While I usually record my first reactions to a book, this post covers material I’ve already read, though it’s mostly faded from memory. Also, to keep things interesting in a book with few wordcraft problems, we skip forward more and more as we go, covering the first seven chapters. Be warned: this article is long, even for a critique post.
The Prologue and Its Famous First Lines
The Name of the Wind opens with a prologue titled “A Silence of Three Parts” – which seems a little on the nose considering the opening lines.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
This intriguing opening makes the reader wonder how silence could be made of three parts. The first sentence is also pretty clever. “It was night” would be boring in the extreme, but simply adding “again” creates an impression of time passing.
Let’s find out whether this strong opener is more than a gimmick. Does Rothfuss provide a good explanation for these three parts? Do they have anything to do with the story?
The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music, but no … of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.
Rothfuss paints great imagery, further sets the scene, and builds tension by suggesting this night is strangely quiet. Though the meaning behind this is underwhelming, he does say it’s the most obvious of the three parts. So, one point to Rothfuss.
Watch out for general words like “things” and “stuff”
To be picky, I do think Rothfuss could have done better than “things that were lacking.” Use the word “things” because you want the connotation it has, such as in Fury Road’s “we are not things.” Don’t use it because you couldn’t find the right word for all the stuff you’re describing.
Inside the Waystone a pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint.
So the first part is that the place is mostly empty; the second is that people are too sullen to speak. I guess the parts are reasons for the silence? Sure. Gotta say though, I’m itching to strike out that last sentence. Calling it a silence alloy sounds silly, and the extra metaphors feel redundant.
The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.
Okay, well if I tilt my head and squint a bit, I can sorta see how this might be silence because… yeah, no. And while some hapless writers think otherwise, being obtuse is not clever. But who knows, maybe Rothfuss is still heading somewhere with this.
Stay in theme
The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.
Wait a sec. After setting this rich, subtle, and mysterious scenery, Rothfuss is telling us this guy has red-red hair like an anime character?
Not only is this out of step with the feeling Rothfuss has created so far, but unusual and pretty hair colors are a warning sign of an over-candied wish- fulfillment character. It’s too early to tell for sure whether this will be the case, but him “knowing many things” is not reassuring.
Let’s wrap up this short prologue.
The Waystone Inn was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.
The waiting to die part is a great hook, great enough to make me initially overlook how the rest of this makes little sense. The first two parts of silence were actually silence, but now the silence isn’t silence: it’s a metaphor for death. I’m not sure how autumn’s ending could be described as deep or wide. Also, cut flowers apparently have a sound, which maybe works since it’s the sound of silence in this case. And of course, this guy’s silence is super profound and encompassing because he is just that awesome.
Still, I am interested in how this innkeeper is waiting to die, and looking forward to hearing more about it.
Chapter 1: A Place for Demons
It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.
Hold on! So the one-page prologue takes place during a quiet night at the Waystone Inn, and then the first chapter takes place during a quiet night at the Waystone Inn? Why is there a prologue? Why isn’t that one page just part of the first chapter? What’s more, is this the same night? Since these five people are both a crowd and not much of a crowd, it’s impossible to know for sure whether we’ve jumped ahead in time.
Reading on, it becomes clear there’s nothing interesting happening in this new version of the Waystone Inn at night. An old dude is telling a boring story to some young dudes. I can only guess that Rothfuss put in the chapter break so he could abandon his mysterious tone and interesting hook to do something bloody dull instead.
If you’re gonna use omniscient, use omniscient
On top of giving readers an ambiguous timeline, Rothfuss also introduces a lot of characters and refers to them in confusing ways. Sometimes he names them; other times it just calls them “boy” or a career title like “innkeeper.” The issue is that these labels are not mutually exclusive. Take this example with “Old Cob” telling his story.
Graham, Jake, and Shep nodded to themselves. The three friends had grown up together, listening to Cob’s stories and ignoring his advice.
Cob peered closely at the newer, more attentive member of his small audience, the smith’s prentice. “Do you know what that meant, boy?” Everyone called the smith’s prentice “boy” despite the fact that he was a head taller than anyone here.
Is this “boy” newer and more attentive than the three, or the newest, most attentive of the three? While Graham and Jake talk to the “boy” in this scene, Shep does not. It takes several pages before you can be sure Shep and the boy aren’t the same person. To fix this, the omniscient narrator could have simply told us the boy’s name before referring to him as “boy.” However, my choice would have been to name only Old Cob, and not ask readers to sort out all of these unimportant listeners.
Old Cob’s boring story goes on for several more pages. In it, a dude uses magic by knowing the names of things. Rothfuss probably likes it because the hero of the tale is secretly his main character, and the title of his book is worked into it.
The characters stop the story a couple times to debate over what Chandrian and demons are, suggesting this also might be a clumsy attempt at teaching readers some facts about the world. But readers don’t have a reason to care about any of it, and since the characters themselves don’t seem to know what they’re talking about, it’s not even instructive. Again, the omniscient narrator could explain all this stuff at any time without awkward dialogue.
However, these pages do have one interesting interlude with the main character. The “crowd” starts arguing about tinkers, and he jumps in.
[Graham] “Everyone knows: ‘A tinker pays for kindness twice.'”
