Whistle Down the Wind

by Dan H

Dan on The Name of the Wind, with reference to Superman, Macgyver and Roger Rabbit.
While I was reading The Name of the Wind (which is called The Name of the Wind, and not In the Name of the Wind, despite the fact that I keep on being tempted to call it that) I stopped every thirty seven seconds to inform my girlfriend that I just didn't know what to make of it. I've finished it now, and I still don't know what to make of it.

So you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this review. Plus, y'know, spoilers.

A comedian, I think it was either Phil Jupitus or Bill Bailey (one of the Never Mind the Buzzcocks team captains anyway) once observed that he had loved Captain Scarlet as a kid, but had always found himself with the same old problem. Captain Scarlet would get into trouble and he'd think "oh no, how's he going to get out of this?" Then he'd realize "oh yeah, he's indestructible." Yes, it was a joke. Yes, Phil or Bill or whoever it was, was mostly just trying to get a laugh, and yes in fact the way you deal with that sort of problem is by having Other Things at Stake but it does highlight a serious underlying problem.

The Name of the Wind is a peculiar book (which is part of why it's causing such a stir at the moment). It is primarily told in the first person, but unusually for a book with first-person narration, the narration is actually contextualized. The book begins with a simple village inn in a simple, grimy fantasy world. The text draws our attention to the barman, a man named "Kote". Although he seems no more than a simple innkeeper, we know there's more to him than that - he has red hair for a start, and under Article Five of the Fantasy Literature Act of 1972 it is illegal to have a redhead in a fantasy novel who isn't Totally Special (Ron Weasley slipped through the net due to the Sidekick Exemption Clause).

The town has the usual small-town worries: bad roads, a hard winter, attacks by demonic creatures, that sort of thing. The demonic creatures (who aren't really demons, they're creatures called "skraelings") have already jumped one villager, who escaped more by good luck than good judgment, and there's probably more coming. Simple Innkeeper Kote heads out into the woods in the dead of night and slaughters them in single combat, and this prompts a meeting with a travelling Chronicler called Chronicler, who has come to the sleepy village looking for a legendary hero called Kvothe who, surprise surprise, turns out to be one and the same as our mild mannered flame-haired barkeep.

It's here that the story switches to first-person narration, where it stays for the rest of the book. Kvothe arranges to dictate his entire life story to the Chronicler over the course of three days (which, it seems likely, will correspond to three books). In the course of this negotiation we establish several very important things about the book. Firstly, that it's going to be Kvothe's story as narrated by Kvothe. Secondly, that the Chronicler is a renowned debunker whose great passion is seeking out the truth behind legends (this will become A Theme). Thirdly, and most importantly, we learn that Kvothe is totally awesome at everything. We witness Kvothe cracking the shorthand-like cipher in which the Chronicler writes his notes with a speed and efficiency that makes the Universal Translator look plausible, and we learn a little of his dazzling exploits:
I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity ad my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age that most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.

Now as the book progresses, we learn that at least some of these claims are not all they seem - Kvothe doesn't so much burn down Trebon as happen to be nearby while it gets burned down by a third party. He gets expelled from the university, but his expulsion is suspended as a matter of course. This is part of the second point established above: the book is basically all about the boundaries between myth and reality, men and legends. Regardless of all that though, the fact remains that Kvothe is totally awesome at everything, and that lies at the heart of my problems with the book.

I should say now, in case it gets lost in all the nitpicking, carping, and pettifogging, that The Name of the Wind is genuinely good and highly readable. It's one of those fantasy books which you can compare to serious literature without sounding totally risible. It deals intelligently with its themes and ideas, its characters are fairly well realized, and it's obviously going somewhere quite interesting.

None of that, however, gets me past the Captain Scarlet problem. "Oh no! how is Kvothe going to get out of this? Oh yeah, he's totally awesome at everything."

Long time Ferretbrainers, or people who know me in real life, will probably be aware that I have a George Silver-like fondness for identifying paradoxes: contradictions which it amuses me to highlight and declare irreconcilable. Kvothe is the perfect example of something I might glibly call the "Macgyver Paradox".

It is widely accepted that a hero who merely has unlimited power isn't interesting to write or read about. There's a reason that Lord of the Rings focuses on Frodo instead of Gandalf, or that Feist no longer writes books about Milamber. If a character can just wave a magic wand and make all his problems go away, he can't face any meaningful obstacles, and if he can't face any meaningful obstacles, he can't have any meaningful development as a character. Unfortunately, people assume that this very sensible, very important rule only applies to supernatural sources of power. Worse, they tend to assume that the best way to avoid relying on supernatural sources of power is to make their character "resourceful".

