The Blowing of the Sirocco

Right, promised a review of Name of the Wind last week, so in case anyone’s interested…

So there’s this orphan boy, right? His parents get killed by the bad guy when he’s young. Years later he goes to wizard school and creates quite a stir, making enemies of the rich kids while trying to gain the approval of an eccentric professor he wants to be his mentor. It all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? Fortunately, the cynic’s point of view isn’t all there is to this novel and the similarities to a certain popular children’s book were, at least in part, more obvious because I’m naturally wary of any book that receives the astonishing level of hype and advance praise Rothfuss has garnered.

Telling his own story is Kvothe, once just the son of actors in a well-respected group of travelling players, but one day to become a mage both feared and renowned throughout the world. From the bar of his out-of-the-way inn, Kvothe is persuaded to tell his life story so over the course of a day he tells the first third of his life, from childhood with the troupe to homeless child-beggar and finally to the university where he learns his art. Meanwhile, something nasty is lurking in the wilds outside the tavern, something that may require the master of magic to throw off his humble cover-story.

When a book receives so much praise it’s hard to match up in reality, especially for a debut. My short verdict on that would be; not really, but he takes a good stab at it. Looking at it another way, Rothfuss has written a very good book but all the talk (and indeed the letter from DAW’s president on the cover of the proof I read) doesn’t stop there. It claims this is the finest debut of the last thirty years, the publicity has been of a novel with not one word out of place – superlative upon superlative has been placed on this book and the weight is frankly too much for it to take.
So what has he achieved? First and foremost, this is an extremely readable book. The prose is lean and easy to plough through, on a basic “epic fantasy” level it ticks the box of letting the reader settle back and comfortably lose a few hours. That’s where the Harry Potter comparison does work to my mind. Patrick Rothfuss’ prose isn’t as beautifully spare as Graham Greene’s but it is massively readable. In the same way that Potter is so easy to read you barely have to put effort in as the pages sail past, the Name of the Wind doesn’t feel as long as it is and doesn’t exhaust the reader as a Steven Erikson book might.

What then stands in the way of greatness? Well a few things, although frankly it should be noted that even discussing whether it is truly great or just very good is one heck of an achievement. To discuss problems with it I would first mention the trilogy itself. Kvothe is telling his story over three days and there clearly is a “present day” plot going on, but I have no idea what it is. The structure of the book is not of the first instalment of a series but the first third of a novel and thus felt less complete that I’d hope for from book one.

Secondly, the basic premise. “Orphan goes to wizard school, partly looking for the tools of revenge”, doesn’t exactly blow my mind. His upbringing was exactly as I’d have expected had I been given the basic idea – the fact that he was going to come into conflict with a rich pupil and showed maverick brilliance at magic again didn’t come as a shock. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the plot at all, I’m just saying at no point did I throw up my hands and exclaim “ye Gods, what genius, I didn’t see that coming”.
Kvothe himself is likable enough, with a decent amount of the arrogance one would expect from a genius, but in his older guise he’s intentionally closed off and one never gets much of a sense about who he has become. I know the intention is to reveal that later, but when the second part is turning up next year I feel a little frustrated with the medium of him telling his own story. It’s nudging me ahead when there is nothing there yet. What I have isn’t a story lacking a few details, it’s the possibility of a story itself. Intentionally not giving the full picture is one thing (and something I enjoy greatly), but almost completely hiding the plot is somewhat less tantalising. I know everything at wizard school turns out ok because I’ve already been told that so I’ve got to hold out for something else to surprise me.

So, all in all, a good book that I enjoyed reading. Not as good as the hype and not intriguing enough to leave me panting for the next volume, but I’ll certainly remember to check it out when it is published.

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