'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss

“It’s not their fault that the world is full of hard choices and hunger and loneliness. What can you expect of people when demons are their neighbours?”
-Patrick Rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss’s debut fantasy novel takes a little while to warm up, but it soon grows into a real page turner. When it comes right down to it, it’s a story about stories. It’s about how legends are told around deeds; how we turn into what we pretend to be; and the importance of storytelling and folklore.

The Name of the Wind is set in a familiar but well-realised medieval fantasy universe. It’s closer to low-fantasy than high: there are no elves or dwarves or kobolds attacking villages. Rothfuss's world is a notably robust, rounded and believable one. All his fantastical elements tend to be grounded in scientific principles. There are a few fantasy stalwarts, though they’re presented more as wild animals than monsters. Rather than being a typical fantasy tale of warriors, maidens and dragons, this is a story about an intellectual, a troubled romance, a struggle with poverty and a study of reputation. Perhaps for some that makes the world and story a little boring. But I found it to be believable, cliché-free and utterly absorbing.

Magic is firmly rooted in physics, constrained by the laws of conservation of energy. The result is a sort of “magic for physicists”: a clever and complex system which is put to use excellently. Rothfuss goes into a lot of detail about how it all works, but importantly you can follow the story even if you only get the vaguest gist. I certainly felt like I was a step behind the pace at times – able to follow the narrative, but not quite keep up with some of the machinery behind it. It didn’t matter. This is a magic system which adds great depth to the story, but which doesn’t interrupt its flow.

While the novel has its up and downs, it definitely got its hooks into me. The main character is very strong, with a couple of stand-out supporters. The plot has its moments, and while it's generally quite gentle is does have its darker and more surprising moments.

Testament to its success, though, is that the final chapters passed by with a growing sense of dread: I did not want to put this novel down; I didn’t want to say goodbye to its characters nor leave its world just yet. That’s a great compliment – but one with caveats. This six-hundred-page book is (as the narrator himself acknowledges) little more than an introduction to a longer story. It doesn’t so much end as stop. While there are several very strong story arcs (or sub-plots, I suppose), the novel as a whole doesn’t have an overriding story. It’s a little frustrating to read so much and achieve so little. It’s the literary equivalent of a donkey ride – sure, you’ve had a great time ambling across the beach on your fine steed, but once you dismount you realise that you haven’t really got anywhere and your arse is a little sore.

(Mild spoiler warning!) The greatest caveat, though, is the change in perspective about a quarter of the way through. There’s no escaping it, no ignoring it. It's huge and obvious and you can’t help but notice the sudden change in style and narrative. This isn’t some academic or technical niggle: the switch from a third- to first-person narrative goes a long way to undermine the entire novel. Rather than looking forward and telling the story the novel starts with, it looks backward and instead presents an autobiography of the lead character. Rothfuss makes a very brave decision to interrupt the story he’s been building up over the past 150 or so pages and dedicate the rest of the book to filling out backstory – hence the lack of overall resolution by the time we reach the novel’s end.

It’s distracting, off-putting and, for my money, disheartening. It totally ruins the suspense for a few chapters (which isn’t helped by a story arc which features no conflict whatsoever). But it does enable the novel to explore those themes of stories and storytelling. It does imbue the narrator with more character than most first-person narratives have. It does allow the world to be explained in a depth which can be difficult to achieve in a third-person perspective.

And is it worth it? Should the caveats be ignored; should you give this book a go despite the warnings and reservations I’ve presented? The answer, quite simply, is yes. This is as good a fantasy story as I’ve ever read. I’m not sure when I was so gripped by a novel – perhaps G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Even if it takes a wobble, and even if there’s a long road yet to walk before the saga comes to any kind of conclusion; this is a journey I wouldn’t want to have missed.