master their elements at insanely young ages. Buffy is a highly skilled fighter and incredibly strong. I happily accept all of these things, because all of those characters face such terrifyingly huge conflicts and deal with a lot of internal struggle. And therein lies the trouble with Kvothe – he’s the best at everything, but is never up against someone or something greater than himself. He doesn’t struggle to master anything, he doesn’t have doubts, he doesn’t have any personality weaknesses (minus a touch of narcissism).
Kvothe’s sheer awesomeness weakens the stakes of his own story, and it’s kind of a shame, because I really liked Kvothe in those rare and fleeting moments where it seemed like he had his back against the wall and he was a hero – but a human hero. I was invested when, early on in the book, he’s wandering around, starving and lost… until he has a dream that, in great detail, tells him how to survive in the wilderness. I cared when he sticks up for himself in Hemme’s class, but is punished with a public whipping… until he takes a numbing agent beforehand so he doesn’t feel any pain and isn’t embarrassed about being publicly shamed. If anything, the whole experience boosts his reputation.
Sure, it’s possible that Kvothe is an unreliable narrator. Maybe these things didn’t happen the way he says they did and maybe he’s not as naturally gifted and skilled as he asserts. Early on in the book, he tells the Chronicler that he “burned down the town of Trebon” and “was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in,” but those things aren’t really true when he tells those stories later in the book. But the point of Kvothe telling his life story to the Chronicler is that now we get to know the man – not the legend. Yet, in some ways, I feel like all the reader is allowed to see is the legend, because Kvothe never faces a true challenge thanks to all his mad know-how and skill.
Well, okay. There is one thing Kvothe thinks he’s not very good at: women. And here’s where we get to The Name of the Wind‘s other failing. It’s world building is sloppy in regards to the kinds of characters that are allowed to populate it. (Rothfuss’ book isn’t a special snowflake in this regard; if anything, it’s incredibly, embarrassingly typical.)
The lack of female characters is there from the start, but besides Kvothe’s mother never being given a name, I didn’t really notice it until Kvothe gets to the University. There are few female students and even fewer (i.e. zero) teachers who are women. Kvothe verifies this when he says that, “The ratio of men to women in the University is about ten to one.”
Kvothe points out the lack of female students during the start of his first class when a student named Rian is humiliated by the teacher, Hemme, for being late.
‘Rian, would you please cross your legs?’
The request was made with such an earnest tone that not even a titter escaped the class. Looking puzzled, Rian crossed her legs.
‘Now that the gates of hell are closed,’ Hemme said in his normal, rougher tones, ‘We can begin.’
I was so sure Rian would become a close friend and ally of Kvothe’s later on, because why else would the author consciously decide to limit the number of women at the University so severely if not to inform the plot? Kvothe feels like an outsider at the University, because of his background and prior experiences living a destitute life on the streets. Rian, because of her gender, is treated differently and would be a little separate from the other male students. Yet we never see Rian again, and Kvothe doesn’t become friends with any women, not in the way he’s friends with Sim and Wilem.
Fantasy worlds don’t have to be gender utopias. The world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is hardly a bastion of equal rights, and it’s better for it, because the author is actively exploring and using his fictional society’s rigid gender constraints to challenge his characters and complicate his plots. Arya, Sansa, Brienne, Cersei, Daenerys (et cetera) are all navigating a world that rejects them and watching their struggles and their triumphs within that world makes for a damn good story. And then there are worlds like Avatar the Last Airbender, where, outside of the water tribes, men and women are fairly equal, but it only makes sense. In this fantasy world, magical powers aren’t gender-based: they can appear in anyone. So, there are many soldiers who are women, heroes and villains who are women, prisoners of war who are women, teachers who are women, freedom fighters who are women, etc. The creators thought hard about the rules and construction of their fantasy world, and it shows.
