Review: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

When I picked up The Name of the Wind, I knew 3 things about it:

1. It is an “epic fantasy.”

2. The protagonist is an innkeeper.

3. It’s supposed to be awesome (this guy calls the book “arguably the best fantasy fiction [he’s] ever read” and refers to Rothfuss as “the next coming of J.R.R. Tolkien”).

Now, there’s something you need to know about me and things that are supposed to be awesome: I tend to not think they’re awesome. I’ll spare you specific examples [*cough*Gone With the Wind*cough] so that you don’t freak out and decide to hate me forever. I just tend to like what I like, and what I like often doesn’t line up with what the world at large likes.

Plus, the more something is hyped, the more disappointed I tend to be when it’s not all I imagined it would be. You’d think I’d learn my lesson and stop expecting greatness every time greatness is forecast, but no. I’m incorrigible that way.

So I went into The Name of the Wind in a divided state. On the one hand, I was really excited to read a spectacularly awesome fantasy book. On the other, I was bracing myself for disappointment when I inevitably disagreed with the populace at large.

And after finishing TNOTW, I have to say…I’m still divided.

THE PLOT

TNOTW revolves around Kote, keeper of a modest inn in a small town. As the story opens, the townsfolk are all in a tizzy over some strange happenings: namely, giant spider-demons attacking travelers on the road. They come into the inn, troubled and flummoxed, and discuss the horrors of the world outside.

Then, unbeknownst to the townsfolk, Kote and his assistant, Bast, have a Very Mysterious Discussion where we come to realize that Kote knows something about the spider-demons, and that for some reason (beyond the obvious fact that they are giant spider-demons), they are Very Bad.

Then he goes out to kill a bunch of them. But before he can, he stumbles into a traveling scribe. Or rather, the scribe — Chronicler — stumbles into him. Chronicler was riding down the road, minding his own business, when he was robbed by highwaymen and forced to set out on foot. Lucky for him, he wandered straight into where Kote had set up spider-killing camp, and arrived just in time for the party.

After witnessing Kote single-handedly dispatch a bunch of spider-demons, and subsequently passing out, Chronicler is brought to the inn, where the truth quickly comes out: Kote is really Kvothe (pronounced “quothe,” and thus screwing with my internal narrator every single time I read his name), the legendary — and presumably dead — hero. Chronicler immediately presses Kvothe for information, since he’s pretty much the most famous guy ever. And Kvothe grudgingly agrees to tell him the story of his life. It will take 3 days.

[Side note: It took me for-e-ver to realize that the book’s subtitle, “The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day 1,” refers to the first day of storytelling. Duh.]

Thus begins the story of Kvothe’s childhood, where he was raised by loving parents in a troupe of traveling performers…until they were brutally murdered by the Chandrain, terrifying beings that, up until that point, Kvothe (and everybody else in the world) presumed didn’t exist.

Young Kvothe mourns his parents and friends, while struggling to survive, for several years before he sets off determined to complete his education at the University, which is a lot like Hogwarts: The College Years. The students learn about magic in a variety of forms, although they don’t call it magic. “Magic” is a term for ignorant country bumpkins. University students pursue sympathy, artificery, alchemy, and other fancy words that really just mean magic.

Kvothe is 15 when he enters the University, several years younger than his youngest classmates, but his prodigious intelligence, coupled with his sharp wit and abundant charisma, help him quickly advance through the ranks. He makes a few close friends and more than a few enemies. Oh, and there’s a girl. Of course.

MY THOUGHTS:

I learned something about myself while reading this book. I realized that I am a big fan of the 3-act narrative.

Act 1: Characters are introduced. Background is given. World is built.

Act 2: Things go well. Hint of conflict. Or maybe even lots of conflict. You get a good feeling for who the good guys and bad guys are, and where the story is headed.

Act 3: Big finish. Possibly a battle. Major conflict is resolved in a thrilling way. Possible set-up for future conflict if it isn’t a stand-alone novel.

Part of the reason I’m so divided about TNOTW is that it doesn’t follow this formula. At all. Really, the whole book seems like a big Act 1. Maybe a bit of Act 2. Definitely no Act 3. I didn’t realize that I was hungering for an Act 3 until I finished the book and never got one. I was so sure it would be there, even when I noticed I was down to the last 50 pages and no noticeable conflict was being set up, that I was actually shocked when it never happened.