“No no,” Jake grumbled. “Get it right: ‘A tinker’s advice pays kindness twice.'”
The innkeeper spoke up for the first time that night. “Actually, you’re missing more than half,” he said, standing in the doorway behind the bar.
“A tinker’s debt is always paid:
Once for any simple trade.
Twice for freely given aid.
Thrice for any insult made.”
The men at the bar seemed almost surprised to see Kote standing there. They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months, and Kote had never interjected anything of his own before. Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so. He was still a stranger. […]
“Just something I heard once,” Kote said to fill the silence, obviously embarrassed.
Wow, either tinkers are really powerful in this setting or they know all the ancient secrets of medieval marketing. After we get this elaborate tinker rhyme, the main character is called Kote for the first time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers thought Kote was a new guy who popped out of nowhere.
Even with that awkwardness, I do like the dynamic of Kote pretending to be less than he is. It gives him a Gandalf-like introduction. In Lord of the Rings, the hobbits think Gandalf is just the fireworks guy. Kote’s dismissal by the villagers and his awkward retreat from conversation gives him some much-needed spinach, increasing his likability.
However, I’m disappointed by “obviously embarrassed.” Come on, Rothfuss, you know how to use your words. You can show us how Kote sounds and looks when he’s embarrassed.
Count your characters sometime
Finally the real action of the scene begins. A guy named Carter walks in, covered in blood and carrying something mysterious wrapped in a blanket.
Carter shook his head. “I’m fine. I got cut up a little, but the blood is mostly Nelly’s. It jumped on her. Killed her about two miles outside of town, past the Oldstone Bridge.
The first named woman in the story! But she’s dead.
The smith’s prentice laid a sympathetic hand on Carter’s shoulder. “Damn. That’s hard. She was as gentle as a lamb, too. Never tried to bite or kick when you brought her in for shoes.”
Never mind, she’s a horse. For the record, so far we’ve met seven dudes, and a woman has yet to appear.
Carter has the attacker wrapped up in the blanket. Can you guess what creature it is? Go ahead, think about it for a bit.
If you just guessed “giant spider,” you were right! Rothfuss calls it a “scrael.” While it’s not very original, Rothfuss naturally has some nice description of it. Other than saying it’s black and the size of a wagon wheel, he chooses to put most of that description in dialogue. It’s an unusual tactic, but I like it. It makes the creature feel more strange and unsettling, and since this is in omniscient, the narrator doesn’t have to tell us what a viewpoint character sees.
“It’s not a spider,” Jake said. “It’s got no eyes.”
“It’s got no mouth either,” Carter pointed out. “How does it eat?”
“What does it eat?” Shep said darkly.
The innkeeper continued to eye the thing curiously. He leaned closer, stretching out a hand. Everyone edged even farther away from the table.
“Careful,” Carter said. “Its feet are sharp like knives.”
“More like razors,” Kote said. His longer fingers brushed the scrael’s black, featureless body. “It’s smooth and hard, like pottery.”[With an effort, Kote cracks a leg open.]
The innkeeper nodded to himself as he continued to prod the thing. “There’s no blood. No organs. It’s just gray inside.” He poked it with a finger. “Like a mushroom.”
Reader don’t care without an actual reason
The characters debate whether the scrael is a demon, which, again, readers have no reason to care about. We know it’s a scary monster that killed a horse – who cares if its taxonomical classification includes the phylum demonalia? But for whatever reason, Kote convinces them it’s a demon by showing them how iron damages it.
Then we cut to the next scene; we’re with Kote after all the men have left. Unsurprisingly, the narrator tells us he chose the name Kote when he came to the village. We learn names are important to Kote, and he knows all the names of the stars. Since the boring story earlier had a hero using names for magic, we can guess Kote is a mage. The narrator also describes him as “not even near thirty” in age. Anime heroes are never very old, so that makes sense.
However, much of this one-page scene is watching Kote clean again. Kote likes cleaning, I guess. Rothfuss, you know you can tell us about the hero without narrating a scene where nothing happens, right?
Maybe try not being sexist
There’s another scene break, and Kote is entering his living space upstairs. We meet dude number eight, a young man named Bast. He’s described as dark, charming, and cunning. Apparently, he’s a student of Kote’s. He was supposed to spend the day studying but didn’t because “a beautiful girl came along and kept me from doing anything of the sort.”
Kote and Bast get in their own argument about the spider, and this time it actually means something.
“There’s no such thing as one scraeling,” Bast said flatly. “You know that.”
“I know,” Kote said. “The fact remains there was only one.”
“And he killed it?” Bast said. “It couldn’t have been a scraeling. Maybe – ”
“Bast, it was one of the scrael. I saw it.” Kote gave him a serious look.
The unlikelihood of a single scrael establishes an ongoing threat to the village. That’s something readers could probably care about, but Bast’s description of the villagers doesn’t help the matter. Bast says, “I wouldn’t trust half these people to piss leeward without help,” and Kote doesn’t disagree with him. This doesn’t reflect well on anyone. Insulting the villagers makes Kote and Bast less likable, and since there’s probably some truth to that insult, readers will be less invested in saving the villagers from giant spiders.
After Kote and Bast finish describing how these scraelings would carve up the village, the discussion becomes more personal.