Kvothe, like anyone else in The Name of the Wind, must study magic. It’s a learned skill in this world – not an innate ability. It doesn’t distinguish between genders. And yet. Few women are at the University, fewer still are equals in Kvothe’s life. Why? This gender disparity also doesn’t affect the plot. The author could have made any number of characters female instead of male and everything, plot-wise and character development-wise, would stay exactly the same. So as I read, I kept circling back to this question of gender disparity in Kvothe’s world, and the only conclusion I could draw was that it was just another failure of imagination. Rothfuss can imagine a world with dragons and sympathy magic, a world where ancient evils lurk and the rules of physics get tossed out the window at every turn, but not a world in which women aren’t a subjugated minority. Imagination tapped out.
I’m not trying to pick on the guy, here. Again, I really did like the book. I promise. And I don’t think Patrick Rothfuss was twirling his beard or whatever, purposefully concocting a fantasy book in which his female characters have little to no agency or importance, if they’re even there at all. I wonder if he even really noticed; he’s a product of our society and of our society’s stories, after all. But that’s exactly why I think it’s useful to critique fiction, particularly fantasy, in this way. As readers, we need to ask for more, but as writers, we need to push ourselves more.
I’ll admit, maybe I wouldn’t have even leveled this critique at The Name of the Wind if all those reviews and all those readers hadn’t told me this book was different. But really it’s just the same old story, where a man is the flawless hero and the women are barely a whisper.
*I love the story within a story structure of The Name of the Wind, particularly how Kvothe’s story would occasionally be interrupted by the present, making the reader more aware of the nature of story in and of itself. Though I was kind of upset with Bast at the end, in which he (I don’t believe this is a spoiler) ordered Chronicler to direct the story and conversation toward Kvothe’s high points rather than “the darker things.” That is definitely not the kind of story I want to hear (Chronicler is with me on this one), but it does make it clear Bast has his own, very mysterious agenda.
*Speaking of, I’m so intrigued by Bast! We don’t learn much about him, other than that he is not exactly as he appears, and I’m hoping Bast enters into Kvothe’s story in the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. Until then, I’m looking forward to diving into Rothfuss’ short story about Bast in the Rogues anthology released last year. (Though I will say, Bast is such a wasted opportunity for a female character. He could have very easily been a she.)
*Ending the first book in a series can be tricky to do, because the story needs to feel complete, but also incomplete. The Name of the Wind hits the mark perfectly: just the right mix of cliffhanger and proper ending. In fact, Rothfuss has great narrative pacing throughout the book. The chapters are never too long (except that one chapter in which four pages were spent discussing Denna’s beauty), and Kvothe stays in each setting long enough that the reader gets to know it, but not too long that the narrative pace gets bogged down.
*Can I have a whole book about Devi, please? We really don’t learn much about her at all, other than that she’s a bad ass moneylender (who collects on debt in nefarious ways) and that she once attended the University, but was presumably kicked out for mysterious reasons. Devi was a huge breath of fresh air in a book where the only other female characters who interact with Kvothe in any substantial way are beholden to him for one reason or another. I really, really hope we see more of her in the sequel.
*When Denna tells Kvothe how she’s noticed his eyes change color depending on his mood, I thought maybe it was a joke, but she was serious, which made me laugh even more.
*On the topic of Denna, I was so worried she would only ever be the mysterious object of Kvothe’s affections and for a good long while, I was right. He spends a lot of time chasing after her and mooning over her beauty, but in the last 200 pages or so, Denna does prove to have a life and agency of her own, and became a genuinely interesting person, instead of a shiny prize for Kvothe.
*There is, or so my research tells me, some release date drama surrounding this trilogy, namely that there is no release date for the third book and fans have been made to wait for several years. They do not like this and demand Rothfuss write faster or they will boycott the final book (lies), and also that he’s a scam artist gone mad with power and greed (really). Simply put, it’s some of the most hilariously self-centered whining I’ve ever read and it is glorious.
The Name of the Wind
2007. Pocket paperback: 722 pages.