“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet” ~ Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)
I know that it is somewhat of a departure for me to be writing a review of a fantasy novel, given my usual focus on Dungeons & Dragons 4E products. Despite my blog’s precedence of subject matter, I still feel strongly compelled to write this book review, based upon one simple premise: our beloved D&D game was written and developed by guys who really liked their fantasy novels!
As a reader of fantasy and science-fiction, I consider myself fairly well-read. I have, over many years, read many of the novels and books that Mr. Gygax recommends as inspirational reading material in the back of the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. And every now and then, I have picked up on other fantasy novels and series, but for the most part I am fairly finicky. I tend to read authors rather than series, and once an author hooks me with their writing style and storytelling, I start collecting their other works for my library. But to get me initially reading a new author someone has to recommend that writer to me. And my friends, family and co-workers can be somewhat hit-and-miss when it comes to giving me a recommendation on some new “amazing” author to start reading – like I said, I can be finicky.
So I somewhat surprised myself when I picked up “The Name of the Wind” based upon the recommendation of Gabe from Penny Arcade back in early March. Typically, reading a book review by another blogger is not sufficient to get me to nip off to Amazon.com and order a new novel. But I will admit to a bit of PAX East fever, and found myself awash with curiosity as to what sort of novels the authors of Penny Arcade read in their spare time. Ironically, that same fever kept me too busy to actually read the book prior to the expo, and so Mr. Rothfuss’ novel ended up shelved until well after GenCon 2010. But in the calm following the whirlwind that was the “Best Four Days of Gaming”, I finally found time to crack the cover and give the book a long overdue reading.
The Name of the Wind
- Author: Patrick Rothfuss
- Publisher: DAW Books
- Format: Full-sized Softbound (662 pages)
- Price: $16.00 ($10.88 from Amazon.com)
The Name of the Wind is the first book of the Kingkiller Chronicles, which introduces the reader to the story of a young hero, Kvothe, who has gained both great renown and great infamy throughout the land. The author uses a fairly effective vehicle to tell the back story of this dark hero and arcanist, in the form of a scholar who manages to convince the self-exiled young man into telling the tale of his life. The story-within-a-story format is actually quite engaging, and the author nests even more stories inside the young hero’s memoirs, slowly unveiling a rich and well-developed fantasy world.
Now, without giving away too many spoilers – which one can get plenty of by simply reading the reviews posted on Amazon.com – this first novel chronicles the often grim and gritty history of Kvothe from boyhood to adolescence, as well as the tragedy that set him on the road to becoming an arcanist (i.e. wizard), while only hinting at the events which made him both a hero and outlaw. While one could draw certain parallels between Kvothe and Harry Potter – both orphaned by dark powers and on a quest to avenge their parents – it would be unjust to the Rothfuss to make too many comparisons. Although I did raise an eyebrow at the idea of Kvothe’s quest to become a member of The Arcanum, a school of magical studies, there is little similarity between the Hogwart’s School of Wizardy and this new university of arcanists.
In fact, The Arcanum more resembles a university as one might have encountered in Renaissance Europe, teaching students a wide-range of subjects ranging from physical sciences, anatomy, medicine, philosophy, history, and languages, but with the study of magic also thrown into the mix. While Rowling’s school for young wizards and witches has a certain charm to it, The Arcanum feels more real somehow, with a difficult and varied curriculum, barbarically medieval rules and punishments, and an expensive tuition. In fact, the latter is one of the greatest opponents which young orphan Kvothe must overcome, leading him into all sorts of misadventures and mischief trying to come up with enough silver to play for the next term’s tuition, room, and board.
From a D&D gamer’s perspective, there is a lot to recommend about this novel. Not only is the magic system fascinating, but the very nature of The Arcanum would make an excellent plot seed. not only player-character backgrounds, but also as an adventure hook for either a new campaign, or even an important resource as part of an already existing campaign. For D&D players, the tale of young Kvothe is an inspirational example of how rich and dynamic one can make a background story for a character. Kvothe is both brilliant and flawed, a mixture of hero, bard, wizard, and street punk, all of which add a certain depth and flavor to his personality. By turns, I found myself admiring him, annoyed by him, and pitying him, but overall really liking the character of Kvothe. And that kept me turning pages to find out more about his adventures.
However, despite my enjoyment of the book, there is one problem I have regarding this novel: NAMES. It is ironic that a book called “The Name of the Wind” would make me have an issue in its use of names and language. I know that for many fantasy-readers my pet-peeve makes little sense, but for me, names are really important to the overall style of the book. The naming of people, places, and things needs to have a certain pattern to it, and a sense that the names are steeped in a “real” language that is palpable to the reader. For example, authors like Tolkien and Lewis place great significance on names in their novels, and one feels that they are drawn from the history and language of a living world which is millennia old. More recent fantasy authors like Lieber, Eddings, and Rowling do the same thing, although the latter has an easier time because half the names of people and things in Harry Potter books are drawn from the real world and from our own myths.
But I just could not wrap my head around many of the names given for the people and the places in “The Name of the Wind”. I just never felt there was a pattern to them, and often names of characters sharing the same nationality would be so oddly different from each other, I simply could not sense a connection. And some of the author’s choices for names of people and places invoked images in my head which I later had to amend – and that kind of thing tends to drag my nose out of the pages with a “huh?” on my lips.
But my one pet-peeve aside, “The Name of the Wind” is a book is well-worth a read by Dungeons & Dragons gamers. And whether you are a DM or Player, there is plenty of inspiration lurking in this fantasy novel, from a rich fantasy world full of danger and hardship, to fascinating characters both heroic and flawed – this book has it all. So I am definitely looking forward to the second book of the series due out in March 2011, with great anticipation. And despite the wait, I must admit that there is a certain enjoyment to be reading a series again where I have to wait patiently for the next novel to be released!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!