They sat for a long moment.[sic] Kote scowling down into the bowl of stew in his hands, his eyes far away. “It must be awful for you here, Bast,” he said at last. “You must be numb with boredom.”
Bast shrugged. “There are a few young wives in town. A scattering of daughters.” He grinned like a child. “I tend to make my own fun.”
Ew. We haven’t met a single named female character, even offscreen, and now we know women are just property in this story. Otherwise, they would have been described as “young women” instead of as “wives” and “daughters.” Bast is a lovable rogue because he steals women from their husbands and fathers! Hardy har har.
This also makes me reimagine what happened when he was supposed to be studying. Before I figured a woman came up to him while he was reading. Now I’m wondering if he spotted some lady and decided to creep on her.
Emphasize information that makes the story more engaging
Their conversation turns back to how Kote convinced the villagers the scrael was a demon.
[Kote] “The blacksmith is going to be doing a brisk business in the next couple days.”
Bast’s expression went carefully blank. “Oh.”
Kote nodded. “I won’t blame you if you want to leave, Bast. You have better places to be than this.”
Bast’s expression was shocked. “I couldn’t leave, […] Who else would teach me?”
It would be real easy to miss this hint that Bast is sensitive to iron. That’s a waste, because it’s his best chance of being an interesting or sympathetic character.
Rothfuss seems to be just dumping readers into his world and seeing what they make of it. It feels natural and immersive, which I’m sure some readers appreciate. But making so little effort to bring out the information readers need to know is also costing the story. Many things are confusing when they don’t need to be, and Rothfuss is missing opportunities to increase reader engagement. And because he seems to write superfluous scenes to reveal information instead of creatively working info in, the story’s pace is too slow.
Rothfuss has also continued his habit of telling character emotions instead of showing them. Above, he writes, “Bast’s expression was shocked,” instead of saying his eyes widened, his jaw dropped, his eyebrows shot up, or any specific expression readers associate with surprise. In a work that otherwise paints wonderful imagery, character faces feel empty.
Next, we have a cute exchange where Kote sends Bast away by pretending to perform a banishment for demons. Then Kote stares at a wooden chest.
The chest was sealed three times. It had a lock of iron, a lock of copper, and a lock that could not be seen. Tonight the wood filled the room with the almost imperceptible aroma of citrus and quenching iron.
When Kote’s eyes fell on the chest they did not dart quickly away. They did not slide slyly to the side as if he would pretend it wasn’t there at all. But in a moment of looking, his face regained all the lines the simple pleasures of the day had slowly smoothed away. The comfort of his bottles and books was erased in a second, leaving nothing behind his eyes but emptiness and ache. For a moment fierce longing and regret warred across his face.
That was a surprisingly interesting stare! Have we found the source of his doom or is the body of a fridged woman in there? Perhaps both?
The scene ends, and two more pages are left in this chapter. They are entirely summary, but they reinforce all the problems the village has. At the inn, Kote overhears how the king is fighting rebels and collecting more taxes to fund the war. Travelers are disappearing, denying the town many trade goods. Some sheep at a local farm have gone missing. All in all, it’s not a terrible way to end the chapter.
Chapter 2: A Beautiful Day
This chapter is just one scene, about four pages along.
It was one of those perfect autumn days so common in stories and so rare in the real world.
Rothfuss, are you taunting us with unattainable weather?
The weather was warm and dry, ideal for ripening a field of wheat or corn. On both sides of the road the trees were changing color. Tall poplars had gone a buttery yellow while the shrubby sumac encroaching on the road was tinged a violent red. Only the old oaks seemed reluctant to give up the summer, and their leaves remained an even mingling of gold and green.
Everything said, you couldn’t hope for a nicer day to have a half dozen ex-soldiers with hunting bows relieve you of everything you owned.
Nice twist, a point to Rothfuss. Shortly after this we learn we are following dude number nine, called Chronicler. He’s accosted by dude number ten, the commander of this group. I swear I will stop counting dudes as soon as we get a named woman who is not also a horse. Rothfuss names two of these random soldiers, so I’m adding them to the dude pile. That’s a dozen dudes with a name or title and at least one speaking line each.
Humble characters are sympathetic characters
We watch the soldiers go through Chronicler’s possessions as he timidly tries to convince the commander to let him keep this or that. We watch as they take his horse (also a mare), the brand-new shirt he’s never worn, and most of his food. This builds sympathy for Chronicler. The scene also has a lot of novelty because it’s a surprisingly polite process. Take this nice interchange that happens as the soldiers are taking the coins from his purse.
“I don’t suppose you could spare me a penny or two out of that?” Chronicler asked. “Just enough for a couple of hot meals?”
The six men turned to look at Chronicler, as if they couldn’t quite believe what they had heard.
The commander laughed. “God’s body, you certainly have a heavy pair, don’t you?” There was a grudging respect in his voice.
“You seem a reasonable fellow,” Chronicler said with a shrug. “And a man’s got to eat.”
Their leader smiled for the first time. “A sentiment I can agree with.” He took out two pennies and brandished them before putting them back into Chronicler’s purse. “Here’s a pair for your pair, then.” He tossed Chronicler the purse […].
