I consider finishing a book a point of honor. Even if a volume is packed with peccadillos, something delightful may lurk in an unexpected corner. But I must confess to a less that spotless record when it comes to a particular sort of book -- really long ones. An abortive attempt at The Lord of the Rings in middle school made me to set aside Tolkien's opus for a decade. One weekend in my early twenties saw me through half of The Eye of the World before realizing I lacked the stamina to slog through Robert Jordan's never-ending series (a decision that I don't regret, considering that it has outlived its creator). Weighty tomes need a light touch, one that keeps the narrative coherent across a vast compositional expanse and audiences entertained in the reading of it. A challenging task, but it's one that Patrick Rothfuss achieves with ease in The Name of the Wind, the first installment in his The Kingkiller Chronicle.
"No, listen to me, that man behind the bar is Kvothe. Yes, the Kvothe. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe who called lightning down upon his enemies when he was just a child, Kvothe Kingkiller. How do I know? Well, look at that hair! Red as a flame, and there's something in his eyes behind the laughter and the courteousness. Chills me right to my marrow, almost as much as those children singing about the Chandrian. How did marauders that appear in a flash of blue fire and cause everything to crumble at their arrival become a song for youngsters? Maybe Kvothe would know. Hey, remember that story of how he smote the fire demon with a great circle of iron? What, you still don't think it's him, don't know why the legendary Kvothe would own some inn in the middle of nowhere? Then why don't we just go ask him ..."
How do you make a big book small? The same way television writers break an overarching story into weekly chunks: You turn it into episodes. That's exactly the technique Rothfuss employs in The Name of the Wind, and he does so with one of the most elegant framing devices I've ever seen. The novel opens with the legendary Kvothe (about whom we know squat at the outset) hiding in the hinterlands from his enemies, isolated and miserable. Then a man called Chronicler finds him and compels him to tell his story. The action alternates between first-person remembrances and third-person intimations of a gathering storm on the world's horizon. And what action it is. We learn about an invasion of spidery horrors with razored limbs; legends of a deity who was burnt alive to save humanity; a magic system that shares quite a bit in common with modern physics; fae races that seem to dwell in a different dimension; a broad smattering of languages and cultures; numerous stage plays performed a band of thespians; and the Chandrian themselves, a group simultaneously so fearful and unknown they've become a tale with which to terrify youngsters. It would all be bewildering if Rothfuss dumped it on you from the get go. Thankfully he parcels everything out in easily digestible chunks. This is an entertaining epic that one can read in fifteen minute snippets. The only downside is a seeming disconnect between the protangist's actions and his maturity level. (Kvothe is supposed to be twelve at the narrative's onset and fifteen for much of its duration, although he rarely acts younger than an exceedingly competent twenty-five.) A minor flaw. No matter how busy you are, sound out The Name of the Wind.
(Picture: CC 2007 by doppelbelichtung; Hat Tips: Chestertonian Rambler, B. Nagel)