There's more to epic fantasy than sword fighting and magical duels. Patrick Rothfuss seems to know this, and that's really the best way I can think to praise The Name of the Wind.
Since this is a story about a single man, it seems appropriate to start my review by talking about him as a character. A man of many names, Kvothe first appears as an innocuous innkeeper in a small town. He's hiding, not only from enemies, but from the stories, rumours, and legends that have attached themselves to his many names. Still, dark things lurk on the horizon, and although the majority of the story takes place during a flashback, the frame story isn't entirely just a frame. Somethings of substance occur, signalling a new beginning to Kvothe's quest, not an end. But first we learn how Kvothe became an innkeeper and receive an inkling of what lurks in the dark.
It's easy to like Kvothe. I won't say it's inevitable, since I can also see some people disliking him. But he already scores points because he's not insufferably badass. There are only so many Magnificent Bastard masculine heroes I can take before I need a good dose of farmboy naivety. Kvothe falls somewhere in the middle, a happy medium between crazy-capable and powerless. He's clever--something he mentions several times--but far from infallible. He makes plenty of mistakes. He has an insatiable love for learning--something with which I can personally identify--and is totally clueless about women--again, something to which I can relate.
The majority of the flashback takes place during Kvothe's time at the University. I could talk about his childhood and his time as a street urchin, but those parts didn't interest me as much as the third act. Firstly, as an autodidact, I empathized with Kvothe's impatient anticipation of gaining access to the University's endless Archives so he could learn more about his shadowy enemy, a group of killers known as the Chandrian. Secondly, the University boasts a much more interesting cast of characters, both friend and foe.
Right away, of course, Kvothe's plans run afoul of several snags, the largest one being that he gets banned from the Archives--I don't count this as a spoiler because Kvothe reveals upfront (on the dust jacket of this edition, in fact) that he gets expelled from the University, so obviously some misconduct will have to happen sooner or later. Or, you know, sooner and later. In fact, it seems like Kvothe is one of those people who are always doomed to try really, really hard to do the right thing and still end up getting in trouble.
Rothfuss tends to focus on minutiae a lot, such as how Kvothe manages to scrape together enough funds for tuition, clothing, etc. At times this got tedious, but a lot of it was relevant to the plot in some way, so I tolerated it. We already had the "and this is how the currency of the world works" speech earlier in the book (although I didn't really get it and sort of ignored everything about money for the rest of the book, since it was pretty obvious when something was expensive). Really this is just a sign that the narrative is uncompressed.
--This is where I talk about pacing in The Name of the Wind, something that comes up in almost every review, whether the reader enjoyed the "slow" pacing or not. I'm not going to call it slow, because I actually got through the book pretty fast. For the most part, Rothfuss keeps the story moving. It's long, yes, because it's not been compressed--or as they say in the TV business, "formatted for time". Once you've stripped out any scenes required either because they're dramatically or thematically important, you're left with some bits and ends. Some of them are fun, others I could have done without. So I can see why there are mixed reviews about pacing, but I don't think that's The Name of the Wind's problem. Rather, I take issue with its overall structure and its ending.
Common knowledge (the subtitle alone gives it away), but this is the first book in a series. And it ends at a rather unnatural termination, with both the frame story and the flashback on "pause" rather than "chapter end." In this respect, Rothfuss has taken "story arc" to the extreme (rather like the television series Heroes, only without the flimsy characters and horrible acting). To be sure, he does it well, and I enjoyed the book. However, for something seven hundred pages long, I was left with a sliver of disappointment when I approached the end of the book and realized this couldn't wrap up in time, that we were going to be left with more of a commercial break than a conventional cliffhanger. The Name of the Wind is more of an investment than an adventure.
Flaws aside, The Name of the Wind is a genuinely enjoyable work of fantasy fiction. And I'm pretty optimistic about the state of the fantasy genre these days; we've got plenty of great authors turning out both epic and urban fantasy. Still, Rothfuss stands out from the crowd.
But why take my word for it? At the time of writing this review, The Name of the Wind has an average rating of 4.45/5 with slightly over 3000 ratings. That's pretty statistically significant: 1729 people gave it 5 stars, while only 74 people gave it either 1 or 2 stars. So as long as you have some interest in fantasy, you aren't taking much of a risk by reading this book. And if you happen to be among that 1% who don't like it ... well then, you can say you beat the odds!