Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind
Patrick Rothfuss
Fantasy

I tend to avoid genre fantasy nowadays--even though the genre is fundamental to my identity as a reader. To steal a quip attributed to Samuel Johnson, that which is good isn't original, and that which is original isn't good. There's plenty around that's neither.


Swords-and-horses fantasy, in particular, excites my liveliest suspicion. I did not (and do not) care for A Game of Thrones, to take one obvious example. I made an exception for The Name of the Wind, because several people whose judgment I respect recommended it. Even so, it took me a while to work myself up to the task.

And on balance, it was decent. I wouldn't recommend The Name of the Wind to anyone who isn't a lover of genre fantasy. (Or a 13-year-old, which is a heavy overlap anyway.) For anyone who is, it's readable. If it were a food, it wouldn't be filet mignon, but it wouldn't be deep-fried Twinkies either. It'd be, say, a hamburger. Not a Big Mac. Not an Artisanal Grass-Fed Beef Caramelized-Onion-and-Kale Burger. A hamburger.

Let's start with the obvious commendation: I finished it. At 600+ pages, that's no small thing. Then, too, the writing--particularly some of the descriptive passages--is better than average. The characterization is also better than average, if not up to mainstream-literary standards. There isn't an excess of magic (which lazy authors use in place of actual though), and such magic as exists is nicely described. It is, in short, comfortable.

It's also familiar. Some of The Name of the Wind is reminiscent of the Earthsea trilogy,* particularly A Wizard of Earthsea. More of it recalls Harry Potter, including analogues for Snape and Draco Malfoy. There's a brief but explicit bow to Tolkien. There's what almost has to be a one-sentence wink to Terry Pratchett. I see echoes of some more modern genre books as well, such as Scott Lynch's "Locke Lamora" series--particularly the third book, The Republic of Thieves; though in this case, it must be said, the resemblance is not in the plotting nor the pacing, which in The Name of the Wind are episodic and decidedly unhurried.

Now, part of the appeal of fantasy is that it's evocative. Far more so than its sibling genres, fantasy is about the echoes. Great fantasy reminds us of fairy tales, myths, and epics: of Beowulf facing the dragon, of King Arthur and Modred, of Robin Hood, of Greek or Norse gods, of the sheer wonder that we remember from our first trips to the well of Story, when we were young and the world was wider and the colors brighter.

Less-than-great genre fantasy reminds us of other genre fantasy. That's The Name of the Wind's limitation. It was a fun read. I'll probably pick up the next volume from the library. I won't put off reading anything else to get to it, though.

Yes, trilogy. The misguided rumor that there were further books in the series is unworthy of discussion in these pages electrons.

16 comments:

  1. Interesting take on it. Could almost say "stories that remind us of other stories are less-than-great". What appealed to me most was the way in which I felt I was there in that world, or could be there. I'll have to reread it to ponder the Earthsea echoes.

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    1. When you've read as much as we have, being reminded of other stories is inevitable. It's not entirely a bad thing, particularly if the other stories are strong ones. It's bad if it's vague, though. You know, the sense that this fantasy has some kind of generic similarity to all the other fantasy out there.

      I didn't quite get the you-are-there sense from this one, but I agree that when it happens it's magic. One of the things that took me out of the world a little was the disconnect between the level of technology (standard medieval, except that they appear to have printing) and the level of scientific knowledge. They show knowledge slide rules, conservation of energy, quantitative chemistry, the atomic theory, and a whole lot of other stuff that in our world didn't emerge until the late 18th - middle 19th centuries. It's a world where Kvothe can use terms like "brachial nerve plexus" and then, two sentences later, apply a poultice of goose grease and herbs to soothe the injury.

      Trivial spoilers follow:

      The Earthsea parallel is in (a) the school of magic with the various Masters, including the Master Namer; (b) the general idea of magic via the True names of things; and (c) the main character as magical prodigy student, capable of feats far beyond his maturity level. I did like the idea of Sympathy as a discipline, though.

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    2. Oh yes! Thank you. I agree that there were some Earthsea parallels there. I also thought there were some echoes of Master of the Five Magics, by Lyndon Hardy, and the Antryg Windrose novels by Barbara Humbly.

      That said, one unique part of the novel was the musical theater aspect. Perhaps having a daughter in that world I relate a lot. So, yes, the scientific terminology actually jarred a bit at first. Then however, I decided - perhaps rationalized - that this was based upon an origin in a scientific world that had descended into fantasy. I had some sense of that lurking in the background?

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    3. I wondered about the science-into-magic background as well. Nothing to confirm it, nothing to contradict it--not in the first book, anyway.

