Goodreads: Average 4.5. Mode: 5 stars (63%)
Amazon: Average: 4.4. Mode: 5 stars (72%)
My name is Kvothe. 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 and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than 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...
So begins the tale of a hero told from his own point of view —- a story unequalled in fantasy literature.
There is hardly anything original about The Name of the Wind. A boy whose family was killed by Evil Demonic Beings whom nobody believes in because Evil Demonic Beings are just legends spends a hard childhood as a street urchin, then gets accepted at the University to learn magic where he simultaneously impresses all of his teachers with how amazingly brilliant he is and pisses them off because he's always breaking the rules. Along the way he falls in love, makes bitter enemies, is constantly making money and then losing it so he's always penniless, and all the while his real goal is finding out about the Evil Demonic Beings who killed his family. Which we won't really get to until the next book.
It's your basic Hero's Journey with a Farmboy of Destiny story (Kvothe isn't actually a farmboy, but similar origins) wrapped in a cliched Boy Wizard story wrapped in generic pseudo-medieval fantasy with heaping helpings of Gary Stu. He even gets persecuted at the University by a Draco clone and a Snape clone.
This book is awesome, proving that good writing and a great tale trumps originality. Once you start reading, you won't care that you've read similar stories before, because this one is better.
The Name of the Wind is narrated by Kvothe to a scribe (who just goes by Chronicler) and his apprentice Bast; there's a meta-story here in which Chronicler tracks down the legendary Kvothe, who turns out to be living incognito in the guise of a barkeeper, to record his life story. We know there's going to be some more meta-story because Kvothe has to save Chronicler from demonic spider-like creatures before he begins telling his tale, but the rest of the book is mostly just Kvothe narrating his autobiography. He insists he needs three days to tell it, which is why this book is "Day One" of The Kingkiller Chronicles: it's the first in a trilogy.
The meta-story works because the young man we get to know in the story is talented and interesting, but not yet a hero. But we know from Chronicler and Kvothe that he will eventually become a legend. So what we're hearing is how this boy became the man who did all those fantastic things he refers to in the blockquote above. If it was just an ordinary first-person story told exclusively from the main character's POV, the reader would at a certain point become skeptical of all young Kvothe's remarkable skills and the way he's fantastically accomplished at practically everything he does. By the time he's proven to be better than everyone else at music, magic, languages, horseback riding, logic, rhetoric, and a host of other talents, all by age fifteen, you'd be screaming "Gary Stu!" and throwing the book across the room. Yet if you look at it from the point of view of a hero telling how he became a legend -- well, it makes sense that he probably started out being an above average individual. And slowly, we also learn that like most legends, there's a wee bit of exaggeration. Kvothe really is remarkable and talented, but he admits that he deliberately inflated his own legend, and a lot of his deeds were dramatically exaggerated by others. As he tells his story, we see how.
This is a long book that details Kvothe's life from early childhood to age fifteen. Yes, that's right -- at the end of "day one" we've only gotten up to his teen years, and he hasn't even been thrown out of the University yet. He's already got quite a reputation with his classmates, he's made and lost several fortunes (this happens so often in the book it's almost a running joke -- for all his brilliance, his wit, and his many talents, he can't hold onto a coin to save his life, literally), and he's gotten a start on tracking down his family's killers. He has not yet done anything truly epic or heroic, nor have we seen anything but hints of a real conflict. We know there's a war going on somewhere across the border, and there are hints that Dark Forces that no one actually believes in are on the move, but this book is still mostly about Kvothe's childhood and adolescence.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be generic Extruded Fantasy Product and you'd expect to see the "trilogy" padded out into a series as long as the publisher could still count on the same sorts of fans who will read Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels throughout their unending pubescence. But Patrick Rothfuss is a fantastic storyteller who just keeps you enthralled no matter how mundane some of Kvothe's day-to-day activities. He's a great writer who knows when to wax metaphorical and lay on the descriptive imagery, and when to let actions and dialog speak for itself. Everything moves the story, and nothing panders or condescends. There's nothing I'd cut from the story, and I can't recall any inconsistencies or plot holes.
I would totally recommend this book to fantasy newbies and experienced genre fans alike. For the n00bs, say, the kind who have not read much adult fantasy (yes, I'm talking to you Harry Potter fans who are still scared to venture out of the YA aisle), this is a great book to dive into, because while it's definitely fantasy for grown-ups, (1) it has a young protagonist, and (2) it's not horribly dark or grim or grimdark. For the readers who've already dipped their toe with Tolkien or wallowed in blood with George R. R. Martin, this is a great story that rarely deviates from expected genre tropes while still being fun, entertaining, and interesting. I do not expect the rest of this trilogy to disappoint.
What do the negative reviews say?
A new feature I'll add to my reviews (when I bother), particularly for books I like: what do the one-star reviewers say about it?
For the most part, the reviewers who didn't like this book seem to be people who (a) aren't really fantasy fans, or (b) thought it was too long. "Too boring, couldn't finish it" summarizes most of the complaints. There are also some comments to the effect that Kvothe is a Gary Stu (not completely unwarranted, but I don't really agree for reasons articulated above) and that this book is "too dark" (which made me laugh -- these are people who obviously haven't haven't read any real dark fantasy). The few complaints I saw about the writing struck me as misguided or just plain wrong (but of course, YMMV). Lastly, a lot of people observed what I do above, that's it not, when you get down to it, a very original story, nor do we get to the really epic parts in this book. Which is a fair comment, but I've already explained why I loved it anyway.
Verdict: If this was the first epic fantasy you ever read, it would set a pretty high bar. If you're a veteran of the genre, then while it may not rock your world, I guarantee you'll find it a highly enjoyable read.