“I was brilliant. Not just your run-of-the-mill brilliance either. I was extraordinarily brilliant.”
Patrick Rothfuss has written an astounding debut that I cannot unequivocally recommend. Well, that’s not strictly true. I can, but it’s clear why, despite its assured place in the modern canon, it’s divisive.
It’s easy to see why the book is captivating. There is good, rich prose and some wonderful verse (I was surprised how much my enjoyment of the snippets of verse made to my overall enjoyment of the novel, I found it very enriching). Where he chooses to detail the world, it’s as satisfyingly heavy as the great iron bar used to stove in the head of a man possessed in that essential staple of fantasy, the bar of an inn. The worldbuilding is much in evidence in the fascinating and well-worked-in exposition that illuminates some of that world’s myths and history and it’s also in the details of conversations and events; the research is evident and grounds the immediate surroundings and moment to moment of the story beautifully.
The book’s great achievement however, complete with some sour wrinkles in the execution, is its protagonist, Kvothe. Fittingly, for a narrative in which Kvothe is telling the story of his life to a chronicler in said inn, one in which he readily and confidently confirms his prodigious brilliance and wit, the novel proceeds, in taking us through his early life, to demonstrate those qualities overtly and frequently. Kvothe’s first memories are as a boy in a travelling group of players. Not just any players of course, the best, and his parents are loving, brilliant and generally perfect. His first mentor, that stirs in him a desire for knowledge and in particular the knowledge of the book’s title, is agreeably stern and affectionate and plays the wizened old master trope to a tee. Surprise surprise.
After a great tragedy, involving, yep, the darkest and most famous of antagonists this prodigy could possibly be set against, he finds himself living rough as a street urchin for three years, a meal away from starvation, a step away from a beating, until a storyteller brings the pain of his past back to him and he resolves to go to university to learn more about the dark nature of his antagonists and the name of the wind.
He endures a desperately hard life, gets streetwise and in university gets into various scrapes with some new enemies that he, invariably at some cost of course, wins with flair. He’s brilliant with the lute, a sharp wordsmith, an honourable friend, chaste to the point of distraction, useless with women (except when rescuing them or leaving them to go off and spare them any danger), excellent at logic and argument, and there is the hint that he is, somehow, ‘special’ or gifted. All by the time he’s fifteen. The particular strength here is in how Kvothe recounts his encounters with women. It’s the right level of awkwardness, jealousy and pompousness, coupled (the sour wrinkles) with some uncharacteristic levels of maturity.
Rothfuss creates this narrator masterfully, because Kvothe is at times insufferable to follow. I have to believe that the author’s intention wasn’t to succeed in getting us to like and root for Kvothe, for the moments of genuine anguish are more tell than show, the grief is kept off the page at some moments, Kvothe requesting that things be left unsaid. At other times, he just tells us he is weeping, employing flowery prose to better express his grief. It fits with the idea that the storyteller is guiding us to sympathy, but isn’t quite capable of grasping it. I wonder if Kvothe is on the autistic spectrum, but I’d need to go back through the novel to put meat on those bones, so it’s a passing observation but some of the checkboxes could be ticked in light of the above interpretation of Kvothe’s character.
The friends he makes in university are the good jolly loyal types, but they have no depth, I cannot picture them now. Again, this fits with the dominant ego, one not paraded but lived, in the nature of the prose and choice of where to put the ‘camera’ so to speak when Kvothe is doing the re-telling.
So, Rothfuss gives us a novel that’s told by a storyteller idealising his story, perhaps unconsciously. But the inversion of tropes, such as the tree-eating dragon, lend weight to my view that in giving us a most entertainingly unreliable and perhaps narcissistic narrator, Rothfuss is a “postmodern” fantasist of the first order precisely because I cannot be sure anything I’ve said so far is right.
A work of art that invites the reader to draw their own conclusions about the artist’s intentions is a very rare and worthwhile thing in the fantasy genre. For a debut, that’s marvellous!
But whether you’ll enjoy this book or not depends on how important it is to you that you can root wholesale for the protagonist over admiring authorial ingenuity.