      I enjoyed the "wandering players" aspect as well. It took its own sweet time turning into anything resembling a plot, but I didn't object overmuch. The comparison with Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves is that the latter also has a bunch of pseudo-17th-century theater in it, which I also enjoyed. (It also has a somewhat similar handling of the love interest.)

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  2. I tried to read this and couldn't really get into it. The "mystery" of the main character (Kvothe is it?) wasn't interesting. And the impending danger wasn't very convincing. Admittedly in the first pages.

    All stories have been written. The older we get, the more we recognize them. I just re-read _Hunters of the Red Moon_ and really enjoyed it because of the nostalgia, but it was an objectively bad novella. Nowadays, with so many choices, the character or language really has to stand out for me to forgive a standard genre plot.

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    1. I had the same experience with an Andre Norton novel recently. I suspect that stories that once engaged, enlarged and excited our minds have diminished as we have grown much like the stair that once looked so large to a grade schooler might seem short to an adult?

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    2. Partly, yeah. These stories were new to us back then. Not anymore. In the end, however, all basic stories have already been told. Some of those stories, like the Hero's Journey, are good _because_ it is the same story. But there needs to be enough good character, delivery, dialogue, description, or twist that we don't notice the pattern; we just enjoy the ride.

      For me, _The Name_ just didn't have enough of that... in the first couple of pages.

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    3. "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve."

      It's true that we've changed while the books haven't. It's also true that some books are better than others, and I find that I'm much more likely to notice the difference now that I'm a cranky old fart. And it's also also true that encountering one of the Primal Stories for the first time is an experience that can't be repeated.

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    4. What are the Primal Stories in your view by the way?

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    5. Oh, I dunno. The Hero's Journey is one of the biggest. Look at the link and think of Star Wars.

      Other ones that occur to me (not particularly originally) would be Boy Meets Girl, which should probably be retitled Person Meets Person; The Monkey's Paw, in which someone gets what he asks for and learns to regret it; Crime and Punishment, which was traditionally about vengeance but which in the modern world gives us the mystery and the thriller ... What would you nominate?

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    6. Tragedies, where the main character is brought to ruin because of a tragic foible, are not popular these days. Maybe they don't sell tickets in theaters anymore

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    7. Very true. Any type of story can be a tragedy, too. Boy Meets Girl is often (though of course not always) tragedy--think Romeo and Juliet. Even The Hero's Journey can be tragic.

      Traditionally, by the way, tragedy has sometimes been subdivided into "Greek" and "Christian" tragedy. I've seen the difference summarized this way:
      * Christian tragedy is "How sad that things happened this way."
      * Greek tragedy is "How sad that things had to happen this way.

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  3. I would include the Grand Quest (think LotR; Maguffin required), the Prince and Pauper where someone goes from poor to rich, the Eternal Sufferer (Job - Biblical version - and Muire from Elizabeth Bear's All The Windwracked Stars come to mind), the Lover Betrayed Who Seeks Vengeance and perhaps the Murder Mystery. The latter as I think about it may not have been something seen in the distant past - although who are we to say - however it is deeply imbedded in modern consciousness.

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    1. The Lord of the Rings is a classic The Hero's Journey. Most quest stories are.

      http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm

      Murder mysteries are just a very modern variant of Crime and Punishment. Traditionally, the Crime and Punishment story was about revenge--think of the Greek myth of Orestes and Clytemnestra, or even Hamlet.

      I'd call the Job story more a morality fable than anything to do with eternal suffering. Job gets rewarded at the end, remmeber. Ted Chiang wrote a brilliant (of course) short story, "Hell is the Absence of God", around the premise that the Biblical version is a cop-out.

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  4. I think I've read the Chiang piece. Probably should reread it.

    That said, the original, Biblical version (or as good a translation as you can get), is pretty powerful. Not only does the guy get every happy thing in the world taken away from him, but after his kids get killed by a building that collapses on him as the latest in a string of catastrophes, his three friends argue with his conclusion that life kinda sucks right now. It really is a deep work. (Probably helps that I've read the Bear prequel to AtWS recently.) It reads like a guy who is worn out, ground down, at the end of his rope, who is finally ready to tell off the person who let him get dragged down (G-D):

    "Be silent, leave me to speak my mind,
    and let what may come upon me!
    I will put my neck in the noose
    and take my life in my hands.
    If he would slay me, I should not hesitate;
    I should still argue my cause to his face..."

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    1. Always read or re-read Ted Chiang. I think he's the single best SF writer of the last 20 years.

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