“Thank you, sir,” Chronicler said. “You might want to know that that bottle one of your men took is wood alcohol I use for cleaning my pens. It’ll go badly if he drinks it.”
I could do without the flattering comments about Chronicler’s balls, but otherwise, this makes Chronicler seem humble and interesting. He navigates an upsetting situation with unfailing courtesy.
Falsely humble characters are not so sympathetic
Unfortunately, in the next few paragraphs Rothfuss undoes a lot of that. We learn that Chronicler is practiced at manipulating brigands. He has quite a bit of money stashed away in things the soldiers didn’t inspect, enough to buy a new horse. No doubt Rothfuss wanted to show how clever Chronicler is by getting one over on the soldiers, but this wasn’t a good choice. It reduces tension, lowers sympathy, and makes an admirable trait unremarkable – all because Rothfuss wants his protagonists to be the best.
Next Rothfuss teases that Chronicler might run into a giant spider, but it’s an obvious bluff. There’s no way this guy isn’t making it to town after that introduction.
Chapter 3: Wood and Word
Rothfuss spends four whole pages showing how Kote mounts a sword on the wall. It’s so belabored I thought maybe mounting the sword would create a secret anti-demon charm, but no, it’s another slow scene designed to reveal more about Kote. In this case, that he’s a swordsman in addition to a mage, and that he’s decided his days of fighting are over. As the chapter title suggests, the wood board has a word on it: “Folly.”
Candy-coating characters makes them seem cartoonish
To start this interlude, Graham from chapter 1 shows up and declares the new mounting board he made for Kote is “as beautiful as anything these hands have ever made” – because apparently, even the wood Kote puts his sword on has to be better than everyone else’s stuff.
Graham notices that Kote doesn’t look well.
Graham noted the difference. The innkeepers gestures weren’t as extravagant. His voice wasn’t as deep. Even his eyes weren’t as bright as they had been a month ago. Their color seemed duller. They were less sea-foam, less green-grass then they had been. Now they were like riverweed, like the bottom of a green glass bottle. And his hair had been bright before, the color of flame. Now it seemed—red. Just red-hair color, really.
Did Rothfuss intend to create the impression that Graham was internally waxing poetic about Kote’s sea foam eyes? Probably not. And while I suppose it’s possible for eye color to change with sickness, how the hell would his hair change? Has he been dyeing his hair every morning and he didn’t have the energy for it today? That would explain a lot. But since that hasn’t been established, I can only assume that once again, Kote is an anime character whose colors have been cartoonishly subdued for dramatic effect.
After Graham leaves, Kote has Bast fetch his sword, telling him “Careful, Bast! You’re carrying a lady there, not swinging some wench at a barn dance.”
So… horses are ladies. Swords are ladies. Actual people are dudes. That’s not dehumanizing to women, no, not at all. It’s also nice to know that even sword ladies are subject to the same madonna versus whore stereotypes.
Then Kote draws the sword, and Rothfuss describes what it looks like. First, he says it looks brand new, but it’s actually old. No surprise there. Perfect sword, I got it.
And while it was obviously a sword, it was not a familiar shape. At least no one in this town would have found it familiar. It looked as if an alchemist had distilled a dozen swords, and when the crucible had cooled this was lying in the bottom: a sword in its pure form.
Kote’s sword is the swordiest of swords. And what does this swordy sword actually look like? According to the cover of the sequel, it’s a katana. I wasn’t even thinking of this when I got the impression he was an anime character. Called it.
Watch how you refer to characters, particularly minor ones
We have a scene break after this, and then a bunch of travelers enter the inn for some merriment. Of ten travelers, only eight are dudes! It shows how far my expectations for this book have fallen that I’m surprised two unnamed extras are women. But of course, they are not characters with distinct labels or lines.
Dude #13 is a tinker. So is he as badass as we’ve been led to believe? Well…
“Tinker,” the old man’s voice rang out like a bell. “Pot mender. Knife grinder. Willow-wand water-finder. Cut cork. Motherleaf. Silk scarves off the city streets. Writing paper. Sweetmeats.”
This really confused me because it’s the tinker speaking, but Rothfuss calls him an old man, and people don’t usually call out their own names. But the tinker does I guess, instead of saying something like “get your pots mended here.” He’s basically a merchant, but he always speaks in rhymes for some reason. He feels more like a whimsical fairy than a real person.
Children also sing rhymes, because why not, and then we have this description of merriment:
Best of all was the noise. Leather creaking. Men laughing. The fire cracked and spat. The women flirted. Someone even knocked over a chair. For the first time in a long while there was no silence in the Waystone Inn.
The women aren’t just relaxing and having a drink, or swapping trade tips, or telling stories. No, they’re flirting, because everything is about men and women are just here to be sexy. I’ve criticized other books for being sexist during critiques, but this one is really something else. And it was published in 2007.
To hold attention, the plot needs to move forward
Kote overcomes his shyness with guests and leads the group in a song. This revelry seems intended as an emotional high point. However, it doesn’t mean much because these people just happen to be here, and they’ll be gone the next day.
