Patrick Rothfuss’ 2007 novel The Name of the Wind is frequently, in my experience, held up as a high fantasy classic: it won a handful of readers’ choice awards when it was first published; there’s a TV series stuck in development hell; the novel winds up on “Best Fantasy Novels of All Time” lists, well, all the time. “Have you read The Name of the Wind?” goes the cry at geek meetups all over the Western world.
Well, I have read it now, and I Did Not Like It.
The story’s narrated by one Kvothe, a legendary hero living secretly as an innkeeper in an unassuming two-horse town. A passing scribe named Chronicler finds him and persuades him to tell his story, of which this novel, all 662 pages of it, is only the first part. It narrates Kvothe’s childhood with a troupe of travelling players, of years spent begging in the city of Tarbean and of his admission to the University at the unprecedented age of 15.
One of Rothfuss’ central interests here is storytelling. Kvothe’s father, the leader of the travelling players with whom he grew up, has been collecting stories about some mythical bogeymen called the Chandrian, intending to weave his disparate sources into a single authoritative narrative. This is an ambition that influences Kvothe’s life profoundly: never having had a chance to hear his father’s finished song, he seeks out stories of the Chandrian himself, and considers studying them at the University (where they’re considered to be little more than nursery-tales). So there are several stories embedded in the narrative; and, as well, Kvothe regularly draws attention to how his supposedly real story differs from a fictional one:
If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.
There are problems, though, with how Rothfuss handles the difference between story and reality; the main one being that he is, truly, not doing anything innovative with narrative expectation. I’ve been reading a fair amount of Guy Gavriel Kay recently: his work has a lot to say about chance and fortune, and that’s reflected in the structures and plots of his novels, in sudden, arbitrary character deaths, in the way journeys are amplified and destinations compressed, in his prioritising of the perspectives of ordinary people over those who hold the power in any given situation. Kay, in other words, deliberately deflates readerly expectation in order to make a point about the ways in which life is not like story. Rothfuss, who seemingly would like to make the same point, does nothing of the sort.
Because here is the second problem with his approach to the difference between life and art: in rejecting the artifice of story Rothfuss also rejects compelling structure. The narrative is wandering, unfocused, episodic, and then it just – stops, awaiting a sequel, despite having promised us (through Kvothe’s opening boasts) great and terrible deeds and possibly the death of a king. Life may indeed be aimless and roundabout, one thing leading to another in strange and whimsical ways, but it doesn’t, of course, follow that a story must be so in order to be truthful. Quite the opposite, in fact: I think if you’re going to fuck about with narrative structure and readerly expectation, you need to have a strong grasp of how those structures work in the first place and an alternative structure to take their place; otherwise, you don’t have a story at all, you have a rambling mess. As it is, the further readerly expectation is deferred in Rothfuss’ text the less we actually care about Kvothe or the Chandrian or any of it.
Sometimes you can get away with weak structure if you have a very distinctive prose style, a very strong setting or a very magnetic protagonist; if, in other words, you have something else to capture the reader’s attention. But Rothfuss’ prose is never better than workmanlike; his setting is a generic medieval-ish fantasyland any remotely savvy reader will have encountered many times before; and Kvothe is a classic Mary Sue, an intellectual prodigy, preternaturally musically talented and gifted with immense powers of persuasion.
There are a very few things to like about The Name of the Wind, and chief among them is the University, once we finally get there: it’s relatively unusual to read a school story set in a high fantasy world, and I would have liked more of that. (An academic year is, incidentally, a great way to structure a story – and that way we could have learned much more about the Chandrian, who, I feel are really at the heart of this tale.) But, overall, I actively found it a chore to read. I don’t know what its presence on all those “best of” lists says about the genre and its readership, but it’s surely nothing good.