7/10 Masterfully written with some underwhelming characters and story
Kote is a humble innkeeper in an out-of-the-way town called Newarre. But he hides a very old secret; he is Kvothe—famous bard, powerful sorcerer, and living legend. Cornered by a chronicler, Kvothe agrees to tell the full story of his life. The story of a young man who endures tragedy, learns the secrets of magic, and loses his heart.
There’s not much story to speak of. The Name of the Wind is made of two elements, the present “Kote” who shares the stories of his past and those stories of young Kvothe. Most of the book is told as a flashback in first-person as we follow young Kvothe. The problem is that there’s no central plot. Nor is there much plot in the “present” interludes. The book roughly breaks down into four parts, each centered on specific but largely unrelated events.
The first part is a typical beginning for a hero’s journey story. Kvothe is a young boy with a happy family. He’s talented and mentored by an old sorcerer, Ben (not to be confused with another old sorcerer from a galaxy far, far away), before tragedy strikes. It’s all a bit predictable, though instead of a farm-boy, Kvothe belongs to a traveling troupe of musicians and actors. The second part of the book, however, goes off-script for the hero’s journey. Instead of being taken under the wing of some great hero or being whisked away to magic school (not yet), Kvothe becomes a homeless orphan in a bustling city, Tarbean, barely scraping by and learning harsh lessons from an unforgiving world. It’s brutal and much more interesting. Think high-fantasy Oliver Twist.
Then we’re introduced to the bane of the book, Denna, as Kvothe leaves to make it into magic school. This part of the book, probably the longest, is also the least appealing to me. It’s Hogwarts. Not a little—a lot. We have an elite magic school with our own Dumbledore, Snape, Malfoy, Hagrid, even a discount Ron Weasley. I suspect that this part of the book was there to focus more on the magic system, which is interesting, but nearly everything set around it is unoriginal. Worse yet, we spend a great deal of time with Denna (more on her in a moment). All the while, Kvothe continues to be the most amazing and bright student ever seen, allowing him to get away with things no one else would. The book ends with a rather anticlimactic fourth part where Kvothe and Denna go on an adventure. Like several elements of the novel, it feels like something that might be more important later in the series. It’s at least more engaging than the bulky midsection of the novel.
Innkeeper Kote and his younger self, Kvothe, are compelling as central characters, though much of that has to do with how they’re written. For my money, I’d much rather follow adult Kvothe around. Young Kvothe offers no surprises as a character. He’s talented (perhaps too talented), angsty, inexperienced with girls, but also arrogant (who wouldn’t be if they were so naturally gifted?). He at least treats others with kindness, but otherwise, there isn’t a lot to like. Though he’s not the least likable character. That’s Denna.
Though she’s not very manic, she is otherwise a good (or bad) example of the manic-pixie-dream-girl. She’s mysterious, always the most beautiful girl in the room, sought after by every male, exceptionally talented, and scarred by something in her past. She toys with Kvothe the same way she does with every other male showering her with attention. She remains so mysterious that I have a hard time becoming invested in her character or their relationship. Yet he remains obsessed with her. At least he has the excuse of teenage hormones, but we, the audience, are subjected to his endless obsessing. Did you want some edgy teenage drama in your epic fantasy? No? Well, here’s a heap of it.
Most of the other characters in the flashback sequences aren’t interesting, or they are, but only show up a few times. Once Denna enters the picture, the book nearly changes from Kvothe’s story to hers. The “present” cast stands out, in particular, Bast. But we only get a handful of interlude chapters set in the present.
If you’ve heard of this book before, you’ve probably already heard its reputation for amazing prose. It is unquestionably the highlight of the novel. No wonder it takes Rothfuss so long to write each book. There are moments, not necessarily important ones, that are written with such effortless detail. Rothfuss never gets wordy; he is concise and economical. He chooses every word with precision. The Name of the Wind sets a high standard for prose in modern literature.
While the writing is excellent, the story and characters are hit-and-miss. And the misses are big for me. If I never read the book again, I blame Denna. And Hogwarts. Still, for any fan of modern fantasy, it’s worth a read. It has a detailed magic system and some of the best writing you’ll find.