Despite all the plot hooks Rothfuss inserted earlier, the story’s getting increasingly dull. The issue is that as far as we know, Kote isn’t taking any steps to address the problems that have been introduced. He’s not gathering townsfolk to fortify the town against giant spiders or trying to find a cure for his illness; he’s just running the inn and cleaning bottles over and over. It’s strange for a wish-fulfillment character like Kote to lack agency, but here we are. Not only is this unsatisfying, but it also tells us the problems of the story aren’t urgent. That lowers tension.
Rothfuss jumps to later in the evening, when a well-dressed traveler recognizes Kote as the famous Kvothe. Because Rothfuss is so coy about giving clear character names, for a while I thought this character was Chronicler. The scene would have been better if it was. But nope, meet dude #14, sandy-haired traveler guy.
“Kvothe the Bloodless.” The man pressed ahead with the dogged persistence of the inebriated. “You looked familiar, but I couldn’t finger it.” He smiled proudly and tapped a finger to his nose. “Then I heard you sing, and I knew it was you. I heard you in Imre once. Cried my eyes out afterward. I never heard anything like that before or since. Broke my heart.”
So “Kvothe the Bloodless” has red-red hair, grass-green eyes, knows magic, is a sword fighter with the best sword,* and he’s also the best singer ever. Sure.
After being recognized, Kote/Kvothe remarks on how nifty it is to look like a famous guy, fakes a fall and an injured knee, flees upstairs, and tells Bast to drug the traveler. Maybe this discovery and cover-up is supposed to be tense, but it isn’t. Tension requires two things:
- A significant chance the protagonist will fail to solve their problem. While I wouldn’t give it an F in this category, Kote is so perfect it seems unlikely he’d fail a small challenge like this.
- Significant consequences for failing. We have no idea why Kote needs to remain hidden. Since we don’t know the consequences, the conflict has no stakes and therefore no tension.
Also, if Kote is so determined to keep people from finding him, why did he decide to run an inn, specifically? Maybe he’s desperate for news, but just about every other profession in town would come with a lower chance of him being discovered.
We have another scene cut, and then Kote sits and stares at the fire for a page. Yawn. Although there is this interesting paragraph:
As he was undressing for bed, the fire flared. The red light traced faint lines across his body, across his back and arms. All the scars were smooth and silver, streaking him like lightning, like lines of gentle remembering. The flare of flame revealed them all briefly, old wounds and new. All the scars were smooth and silver except one.
The fire flickered and died.
Did something magic happen there, or was this a creative way of saying “the firelight illuminated all the scars on his body”? I legitimately don’t know. It’s a pretty paragraph, but also a good lesson in why you should be careful with metaphors when readers are still getting to know your world.
Rothfuss’s habit of hiding information is getting tiresome. As he continues stringing readers along, the novelty of this mystery is fading. That novelty should be replaced with giving a crap about his main character. However, unless the reader is a guy who identifies with Kote, that’ll be difficult without any understanding of what Kote is facing. Generally, a story loses more than it gains when the main character is left mysterious.
In the next three and a half pages, Kote hides until the visitors are gone, and then he goes to the smithy. The smith (dude #15) gives him some iron, thick gloves, and an apron. Kote claims he’ll use this to remove brambles. This seems unlikely, but the narrator doesn’t tell us what he’ll actually use them for. He closes the inn early and goes to bed.
Chapter 4: Halfway to Newarre
We’re back with Chronicler again. It turns out no one could spare a horse to sell to him, so he’s on foot after all. This will probably make him more sympathetic for some readers, but after he seemed so proud of tricking the brigands, all I can think is “ha!”
Scary fake-outs work better in film
He’s sore and still out on the road when night falls. He sees a light through the trees and figures it’s probably a farmstead where he could sleep for the night. But instead of a farmstead, he finds a bonfire in the ruins of an old home. There, a hooded figure with a cudgel burns something in an iron pot.
“I don’t know who you’re waiting for,” Chronicler said, taking a step backward. “But I’m sure you’d rather do it alone.”
“Shut up and listen, ” the man said sharply. “I don’t know how much time we have.” He looked down and rubbed at his face. “God, I never know how much to tell you people. If you don’t believe me, you’ll think I’m crazy. If you do believe me, you’ll panic and be worse than useless.” Looking back up, he saw Chronicler hadn’t moved. “Get over here, damn you. If you go back out there you’re as good as dead.”
Chronicler glanced over his shoulder into the dark of the forest. “Why? What’s out there?”
The man gave a short, bitter laugh and shook his head in exasperation. “Honestly?” He ran his hand absentmindedly though [sic] his hair, brushing his hood back in the process. In the firelight his hair was impossibly red, his eyes a shocking, vibrant green. He looked at Chronicler, sizing him up. “Demons,” he said. “Demons in the shape of big, black spiders.”
To me, it seemed fairly obvious that the hooded figure was Kote, because Kote was clearly up to something after buying smithy gloves and closing the inn early, even if he supposedly went to bed. Plus, who else would be doing weird things out in the woods? Since I knew the reveal, this sequence came off to me as somewhat contrived. However, I can’t say it wouldn’t work on someone less trope-savvy. And even though threatening Chronicler with a “hooded figure” isn’t much more than a gimmick, it’s at least followed up with an actual threat to Chronicler’s life.