Of course, there's a giant problem with "resourceful" characters, which is that they wind up being exactly like the all powerful characters only worse. Sure, Superman can force majeure his way out of most situations, but it's relatively easy to think of situations where it would not be helpful or desirable for him to rely on his superpowers. It is much, much harder to think of a problem where it isn't helpful or desirable to "come up with a really clever plan". By trying to create a hero who relies on ingenuity instead of superpowers, all you do is turn ingenuity into a superpower. If Macgyver and Superman were both trapped in a sealed room that was slowly filling up with gas, it's Superman who would be in the most trouble. Sure he could bust his way out, but that might detonate the gas and kill a bunch of innocent people. Macgyver on the other hand can just use the gas to jury-rig a blowtorch, thereby getting himself out of the room and taking care of the explosives in one fell swoop. There's a reason that Batman beats Superman in The Dark Knight Returns: power is always finite, but "resourcefulness" is unlimited.

I suppose I should explain what all this has to do with The Name of the Wind. Basically the book concerns itself with Kvothe's origin story. He is raised as a wandering player, amongst the "Emera Ruh," a race of travelling performers who I won't describe as "Gypsy-like" since I know bugger all about Romany culture. It's no big spoiler to tell you that his idyllic childhood is cut short when his troupe is slaughtered by a group of quasi-mythical demonic entities called the Chandrian (the name seems to be plural). After this he lives wild in the woods for almost a year until he finally breaks two strings on his lute and heads off to the big city to get some more. Here he gets mugged and beaten up in short order (losing his lute in the process), and spends the next three years as a beggar living a horrible, Dickensian hand-to-mouth existence.

So far, so good, except that this goes on for nearly a third of the book, with very little real progress being made, and then suddenly he encounters a storyteller and then apparently "his mind wakes up" and he bluffs his way off of the streets and into comparative wealth and comfort, literally overnight (he pawns a book he's been holding onto for sentimental reasons, and then gets a bunch of free clothes by impersonating a nobleman). If it sounds jarring, it is. It's like that scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit: "You mean you could have done that at any time?" "Not at any time, only when it was funny."

This pattern continues throughout the rest of the book. Kvothe gets into a bad situation, and then he gets out of it by being totally awesome at everything. Then fate (or his enemies or, dare I say it, the necessity of the plot) gets him into another bad situation, and he gets out of it by being totally awesome at everything. Even that I could almost forgive, except that everything follows the same awkward, jarring pattern as his years as a beggar: helpless ... helpless ... helpless ... totally awesome at everything ... helpless ... helpless.

After he stops being a beggar, Kvothe manages to persuade the University not only to let him in, but also to pay him for the privilege. Here he picks up the obligatory High School Enemy, an obscenely wealthy, obscenely influential nobleman by the name of Ambrose. Perhaps I'd have been more sympathetic towards this plotline if it hadn't been done in ... well ... every single boarding school based story ever. It's got to the stage where I can't even distinguish between the descriptions of Ambrose, that dude from the Black Magician Trilogy, and Draco Malfoy any more (I think they're all blonde, but they all run together in my head). Like all Boarding School Rivals, he's somehow powerful enough to totally wreck Kvothe's life, yet also clearly totally inferior to him in every way.

For example, as part of his continuing struggle to stave off starvation, Kvothe takes to playing his lute at a highly prestigious local music venue. Not only does he wow the audience by playing the single most difficult song in the world ever, but when Ambrose tries to sabotage him by magically cutting one of his lute strings, he completes the song anyway, thereby making people even more impressed at how totally awesome at everything he is. However, his plan to use this event as a springboard to find a noble patron is thwarted because Ambrose tells all the nobles not to support him.

Okay, fine, Ambrose is rich and powerful, but are you honestly telling me that his family has no enemies whatsoever? That there isn't one nobleman in the whole damn city who don't think that ticking off some uppity brat is a fair price to pay for being able to get one of the greatest musicians who ever lived playing at your banquets? (Seriously, when Kvothe plays his lute, people practically ejaculate into their pants he's that good). Is there nobody out there in the cutthroat world of noble politicking who would actually relish the opportunity to piss off Ambrose's family, with an orgasm-inducingly awesome pet musician as an added bonus?

Like with my review of the Age of the Five trilogy, I've had to take a step back from what I've just said to think to myself "god, when you write it all down like that it just looks absurd". Kvothe is a musical genius with an eidetic memory, precocious magical talent, wisdom beyond his years (the book constantly tells us how totally young he is " the broken down world weary version we see in the inn is only twenty-five), limitless courage, and infinite resourcefulness who only suffers setbacks at all because the rest of the world goes out of its way to screw him over. Hell, he's supposed to be so cool that he's literally reciting the entire damned novel from memory. The fact that this kind of thing works at all and is in fact quite entertaining to read about is testimony to the genuine merits the book possesses.

When all is said and done, The Name of the Wind is a genuinely engaging, genuinely interesting Fantasy novel. I genuinely enjoyed it and would genuinely recommend it but, as you might have gathered from the fact that I wound up using the word "genuinely" four times in the last sentence, I'm still hugely confused about it (genuinely confused, in fact). I really, really hope that the "Kingkiller Chronicles" (the name of the series, in case I didn't mention) will turn out to be the classic everybody is predicting. I really hope that Kvothe's ludicrously expanding skillset won't start to become annoying and implausible (or rather, more implausible). I really hope that we'll actually find out something about the goddamned Chandrian in the next book. I kind of hope that it will turn out that Kvothe has been totally lying about a lot of this stuff, but I don't think that will happen.

