Review of The Name of the Wind, a novel by Patrick Rothfuss.
Here’s a nice word in Indonesian that I haven’t found an equivalence in English: roman. The dictionary lists it as simply a story that “paints its characters’ action in context of their personality and inner thoughts”, but insofar as I understand it, as a literary term, a roman in Indonesia is a fictional story that focus on the entire life of a single person, preferably from their birth to their death. Roman are usually lengthy novels, often consisting of multiple volumes, with multiple arcs and subplots. It’s a bit like a memoir, but definitely fictional. A bit like an epic, but it focus more on life and much less on heroics. A bit like, perhaps, a massive elaboration to the backstory of a character.
While I was thinking on what kind of story The Name of the Wind would be called, roman is the only the word I found that perfectly describes it. It’s high fantasy with a very well thought-out lore, sure, but the focus of the story has always been on the life of its main character, Kvothe.
The story begins at a simple inn in a simple village. Kvothe, a hero, a villain, an all-around incredibly badass character who has gone through so much and left marks so big and profound people write folk tales about them, was going to spend the rest of his days here, as a simple innkeeper. He was just about ready to let go of everything in his colourful past when the village begun to be pestered by swarms of little demons, a sign of a disaster to come, followed by the arrival of a chronicler. After much prodding, Kvothe grudgingly agreed to tell his life story to this chronicler, opening the roman.
The majority of the book is told from by Kvothe, through first-person perspective. He begun with his childhood, which shaped a large part of his personality. Kvothe came from a family of minstrels and performers, used to telling tales and songs and dances. No wonders then, that his story is full of lyricism and embellishments and dramatic pauses. There’s a style to it that’s very distinct; it manages to characterize through its narration alone. You can hear Kvothe dawdling on things that are important to him (there were lots of nervous pacing before he talks of his love), and skimping on uncomfortable topics (“I’ll spare you the details”).
A lot of the story follows basic fantasy and heroic tropes; if you read it simply by the threads of its plot, it might not be much different from the backstory of every fantasy hero ever. But the way it’s told, the way Kvothe tells them, is a joy to experience.
Just reading from its summary, I would say Kvothe sounds like exactly the kind of character I wouldn’t like. Overpowered, dashing, heroic, so good he got into the university so young, so unorthodox he was even expelled, blah. But the way his story is told, the way it unfolds, the way it’s narrated and strung together, event by event—some of which were important, some of which was just there, I suspect, for the sheer delight of telling it—well, it’s almost like there’s real magic there.
I got the book knowing nothing about it, only expecting some silly high fantasy to spend my time on. In a way, I got exactly that. It’s a fun episodic romp, with strong characterization (at least for the main character) and strong world-building, up to its folk tales and lores and economic strata and magic system. But I also got a definitive roman, the story of somebody’s life: how he came to be and what he went through to get there. There was the sense of the passage of time, and along with it, the sense of loss and gains and how everything in life is temporary.
I streamed through the entire tome in a week (is it a tome? The e-book is 700 pages on my phone; but on paper it’s probably only about 300 or so?). I treated it like a fun fiction, nothing profound, but throughout all that I felt happiness and sadness and hatred and fear. I felt bad when bad things happen, I cheered when good fortune came. I laughed out loud more than once. My heart jumped during its tense moments, so much I was actually tempted to take a peek a few pages (oh, the joy of reading something instead of experiencing it).
And the author, blast this previously unknown dude whose name I will now hunt for in every book store I come by, has such a strong grip on… hmm, I’m not sure what word to put this on. Sometimes good things happen, sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes he play tropes so painfully straight, sometimes he zig-zagged it just a bit, but enough that you wouldn’t again expect it to go so straight. It keeps tense moments tense, it keeps surprises beneath its yarn of genre conventions.
So is The Name of the Wind a literary masterpiece? Pfft. Nah. But it is Very Very Good. Part of the top of its kind. Successful for what it’s aiming to be.
You just have to know to take it as: a) fantasy, and genre fantasy at that (which is not at all a bad thing), and b) episodic, with each episodes building on the character’s personality if nothing else.
Enjoy the moments. It’s not the kind of plot that ramps up to a climax and then peters out to an epilogue. It’s a roman. Life hardly follows a path so specific; life is about the small moments of joy you can find. So is the story of Kvothe’s life in The Name of the Wind.