But then again, this book never promised me that it would be set up in 3 acts. As a matter of fact, it told me very clearly what to expect when Kvothe began his tale: a story of a man’s life that would be told in 3 days. And this was Day 1. The fact that I didn’t really pick up on this — or was expecting the story of his life to fall neatly into three days of 3-act narratives — is my fault.

So I need to judge this book on what it is, and not what I expected it to be.

The Pros:

Mr. Rothfuss is a wonderful storyteller. He gives enough detail to draw a reader into the world, but not so much that I got bored or that my attention wandered. He was able to draw from me every emotional response that the story required: happiness, contentment, sadness, fear, desperation, determination, anger, triumph.

Probably one of my favorite scenes in the whole book was Kvothe’s first time performing at the Eolian. As a musician and former performer, I could vividly empathize with all the emotions he was feeling, and I actually felt my heart racing when he took the stage. It was a magnificent scene, even though (as far as I can tell) it had nothing to do with Kvothe eventually becoming a hero. Being able to draw me so far into scenes like that — scenes with little adventure or intrigue, but full of emotion — was one of the book’s great strengths.

The magical world he created was also extremely well-developed. The laws of sympathy are well-defined and loosely rooted in science, which makes it almost hard to believe that this stuff couldn’t work in real life. All the divisions of sympathy work together in an orderly and understandable way. And Mr. Rothfuss never bends or breaks the laws of sympathy, even when it could possibly make for some cool action scenes.

Kvothe’s time at the University is in turns exciting, frustrating, illuminating, and captivating. And always interesting.

The Cons:

First off, many of the main characters have more than one name (maybe this is meant to underscore the heavy emphasis placed on Naming in the story). Kvothe, Bast, Chronicler, Denna…all go by multiple names during the course of the story. It’s not really confusing, but I’m also not sure it’s entirely necessary. Kvothe/Kote’s name change is understandable. I don’t know if the rest really are.

Secondly, Kvothe is kind of irritating. I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t love him either. He’s just too good at everything. He’s ridiculously handsome. He has a voice like an angel. He can play the lute like he’s some sort of superhuman with 15 fingers. He’s apparently memorized every minute fact to have ever tripped across his consciousness. He excels at every form of sympathy that he tries. He can spin a yarn, work a crowd, woo the ladies, and outmaneuver the wiliest of weasels.

Eventually, you just kind of want a protagonist to have some weaknesses, ya know? And no, “I’m misunderstood by the jealous and petty professor/student because they’re envious of my awesomeness” is not weakness.

Lastly, I felt at times the story lacked direction. It opens with the Very Mysterious and Terrifying spider-demons, then never mentions them again until the very end of the book, and then only kind of. It sets up Kvothe to be the greatest and most famous hero the world has ever known, but doesn’t even begin to tell us why. He spends the entire book trying to find information about the Chandrain, and ends with barely more than he started with.

I understand that most of this is probably because this is the first book in a trilogy, but I’m of the opinion that if you can’t resolve any of the story lines in the first book, then you should just write one long book. Overarching plots and conflicts are great. I am a fan of the multi-book series. But let’s resolve something in book 1. Let’s not just write trilogies for trilogies’ sake. I know trilogies are all the rage right now, but come on. Let’s have a purpose.

A friend described the middle of the book as “meandering,” and I’d have to agree. It meanders. It’s an interesting meander. I never was bored, or annoyed. But I couldn’t figure out what the point of all these little vignettes was. It just kind of moseyed around, taking its sweet time, with no clear destination in mind.

What’s more, since the story never really felt like it was going anywhere or driving toward anything, I never really had that sense of urgency to keep my turning pages. I could put the book down in the middle of a chapter and not feel that pull — you know, the one. It’s the one you feel when you’re doing dishes or folding the laundry, and all of a sudden you’re not doing those things anymore because you’re reading. You didn’t decide, necessarily, to stop being productive and start reading. You just were reading, because the book pulled you back. Because there was something in the story that hadn’t resolved, and you needed to know how it resolved.

Anyway. I never felt the pull. I would enjoy the book while I was reading, put it down when I needed to, and pick it up later when I remembered I was in the middle of a book. It was a weird feeling to be able to completely walk away from a book I was actually enjoying, and not feel the pull. It’s never happened to me before.

THE VERDICT:

So I’m torn. Was this book an “epic fantasy” in the way I’m used to thinking of epic fantasies? No. Yes, the hero goes on a journey, but nothing much is accomplished, and only a few years of Kvothe’s early life are covered. Maybe the trilogy as a whole will be an epic fantasy. But as far as I’m concerned, TNOTW is simply a fantasy. Nothing epic about it.