The Name of the Wind (no "In", remember) is an entirely readable, quite well-written book that raises some interesting questions about the boundaries between history and legend, reality and myth. Its protagonist is remarkably likable given that he's a colossal Genioos. The plot is remarkably engaging given that nothing much happens. I'll certainly be picking up the next volume in the hope that I might be able to make some goddamned sense of it all.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 14:30 on 2008-07-23
I'm glad you liked it! Kvothe's total awesomeness made even me, gushy and enthusiastic as I tend to be, think twice -- but I really can't wait for the next one... in a few months' time, anyway...
Michal at 07:44 on 2011-07-02
Hmm, I've avoided this book so far for the somewhat silly reason that one of the interior cover blurbs is from Robert J. Sawyer...I've found a strange correlation between "books I dislike" and "has blurb by Robert J. Sawyer", but I really should just give it a shot.
Dan H at 12:03 on 2011-07-02
I wasn't sure who Robert J. Sawyer was, so I looked him up on Wikipedia and:

a) Wow, he *really* looks like Steven Merchant

b) OMG! He's the guy who wrote that book Kyra's got on her to-read pile about the blind girl who has experimental surgery which allows her to SEE THE INTERNETS!
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:12 on 2011-07-03
Sawyer also tends to push the "science vs. religion" pretty hard in science/rationalism/whatever's favor in most everything he writes, but he doesn't really understand religion enough to criticize it effectively, so it just comes off as a strawman-fest.

Wow, he *really* looks like Steven Merchant

Really? I thought he was tubbier than Stephen Merchant.
Vermisvere at 03:24 on 2011-07-03
Sawyer also tends to push the "science vs. religion" pretty hard in science/rationalism/whatever's favor in most everything he writes

I'd probably be best off avoiding it then. I found that a lot of the books that I read which have the "science vs. religion" concept in them tend to, at one point or another, grind to a painful halt in terms of plot and turn into a mish-mash fest of mental wanking where the characters turn into your average 6th graders debating theology.

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown is a good example. *shudder*

Wow, he *really* looks like Steven Merchant

Hey, he does too!

Well, whadya know...
Michal at 04:15 on 2012-01-20
Well, I finally gave it a go. Got about 70-some pages in before I gave up.

I think it was the bit where Kvothe deciphers the Chronicler's super-duper-complicated shorthand system in a matter of minutes that had me let out my first gigantic groan. But on a less superficial level, it was just pretty clear that the book was Not For Me.
Dan H at 10:14 on 2012-01-20
I think that's a fair assessment. This is one of those books where people will tell you to stick with it because it gets better, when in reality it just gets more like itself, which means people who like it start to like it more, while people who don't like it get more and more irritated.
Dan H at 20:18 on 2012-01-20
Double-posting like a noob, it occurs to me that the bit where he deciphers the Chronicler's shorthand system is a particularly sensible breaking point, because it's not amenable to all of the "unreliable narrator" arguments that apply to most of the rest of Kvothe's Mary Sue qualities. He might be lying about everything else, but he can't be lying about that.
Michal at 05:14 on 2012-01-21
Well, I did feel particularly sensible at that moment. The framing narrative, at least from my meagre experience of the book, seems to serve more to affirm Kvothe's awesomeness rather than subvert it (he, like, kills demon spiders and knows magic and is super-smart and stuff!).

Are there any inconsistencies in Kvothe's narrative in this book or the next one? Because his voice, when telling this story, is essentially the same as that in the frame, but with an "I" swapped in for the "he". The guy recalls long inconsequential conversations his parents had when he was young in a way that doesn't suggest he's just embellishing and making shit up on the fly. And yes, this is typical of first-person narratives, but I've only really seen bad historical fiction framed in such fashion (Aztec comes to mind), and in those cases, we're meant to trust the tale-teller's perfect recall.

I have a feeling I've been spoiled in thast few books I've read that used the first person, and was just disoriented by the fact that no, I didn't need to pay close attention and peel back the narrative voice to find out what was really going on. No "wait, the towers are space ships?" moments in The Name of the Wind.
Dan H at 21:15 on 2012-01-21
Are there any inconsistencies in Kvothe's narrative in this book or the next one? Because his voice, when telling this story, is essentially the same as that in the frame, but with an "I" swapped in for the "he".

There aren't any inconsistencies I can recall (although I might be missing something super-duper subtle). And you're right that there's no meaningful difference between the third-person narration and Kvothe's narration. As with most framing devices, Rothfuss only really pays lip-service to the notion that Kvothe is supposed to be reciting this story from memory.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in July 2008