It has been a spell or two since I sat down to read a fantasy book for fun. I forget the recommender, but I do remember that he/she said this was the best fantasy book they had ever read. That is high praise, and it must have been someone whose opinion I value if I added it to my reading list. My wife is writing her own YA fantasy novel, she had fun feigning offense (at least I hope it was feigning!) that I would consider this book so highly in comparison with her own. So I had fun taking shots at this book while I was reading as a kind of reassurance to her. But honestly, this is a really well done book, and reading it in that light– what made it so good, and what elements make a fantasy novel so engaging– would be good lessons to be learned.
I mainly poked fun at the book for three things. First, the main character, Kvothe, comes off as absolutely too good at everything. The whole plot line revolves around him being absolutely better than everyone else. And at everything. He’s the best musician, the best thief, the best student, the best magician (arcanist in this world). My wife makes a point of developing flawed characters, and Kvothe seems at times way too big for his boots. Second, the book mas multiple frames that leave you unsure where the main story is taking place. Kvothe is telling his story to a historian of sorts in the present, and at first, I thought this was a way to introduce backstory. But once your realize you’re 90% of the way done and he’s still telling his “backstory”, that option is off the table. And finally, where is the climax? Sure, there are quibbles here, successes there, but there seems to be no central event that the plot is building toward. While each of these is a criticism, they may also be what gives the book its charm.
Kvothe the Humble
The first is perhaps the weakness common to any fantasy book. Harry Potter, for instance, can be insufferable (“But I am the chosen one”). But considering this story is told in the first person, you quickly get the idea of how high an opinion Kvothe has of himself:
“Let us hurry forward to the only tale of any real importance. Mine.”
In another early passage when Kvothe is introduced to the elements of magic, he has to show off a little. Magic in this book depends on mastery of something called Alar, which is the ability to divide your mind, to have two or more alternate focuses– or one part that is in deep meditation while another part is working out a difficult math problem. Kvothe records:
“I tried and tried. It was the most difficult thing I had ever done. It took me almost all afternoon.”
The whole book is like that. Kvothe taught himself to play the lute with 6 strings instead of seven. He’s let into the University without tuition, he impressed the masters so much. He skips a year or two in the curriculum. He upstages a master in class.
Perhaps I can’t excuse this one too much. But then, what is a fantasy novel without a hero? The audience that is drawn to science fiction and fantasy aren’t necessarily ones with high opinions of themselves. At least, this is me speaking for myself. We’re called names for being different– nerds or wimps or freaks. Fantasy gives us a chance to see those differences in a new light, as something that makes us special. Perhaps it can be overdone, but I do think that fantasy can have a positive effect like that. Even in this story, you eventually come to find out that our narrator himself needs some reassurance that he is a good person. The one baiting him to tell the story says: “And I swear by the night sky and the ever-moving moon: if you lead my master to despair, I will slit you open and splash around like a child in a muddy puddle… I just want my Reshi back.”
Story within a story
The book’s first several chapters begin with this mysterious innkeeper named Kvothe with a complicated past. You aren’t sure what to make of him. And there is a looming threat that I will not reveal that appears to be a potential major conflict in the book. But after getting about 10% into the book, a character referred to as Chronicler shows up, and the story quickly switches to Kvothe’s backstory– and all that David Copperfield kind of stuff. I was unsure for quite a while whether this would be a short detour to set up the main conflict and resolution in the present. But once you reach 60% then 70% and 80%, that you eventually give up on that idea. I was unsure how I felt about this at the beginning. My wife and I had been discussing her own book, and one of the main critiques she had gotten from her beta readers was there was an information dump at the beginning of the story. Are these kinds of information dumps a necessary evil? Or is it better to reveal the history, how the world operates, relationships, and more gradually over time?
I would point out that Kvothe’s long extended tale end up not being an information dump at all: it’s actually the major frame of the narrative. In fact, framed narratives are a common occurrence, and can add a lot to a story when done well. One famous mention is the book Frankenstein told through letters. Eventually, the readers settles into a pattern, as the story is told in chunks, as if it is actually being narrated to you, with interruptions for questions and meals and just taking a break. The reader will be jostled out of the story to hear from the three main characters in the framed story: Kvothe, his apprentice Bast, and Chronicler. Perhaps a future book will have most of the action take place in the outer frame, but I have the feeling that there is still plenty of narrative left for Book 2.
This last point is the hardest to explain right, but I will do my best. Kvothe’s tale, while having its dramatic elements, somehow feels flat in shape. Is it building towards something? Is there a climax? Most books are working towards an eventual final scene: a battle, a confrontation of sorts that you are already at least partially aware of or could predict. But there doesn’t seem to be one in The Name of the Wind. Even after you finish reading the book, you aren’t sure what it was. It leaves you feeling partially cheated from the story. I read 1000 pages for that?
But the interesting thing about it is that Kvothe’s story is that despite all that, the story is still so engaging. It really is a page turner. Part of this is because his world is so vast, so unexplored. There is a system of magic that on the outside is deceptively simple, and you are still learning about it to the end of the book. There is a history unraveled bit by bit through myths and stories that have a bearing on the present, but you aren’t sure how they relate. In this respect, it seems very similar to The Lord of the Rings. The vastness of it all, the feeling that you only know a part, is what makes The Name of the Wind so good. It has the feel of a real thing. Kvothe says as much too:
Thnk of all the stories you’ve heard, Bast. You have a young boy, the hero. His parents are killed. He sets out for vengeance. What happens next?
He finds help. A clever squirrel. An old drunken swordsman. A mad hermit in the woods. That sort of thing.
Exactly! He finds the mad hermit in teh wood, proves himself worthy, and learns the names of all things, just like Taborlin the Great. Then with these powerful magics at his beck and call, what does he do?
He finds the villains and kills them.
Of course. Clean, quick and easy as lying. We know how it ends practically before it starts. That’s why stories appeal to us. They give us the clarity and simplicity our real lives lack.
Perhaps that is why the book has more of a flat shape to it than a jagged peak of a climax somewhere near the end. But you still have the right to question Kvothe’s un-biased nature, as he still tends to be the hero and most important person in all of this. He couldn’t seem to escape that part.
This meandering nature of the book is what makes it so pleasant. You take pleasure in small things, like the music from a lute, a night out with friends in a tavern, a chat in the library. It’s partially what makes his characters seem so real too. You feel a solidity of small details in characters like Master Lorren of the Archives, Deoch and Stanchion of the Eolian, the moneylender Devi, and that mysterious always-disappearing love interest Denna. The Name of the Wind is a quiet fantasy, and I find it very comfortable.