Was it enjoyable? Yes, for the most part. Frustrating when I realized I was basically just reading one big setup for book 2 (or maybe even book 3), and wasn’t going to get any payoff in this book. But barring that, it was enjoyable.

Was it well-written? Did everything in the book make sense, according to the rules of the world Kvothe was living in? Absolutely. Zero complaints there.

Do I recommend it? Right now I’m going to say yes. I haven’t finished book 2 (The Wise Man’s Fear) yet, and book 3 (The Doors of Stone) hasn’t even been released. I have a feeling this is one of those trilogies where once I finish the whole thing, it’s going to drastically impact my opinion of the first book. But for now, I’m going to say yes. It has great potential to be a fantastic story.

I just hope something actually happens in the next book.

Grade: B

Content guide: Contains violence and peril.

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Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

I confess, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to read when I was given a copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I had heard the title, of course, as it was a popular book club book for a while there, and I think Oprah may have endorsed it at some point. But as I am not a member of a book club and never watched Oprah (except when she gave stuff away, because I like to live vicariously), I didn’t know anything about it.

I was kind of expecting the title to be a metaphor for something. I wasn’t exactly sure what.

But no. This book is about a time-traveler. And his wife.

The book opens on the day when Henry DeTamble, a 28-year-old ponytailed librarian, first meets Clare Abshire, a bubbly and beautiful girl of 20. Let me be clear: it’s the day Henry first meets Clare. It’s not the first day Clare meets Henry, because Clare has known Henry since she was 6.

Confused yet?

Henry DeTamble, through no fault or effort of his own, is a time traveler. Sometimes when he is under stress, or looks at a blinking light, or is excited, or for no reason whatsoever, he finds himself involuntarily traveling through time. He arrives at an unknown time and place, stark naked, not knowing how long he will be there or any way to get back.

Henry knows all of this, since he has been time traveling since he was 5 years old. What is news to him is that an older version of himself will travel back in time, many times, to visit Clare as a child and teenager. Clare has grown up with Henry as her best friend, her confidante, her protector, knowing that she will someday marry him.

Now, before you start thinking “Ew, so this middle-aged guy travels back in time to a little kid and falls in love with her? Gross,” let me assure you that’s not how it happens. (No Twilight comparisons here). For Henry, he meets Clare as an adult, falls in love with her, marries her, and then finds himself constantly pulled unwittingly to her childhood, where he puts forth every effort to be entirely proper and appropriate with her younger self.

The only reason that Clare knows they will get married is because she’s a really wily and persistent teenager, and eventually manages to weasel the information out of him.

The book mostly follows Henry linearly through his nonlinear life. It details his courtship and marriage to Clare, and the trials and joys they face in their relationship. The only catch is that throughout the course of their relationship, we also accompany Henry as he visits the past and future, crossing paths with younger and older versions of himself, Clare, and their family and friends. It also, as the title suggests, shows us Clare’s struggle as she tries to have a normal life with a decidedly abnormal man.

As with most stories involving time travel, this one operates according to its own set of rules. My only rule when dealing with time travel stories is that I need the rules of the story to make sense and be consistent. Ms. Niffenegger (side note: I love the author’s name) does an excellent job making sure her characters and narrative adhere to the rules of their world.

The first-person narrative alternates between Henry and Clare’s voices. It is very easy to follow, since each time the narrator changes, the paragraph is headed with the character’s name, age, and the date.

I really enjoyed this story. When you boil it down to its bones, it’s simply a story of two people trying to make their relationship work, in spite of the world not always working in their favor. I would probably like it if that was all there was to it; however, the fact that the main thing working against them is the sci-fi element of involuntary time travel adds a freshness and uniqueness to the story that I loved.

I loved the characters of Henry and Clare. They both have their strengths and flaws. Ms. Niffenegger gives them each a distinct voice and personality, so I felt like I really knew them. I could understand how they fell in love, how they complemented each other, how they frustrated each other. Their relationship seemed real and substantive to me, and I found myself fully invested in these characters.

Also, while it’s easy to assume a book about time travel would fall solidly into the genre of science fiction, it’s not that simple. Henry’s time traveling (which is explained in the book as a genetic anomaly) is the only fantastical element of the story. It takes place over the last few decades. There have been no great leaps in science, evolution, medicine, space travel — basically, this is the world we are all familiar with. So although I love a good sci-fi story and therefore may not be the best person to judge this, I think this book would appeal even to those who have never read or enjoyed a sci-fi book in their lives.

