Just one book? I get to pick only one?
I know, I’m not allowed to cheat. If I were, I’d nominate the Malazan Book of the Fallen, so you could read ten (and more) wonderful, epic novels by Steven Erikson. If I were allowed to cheat a second time, I’d nominate Neil Gaiman, that mastermind of modern fantasy, so you could read all of his dizzying, spellbinding work.
But I’m not allowed to cheat.
So, after long thought and many not-so-sober nights of pondering, I’m confident in my choice of the Great Fantasy Novel: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. One of the best debuts in fantasy in recent years, Rothfuss’ first has captured the hearts and minds of millions of readers and is a tale I gladly nominate.
Prose that cuts like glass
First of all, The Name of the Wind is a beautifully written novel. Rothfuss spins sentences like a worm spins silk. The pages flip past in a blur, the words practically singing off the page. You can tell just how much work and craft went into the making of this book by the sheer, achingly good rhythm of his chapters, the ups and downs of his sentences, the deliberate words used, and the things that are left unspoken. Rothfuss is so good with his words, he even writes bad poetry at one point, in a great way.
A study in story
The Name of the Wind is a story about stories. There’s the framing narrative, with Kote and Bast and Chronicler, and then there is the inner story, with Kvothe and his journey. Within that inner story, are more stories yet: the Fall of Myr Tariniel, the Birth of Menda/Tehlu, the Binding of Encanis, the Chandrian and more, (I’m still convinced that most of these are actually the same story told in different ways, because Rothfuss is tricky and meta and smart like that). Rothfuss is not just exploring the construction of stories; he’s showing how they impact our lives, shaping readers and characters alike.
Magic, magic everywhere
Rothfuss approaches the magic of his world in two parts: modern magic and poetic magic. While there is the magic of the University–scholarly, scientific Sympathy–there is also the magic of Naming and Shaping–innate, deep, and natural–that affects the world on a fundamental level. Rothfuss plays with those two types of magic, happily exploring both, and integrating them into a fully functioning world. Vast and complicated, but also simple and strong, his magics delight fantasy lovers old and new.
First person heartbreak
I was talking with a friend who had just started The Name of the Wind, and she said excitedly, “I like it a lot, but I don’t know why. Nothing’s really happened yet, but I’m really into it!”
What makes this novel succeed is its well-written first person narrative, inside the frame. When we follow Kvothe as a young boy, it’s told exclusively from the first person. We’re right with Kvothe as he discovers magic, murder, pain, love, music, and so on. What he feels, we feel. Every victory, every hurt, every stupid mistake, the reader gets to experience right with Kvothe. Page after page, the reader grows to care more and more for our young magician. The deeper he digs himself, the more we root for him. The higher his success, the louder we cheer.
That’s not to say that we can trust him. Kvothe is not exactly a reliable narrator. Much in the way Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby couldn’t be trusted, neither can Kvothe. We trust him because he’s our narrator, our hero, and our protagonist. But half of this book is full of secrets we don’t know yet, or aren’t being told, a trend that carries on through the next book, and perhaps the third. Kvothe is our eyes and ears, yes, but he shows what he wants us to see, tells what he wants us to hear. He can, and indeed does, jump around parts of his own story, choosing exactly what to tell us. Whether or not those parts are pertinent is still up in the air. Still, it is one of the most fascinating things about The Name of the Wind and puts the novel into a new light.
Tragedy, through and through
Most of all, what keeps me coming back to The Name of the Wind again and again and again, is because it is a tragedy, and worse, it’s a tragedy that has already happened.
We don’t know what, yet. But from the moment we meet Kvothe, a man ready for death, sadness fills the room. Something terrible has happened, at Kvothe’s hands or because of him, and that terrible thing is what burdens him from the very start of the book. Despite the victories and the moments of joy, they are short lived, because the reader knows that whatever happens, Kvothe will always find himself back at the Inn, hiding and filled with despair.
But truly the most heartbreaking thing about The Name of the Wind, why the piece wins my nomination, is the terribly vicious hope that maybe it won’t be a tragedy. That somehow by the end of the story, there will be some redemption, some saving grace. That hope that Rothfuss gives us is so very bittersweet, and it is what makes The Name of the Wind my great fantasy novel pick.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!
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