The Name of the Wind
by Patrick Rothfuss, is a good book. I started it on Stephen's recommendation, and finished it on the airplane today.
It's not your typical fantasy novel. It's a funny, sad, and most of all very personal story. There's not a world at stake, or even a kingdom; there's a map inside the front cover but it never really matters because this story is not about world-building or about getting from point A to point B. It's just this dude Kvothe, telling the story of his life, the choices he made, the risks he took, the tragedies he suffered, the things he learned. It's not an ensemble cast: it's a fantasy biography, all about one single character, and getting really deep into his head.
And it works because Kvothe is such an interesting character. He's far from noble, and he's not out to save the world. Most of the things he does are motivated by either petty revenge, trying to impress the ladies, or trying to scrape together enough money to buy a decent meal and a pair of shoes. He's endlessly curious about everything and has a brilliant mind, able to quickly master just about any skill he applies it to. He's also proud, arrogant, has no common sense, and doesn't know when to quit, so of course he's constantly biting off more than he can chew. Every time the odds are against him, he just raises the stakes. This makes him an immensely fun character to read about; he's not the type to sit around waiting for adventure to happen. Reading this book I was constantly slapping myself on the head and saying "Kvothe, you idiot, this is SUCH a bad idea..." but I had to turn the page and find out what would happen.
In fact Kvothe reminds me of nobody so much as a fantasy-world version of Richard Feynman. They both hang around universities picking locks, playing music, infuriating the authorities, following their scientific curiosity, and messing around with the building blocks of matter and energy.
And the magic Kvothe studies is so logical and predictable that it might as well be the physics of an alternate universe. Sympathy, as in "sympathetic magic", involves using willpower to create bonds between similar objects and then manipulating the bonds to effect transfers of energy. It's reliable and well-understood; "arcanists" speak of energy conservation laws, they calculate the percentage efficiency of energy transfers, they build user-friendly artifacts, and so on. When he first makes it work, Kvothe is almost disappointed at how non-magical and utilitarian it feels.
There's another kind of magic, though; one who knows the true Names of things, can call them and they will obey. Basically nobody in the book understands how Naming works, but people who study it too much have a tendency to go insane. That's not enough to scare off Kvothe, who spends much of the book seeking the eponyous Name of the Wind anyway.
Kvothe, being raised in a troupe of traveling entertainers, is well aware of the power of stories. His thorough knowledge of typical fantasy tropes makes him Dangerously Genre-Savvy. He often contrasts "what would have happened in a fairy tale" against what actually did happen; meanwhile the stories told about Kvothe's exploits grow ever more embellished and further removed from anything he actually did. There are stories within stories in this book, as well as competing versions of the same tale; the versions of stories told by different nations and religions both illustrate the differences in their cultures and hint at a common history whose details are long forgotten. It's like a thesis on how traveling minstrels served to transmit and preserve culture in a world before printing presses.
I loved the writing style. It's not in-your-face "Look at me, I am a WRITING STYLE!" but it's not the typical fantasy schlock either. It's subtle, thoughtful, meditative. Poetically pessimistic. Serene. Sprinkled with very dry humor, and shot through with genuine emotion. The tragic parts are told with the distinct voice of one who has lived through them. I was sucked in from the very first page, where a silence is described as "..the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."
The book makes skillful use of foreshadowing. We know from the beginning that Kvothe is going to get kicked out of the University, and that something bad is going to happen involving a woman, because he tells us right up front. You might think this would kill the tension, but it actually raises it, because every woman he meets, we're like: Is this "THE" woman? And every time he goes off following another terrible idea, we're like: Is this going to be the one that gets him expelled?
I can't remember the last time the same book had me laughing out loud, and then a chapter later, had me choking back actual tears. But The Name Of The Wind did.
Book 2 of the inevitable trilogy is supposed to come out soon, I hear...