The Time-Traveler’s Wife is in turns sweet, melancholy, exciting, and heartbreaking. It is a lovely story about normal people in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. I loved journeying through the struggles and triumphs of Clare and Henry, and I missed them when the story was over.

Grade: A-

Content guide: Contains sex, profanity, occasional drug use and violence.

Review: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I’ve decided that if I’m going to have a blog where I review books, I need to review my favorites, even if they’ve been out for years and years. I owe it to the world (well, or at least whatever small percentage of the world reads my blog) to let them know why these books are amazing. And I couldn’t think of a better one to start with than Ender’s Game.

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Plot:

It is the future. Earth has survived an attack from an insectile alien race – barely. Population control laws are in effect. Families are limited to 2 children. Young children are monitored to see if they have military potential, and those that show promise at an early age are whisked away to train in the military’s Battle School, in the hopes that by the time they reach adulthood, they will possess the necessary skills to defend the Earth, if the aliens – “buggers” – ever return.

Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a rare third child in his family. His older brother and sister showed intellectual promise, but his brother was too ruthless and his sister too compassionate to qualify for Battle School. So the Wiggin parents were permitted a third chance to produce a military prodigy. And they succeeded.

Ender is whisked away to Battle School at the ripe old age of 6. The School, located on a space station orbiting the Earth, is populated by military officers and child prodigies. Ender is one of the youngest.

And these are not your average children.

They train daily in space military tactics, weaponry, and combat. Although they are all at an age that we associate with Dora, Spongebob, and Hannah Montana, these kids are nothing like the children currently roaming your local elementary school hallway. They are calculating, intuitive, sometimes ruthless, always dangerous.

One of the main focuses of the School is the battleroom, where the children are equipped with special suits and laser guns that allow them to fight each other in zero-gravity. On Ender’s first trip to the battleroom, it becomes quickly apparent that he is a cut above the other students. Some of his peers respect this. Some are threatened by it.

And as Ender works his way up through the ranks of Battle School, his teachers take notice, and wonder if perhaps Ender is the child they’ve been waiting for. The child who can change everything. The child who can save Earth.

Why I Love It:

Don’t let the summary throw you off. Ender’s Game may be a book about children, but it is by no means a book for children. The children in this book are nothing like how we picture children (as the mother of an almost-6-year-old, I can say this pretty definitively). Everything about this book is aimed at an adult audience.

Ender’s Game is not a thriller or adventure story, although some of the battleroom scenes are exciting. More than anything, it’s an examination of the mind of Ender Wiggin, the culture he lives in, and a world under military rule. And it’s all fascinating.

Mr. Card writes Ender in a way that while you understand he is just a child, you can still be awed, chilled, and amazed at his thoughts and actions. As a matter of fact, all of the characters are interesting and intriguing, from his friends at the Battle School, to his sociopath brother Peter, to the Commander of the Battle School, Colonel Graff.

There is a twist at the end of Ender’s Game. You may see it coming; you may not. I did, but it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book one bit. The fact that I have read this book over and over again, in spite of knowing the twist ending, speaks to the strong writing of the rest of the book. The book doesn’t exist just to throw you off at the end. The book exists to make you think, to draw you completely into the character of Ender, and to absorb you in the science-fiction world he lives in.

Grade: A+

When one book just isn’t enough:

There are 4 sequels to Ender’s Game. They follow him into adulthood, far past the end of Ender’s Game. I love the sequels, but they’re very different in tone and scope from Ender’s Game; however, I did find that they resembled each other. So my suggestion is that if you enjoyed Ender’s Game (and I really, really hope you do), check out Speaker for the Dead from your local library, read the whole thing, and then decide if you want to keep going.

The sequels are:
Speaker for the Dead

Xenocide

Children of the Mind

Ender in Exile 

There is also a companion series to the Ender’s Game series, paralleling Ender’s story from the point-of-view of one of the secondary characters. It sounds weird – why would you want to read the same story all over again, knowing how it ends? But the Ender’s Shadow series is wonderful (only the first book parallels Ender’s Game. After that, its sequels detail events barely alluded to in the Ender’s Game sequels).

Content guide: Contains some disturbing scenes of violence towards and committed by children.