The main sized him up quickly. “I don’t suppose you have any weapons?” Chronicler shook his head. “It doesn’t really matter. A sword wouldn’t do you much good.” He handed Chronicler a heavy piece of firewood. “You probably won’t be able to hit one, but it’s worth a try. They’re fast. If one of them gets on you, just fall down. Try to land on it, crush it with your body. Roll on it. If you get hold of one, throw it into the fire.”
Wait – the chosen tactic for these giant spiders is to squish them with your body? Sure, they’re spiders, but they’re the size of wagon wheels and their shells are as hard as stone. While Rothfuss established that a falling horse killed one, a horse is a helluva lot heavier than a person. And if they’re so fast you can’t hit one, couldn’t they dodge before you fall on them?
If you’re wondering, the two instances of Kote sizing Chronicler up are four paragraphs apart. That’s certainly too soon to use the phrase again, but it’s not so close that it’s an egregious mistake.
Readers are more engaged when they’re informed
Now, you’d think this would be the start of an exciting fight scene, but the excerpt below is really all there is.
Chronicler threw up his hands just as the black thing struck his face and chest. Its cold, hard legs scrabbled for a hold and he felt bright stripes of pain across the backs of his arm [sic]. Staggering away, the scribe felt his heel snag on the rough ground, and he began to topple over backward, arms flailing wildly.
As he fell, Chronicler caught one last glimpse of the circle of firelight. More of the black things were scuttling out of the dark, their feet beating a quick staccato rhythm against roots and rocks and leaves. On the other side of the fire the man in the heavy cloak held his iron cudgel ready with both hands. He stood perfectly still, perfectly silent, waiting.
Still falling backward with the dark thing on top of him, Chronicler felt a dull, dark explosion as the back of his head struck the stone wall behind him. The world slowed, turned blurry, then black.
After this, Rothfuss jumps to Chronicler regaining consciousness, when the fight is already over.
Before I discuss the effectiveness of this scene, I have to ask: in the excerpt above, why is Kote standing and waiting while Chronicler is getting murdered by a spider? This says he’s on the other side of the fire despite earlier text suggesting they’re on the same side, but even if the fire is between them, Kote is still capable of running around it. And wouldn’t they be a little more effective if they stood against the spiders together?
I’m left with the impression that Rothfuss wanted a heroic portrait of his main character more than he wanted an exciting scene. This scene might be exciting for some readers who like Chronicler and think his death is a possibility, but it falls flat considering two important characters are fighting for their lives.
How this could have been a more riveting scene:
- Let’s say one of the women visiting his inn has gone into labor. They’ve called a midwife and everyone has gathered around. However, Kote knows that a birth – with the pain, body fluids, new life, etc. – is going to attract all of the demon spiders nearby, threatening the hapless villagers at his inn.
- To protect them, Kote ventures out to cast a spell that will draw the spiders to him instead. If his spell isn’t powerful enough, some spiders will still attack the inn, possibly killing his guests. If it’s too powerful, he’ll attract too many spiders to fight off, and he’ll die.
- Just as he’s about to face his enemy, some clueless traveler wanders right into his spell, and now he has to protect this person too.
The difference between what’s in the book and this example is that with this, we understand Kote’s plan and why he’s doing it, we know how it could go wrong, we know what could happen if it goes wrong, and those consequences include things that Rothfuss might actually write into the book. He’s not going to kill his main character so early, but he might kill some villagers. Plus, because it’s focused on Kote, when Chronicler shows up, it’s Kote that we sympathize with.
While I think the fight could have been much better, I do like some of the follow-up. Kote’s been injured badly, but since Chronicler has fallen unconscious again, Kote has no choice but to dig a big pit to dispose of the dark magic spiders all by his injured lonesome. Of course, it would be even better if we knew what would happen if he failed to bury them all properly, but we can’t have nice things because it would spoil the mystery.
Chapter 5: Notes
Kote shows back up at the inn carrying the still-unconscious Chronicler. Bast is waiting for him.
When [Bast] spotted the approaching figure he rushed down the street, waving a piece of paper angrily. “A note? You sneak out and leave me a note?” he hissed angrily. “What am I, some dockside whore?”
Bast, from now on I suggest you focus on your studies and forget about relieving your boredom. I think women in general are better off without you.
Protagonists need goals or their actions feel pointless
“It wasn’t even a good note. ‘If you are reading this I am probably dead.’ What sort of note is that?”
If Kote thought he might die, that opens up a lot of questions about what he expected to accomplish by going out to fight spiders. How would it help the village to lose the guy who actually understands what they’re facing, even if he takes a spider or two out in the process? If he fell, the spiders he managed to kill wouldn’t get buried. This raises the unfortunate question of whether Kote wanted to die. We know him so little we can’t rule out anything.
Kote and Bast continue their argument over his behavior.
“You went out hunting for them, didn’t you?” Bast hissed, then his eyes widened. “No. You kept a piece of the one Carter killed. I can’t believe you. You lied to me. To me!”
Kote sighed as he trudged up the stairs. “Are you upset by the lie, or the fact that you didn’t catch me at it?” he asked as he began to climb.
Bast spluttered. “I’m upset that you thought you couldn’t trust me.”[…]
Kote said, “I trust you, Bast, but I wanted you safe. I knew I could handle it.”
