Every now and then I hear on the grapevine about a new superstar of fantasy. Someone the critics rave about and say they are the next Tolkien, the next Gemmell, the next George RR Martin. This instantly makes me nervous. So I stayed away for while. I should not have waited. In my opinion, the hype is true and he is going to be a giant of the genre.
This is his first book and I am not going to say it is perfect in every single way, because that would be untrue. But it is one hell of a damn good debut and is miles better than some who have been at it a lot longer. Over the years Rothfuss will grow and improve, and as a relatively young man in his mid 30s, I hope he has many decades of writing ahead of him. By the time he is George RR Martin's age, I expect him to have produced some of the most unforgettable fantasy books seen in the last 30 years.
As it stands, The Name of the Wind is one of the most memorable fantasy books I've read in several years. There are some rough edges and it took me a little while to get into the story as it was slow at first. Also, at first glance it bears all the familiar hallmarks of a fantasy story that would normally send me running for the hills as if pursued by an angry mob. The book chronicles part of the life of the main character, Kvothe, and it focuses on his early and teenage years as a young boy growing into a man and going out to challenge the world. Without spoiling it the main character has suffered a tragedy and seeks to better understand who or what was responsible and why it happened.
In Rothfuss' novel, which is told in first person by an adult Kvothe to a scribe known as the Chronicler, I see glimpses of an epic story and epic character. Kvothe comes from humble beginnings and even by the end of the first book he is not a master wizard, warrior, or a great leader of men inspiring people to greatness. But, you get the impression that one day he will be one or all of these things. There are also no familiar archetypes in this book, no labels for people such as warrior or wizard, everything is fresh and there are only people just going about their lives. I get the impression that the older Kvothe is a true Renaissance man, someone who has delved into many areas, learned many secrets and has become a master of many arts, both scientific and magical. His name is known throughout the many lands that are hinted at, but we don't really know too much about what his reputation is or what he achieved. Which makes sense, as the bulk of the story in the first book retells events in his life as a young boy, and as such he hasn't saved nations from a demon plague or killed conquering armies with a quiver of his eyebrow.
As a boy Kvothe is talented, not just a good musician and storyteller, which he learned from his parents who are performing artists, but by today's standards he would be called a prodigy or gifted. His parents recognise his thirst for knowledge and growing intellect and try their best to meet his expectations, whilst also keeping him firmly grounded. Without giving away too many spoilers, the story moves to a very harsh period in Kvothe's life where he is living rough in the city of Tarbean. One of Rothfuss' talents is his ability to create characters that are unique and interesting, but he also has the knack of describing the situations so vividly, and also without heavy detail or florid prose, that you really care about his characters. You can almost feel the cold pavement under Kvothe's bare feet and we see the darker side of a city, the street urchins and poverty, small crimes and small minds just trying to exist. These aren't tiny events that will eventually create an avalanche that changes the course of a nation, it's just daily life in a thronging city. Rothfuss doesn't shy away from difficult situations and Kvothe doesn't always come away without a scratch or emerge the victor, because after all he's just a boy.
Later in the story Kvothe manages to enrol at the university and he finally starts to come back to life after being on the streets. His vast intellect is challenged, he delves into new mysteries and Sympathy, a unique system of magic that has some very scientific principles underlying it. Now at this point it might sound too much like a certain boy wizard's story, but again rest assured this is not the case. There is not one `big bad' for Kvothe to vanquish each year at the university, but his constants are abject poverty, difficult relationships with friends, and his attempt to find out who is responsible for the most tragic event in his life.
Rothfuss tightly focuses his world building on wherever Kvothe is at that time, but we do occasionally hear news from other places and some secondary characters are from abroad. So there is a trickle effect that fills in some gaps and we get small tastes of other cultures and countries. However, this is not a sprawling fantasy quest story about a band of plucky heroes. It is both a local story about a boy who will become a legend, and also a much bigger story. Perhaps it is also there so that we will be able to better understand why he made certain choices later in life. I also get the impression that in the present, when Kvothe is grown up, the world is in a bit of a mess and there are hints that somehow he is responsible, perhaps indirectly. We just don't know at this point and I won't speculate any further as there is a lot more meat in the book, so I won't spoil it.
The book is a hefty tome, but to be honest when I got to the end I wanted more. His style is not overly descriptive, it's almost straight forward but not nearly so blunt and gritty as say Gemmell or Abercrombie. I was captivated by Rothfuss' writing, his imagination and how he adds in small details, and creates myths, folk songs and nursery rhymes that make his world feel realistic and not just slapped together so he can press on with the adventure. It gives me the impression that a lot of care has been taken to help the reader fully immerse themselves and I was drawn into the story. Despite the length of the book I read it pretty quickly as I was keen to know what happened next. But now that I've finished it, I want to go back and read it again because I'm sure there are clues and hints at the bigger picture I missed the first time.