“I could have helped, Reshi.” Bast’s tone was injured. “You know I would have.”
Bast has a point, especially since shortly after this, we learn that the five spiders Kote fought should have been more than enough to kill him. Admittedly I have trouble believing that. Kote is clearly supposed to be super badass, and five wagon-sized spiders, even demonic ones, don’t sound like enough to take down a character with this level of candy. But again, if Kote’s goal was to protect the village, he should have gathered a force large enough to ensure a victory.
Heteronormativity will cost you, one way or another
Bast stitches Kote up, and then later he quietly comes into Kote’s room while he’s sleeping.
Bast eyed the color of his cheeks, smelled his breath, and lightly touched his forehead, his wrist, and the hollow of his throat above his heart.
Then Bast drew a chair alongside the bed and sat, watching his master, listening to him breathe. After a moment he reached out and brushed the unruly red hair back from his face, like a mother would with a sleeping child. Then he began to sing softly, the tune lilting and strange, almost a lullaby:
“How odd to watch a mortal kindle
Then to dwindle day by day.
Knowing their bright souls are tinder
And the wind will have its way.
Would I could my own fire lend.
What does your flickering portend?”
Bast’s voice faded until at last he sat motionless, watching the rise and fall of his master’s silent breathing through the long hours of morning’s early dark.
All right folks, it’s time to talk about a little something called queerbaiting. Queerbaiting happens when writers taunt queer audiences by depicting a budding queer romance and then never make the relationship clear and canonical. Don’t get me wrong, I really hope there is a genuine romance brewing between these two and it isn’t queerbaiting at all. But considering Rothfuss’s abysmal treatment of women, a canonical romance seems unlikely.
Instead, it’s more likely he wanted what Tolkien wanted for Sam and Frodo – a master and servant relationship. Rothfuss is fond of making a big deal out of his main character, and writing another character to serve and worship Kote is consistent with that. But in modern times, glorified master-servant relationships come off as romantic. And indeed, many signs of a romance are present:
- Bast’s outrage that Kote would lie to him, specifically.
- Bast’s insistence on caring for Kote, including bringing him meals and sewing him up after he’s injured.
- Kote leaving Bast behind when Kote clearly needs his help, because Kote doesn’t want to put Bast in danger.
- Bast watching Kote throughout the night, pushing aside his hair, and singing about how his wishes he could give some of his long life to Kote.
The moral of this story: don’t have a hot young thing serve and worship your protagonist, and then expect heteronormativity to prevent it from looking like more than friendship. Just because they are both men doesn’t mean there’s no sexual or romantic tension.
Chapter 6: The Price of Remembering
Chronicler wakes up and comes downstairs. Then he reveals he traveled to this town just to record Kote’s life story. Also, it turns out that he’s not any old Chronicler, but the Chronicler, because of course he is.
The seven or so pages of this chapter are spent with Chronicler convincing Kote to let him take down his story, and Kote insisting that he will need an unheard-of three days to tell it. Also, those three days must commence immediately; Chronicler’s prior appointments be damned.
That’s all that happens. Really, it’s a chapter of characters feeding each other candy. I suppose some of it is meant to be a teaser that gets readers interested in the contents of this story. Kote certainly hints that his tale has sordid stuff. The problem is that backstory can’t attract as much interest as the current story can, and curiosity-provoking teasers don’t have the same pull as wanting to see a loved character succeed. Rothfuss has traded in his most powerful storytelling tools for weaker ones.
Chapter 7: Of Beginnings and the Names of Things
This chapter opens with some pleasant description reminiscent of the book’s first paragraphs.
Sunlight poured into the Waystone. It was a cool, fresh light, fitted for beginnings. It brushed past the miller as he set his waterwheel turning for the day. It lit the forge the smith was rekindling after four days of cold metal work. It touched draft horses hitched to wagons and sickle blades glittering sharp and ready at the beginning of an autumn day.
Inside the Waystone, the light fell across Chronicler’s face and touched a beginning there, a blank page waiting [sic] the first words of a story.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the repetition of the word “beginning” works like the repetition of “silence” did. With silence, the narrator was making a specific point that justified the reusing the word. Here, the three instances of “beginning” feel redundant to me.
“How do people normally go about relating their stories?” Kvothe asked.
Chronicler shrugged. “Most simply tell me what they remember. Later, I record events in the proper order, remove the unnecessary pieces, clarify, simplify, that sort of thing.”
Kvothe frowned. “I don’t think that will do.”
Chronicler gave him a shy smile. “Storytellers are always different. They prefer their stories be left alone. But they also prefer an attentive audience. I usually listen and record later. I have a nearly perfect memory.”
“Nearly perfect doesn’t quite suit me.” Kvothe pressed a finger against his lips. “How fast can you write?”
Chronicler gave a knowing smile. “Faster than a man can talk.”
Really? So far, contrivances haven’t been a major problem for Rothfuss, but this is pretty bad. Chronicler has a superhuman note-taking ability, so we can be assured every word Kote/Kvothe spews out will be captured perfectly.
After this, the characters continue congratulating each other on how awesome they are. Kvothe praises Chronicler’s efficient notation system, and Chronicler is astounded when Kvothe manages to learn Chronicler’s special script in fifteen minutes – perfectly, of course. We also hear that Kvothe learned a language in a day and a half, because unless we’re throwing up, we haven’t eaten enough candy.
Kvothe leaned forward in his chair. “Before we begin, you must remember that I am of the Edema Ruh. We were telling stories before Caluptena burned. Before there were books to write in. Before there was music to play. When the first fire kindled, we Ruh were there spinning stories in the circle of its flickering light.”
The innkeeper nodded to the scribe. “I know your reputation as a great collector of stories and recorder of events.” Kvothe’s eyes became hard as flint, sharp as broken glass. “That said, do not presume to change a word of what I say. If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.”
Chronicler nodded solemnly, trying to imagine the mind that could break apart his cipher in a piece of an hour. A mind that could learn a language in a day.
I’m going to throw up. Are you happy now, Rothfuss?
So Kvothe is apparently the best storyteller in existence, even when he is ad-libbing, and he never stumbles over a word. Also, he’s one of those petty writers who won’t let their editors make any suggestions, because everything they write is perfect and the uneducated masses just don’t understand!
I’m trying not to assume this is also how Rothfuss is with his editors, but he’s inserted several snippets about storytelling in this book so far, and they don’t suggest good things about his philosophy on the craft. For instance, let’s take this idea Kvothe has that if the story starts to suck, aka “wander,” it’ll be fine if you wait and see how everything makes sense. This notion is comforting for writers because it allows us to dismiss critical feedback. But as Mythcreants has mentioned before, it’s also wrong and self-sabotaging.
Next, Kvothe starts his story, but changes his mind several times about where to start. He switches from starting with a woman singing (unnamed), to earlier at a university, to something earlier yet with the Chandrian, until deciding that his story starts with the creation of the universe. At least Chronicler laughs a bit at this.
Some readers probably take this mind-changing and chuckle to mean that Kvothe’s supposed to be full of crap about being a perfect storyteller, but I don’t think so. Have a look at the last paragraph in the excerpt above, with Chronicler nodding and agreeing Kvothe is a genius. That’s a clear sign of authorial sanction. And from everything the omniscient narrator has told us, Kvothe is indeed perfect.
Kvothe continued, smiling himself. “I see you laugh. Very well, for simplicity’s sake, let us assume I am the center of creation. In doing this, let us pass over innumerable boring stories: the rise and fall of empires, sagas of heroism, ballads of tragic love. Let us hurry forward to the only tale of any real importance.” His smile broadened. “Mine.”
I’ll stop here, one page from the end of the chapter, because this is where I originally stopped when I was trying to read this book for enjoyment several years ago. I couldn’t read farther because I hated Kvothe. That’s not surprising, as he’s a protagonist designed for little more than white male wish-fulfillment. Even if you assume his perfection is a lie, he’s still exceedingly arrogant. That’s not any better. Having a likable protagonist is one of the most essential characteristics a story can have. If that fails, the risk of story abandonment is high.
If you haven’t read The Name of the Wind, you should know that everything I’ve covered so far – all 57 pages – is practically irrelevant to the story. It’s just a framing device. The backstory is the main subject matter of this book and of the next book too. They both have a prologue* and epilogue that takes place in the future timeline, but that’s it.
Do I think the book would be better with this overgrown prologue lopped off? Yes. Of course, Rothfuss’s introduction to Kvothe’s early life is way more boring that the interesting hooks in his early flash forward. But it didn’t have to be boring, and if he’d opened with it, he would have made it better. This is what I hate about prologues. Writers think that as long as they include a prologue with some hook barely related to their story, they have free reign to be as boring as they want afterward. Sure, starting the story while putting in hooks is hard, but try, okay? Try.
Judging by what I’ve read here, Rothfuss is a typical best-selling writer. He has significant strengths and significant weaknesses.
- Great wordcraft
- A world that feels complex and immersive
- The ability to add some interesting flair to a scene
- His characters are just a pile of white dudes sorted top-to-bottom by their level of alpha-male superiority
- An inability to build momentum as the story continues
- A habit of bloating the narrative with useless scenes
It’s funny that despite Rothfuss’s veneration of storytelling, that’s where his skills are weakest. Maybe it’s partly because in these seven chapters he was biding time before starting the actual story. However, 95% of the time, a writer who shows these types of weaknesses does not shape up as the book continues.
So overall, Rothfuss isn’t terrible, but I don’t think the glorification he’s been getting is justified. Since there’s always a commenter on my critiques with some half-baked logic about how the book must be great because it’s popular, I’d like to point something out. The Name of the Wind sold about 10 million copies. Fifty Shades of Grey sold 125 million. If we’re judging by popularity, Fifty Shades of Grey is hands down the better book.
As for the critical reception, that’s easily attributed to two things: 1) the wordcraft, which is important but also overemphasized in the industry, and 2) white male privilege. If The Name of the Wind starred a woman with even half the talents of Kvothe, she would be labeled a “Mary Sue,” and the book would be laughed off, just as Twilight is. Can you even imagine a book introducing fifteen women with speaking lines in the first fifty pages and no men, one that isn’t about a nunnery or something?
I think there are better books to read. But I’d give the anime a try.
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