This is one of those fantasy books that everyone was talking about a couple years ago. They foamed at the mouth about the “serious”, “gritty” nature of the book, how it was all about how “heroism went wrong” and made it seem like The Witcher-level fantasy grimdark. The A.V. Club called it “one of the best stories told in any medium in the past 10 years.” Even though that site has had its issues in the past (pretension, smugness, near-religious worship of Donnie Darko), I was prepared to trust them on this one. And, you see, it kind of lived up to them. Kind of.
It’s about a kid named Kvothe who’s parents get killed by a mysterious monster. He then makes it his life’s work to pursue the monster, by becoming good at everything. He ends up living on the street and having wacky misadventures at a school for wizards. Wait a second, where have I seen this before? I’d say I’m feeling ambivalent about this book. It told a surprisingly good, if formulaic story. It’s a sort of twist on the old “kid gets orphaned but finds out he’s super special” tale, and takes the Harry Potter route of “goof around a bit before advancing the story” to an extreme, reaching almost Gaiman-like levels of “wait a second, there was an overarching plot here”.
This isn’t actually bad, and lets you luxuriate in Kvothe’s world for a bit before a new plot event, but the physical descriptions of places aren’t as lush as J.K. Rowling’s making it harder to get immersed. The wizards’ school is interesting enough, but reminds me too much of another certain child sorcerer’s old haunts, complete with simulacrums of Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy tormenting Kvothe. But my real issue is with the character of Kvothe himself: while being urbane and witty, and a sterling storyteller, he also isn’t bad at anything. Really. Most everyone in the book including Kvothe himself spends their time talking about how awesome he is.
He seems to use his effortless charm and ebullient wit to get out of any sticky situation, no matter how dire. This wouldn’t be as annoying, if he weren’t so accursedly entitled. He acts like he “deserves” everything he’s getting because he’s so much better at everything than everyone else. The author supports him in thinking thusly. Just to compare, in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, when Jon Snow spouts the same sort of whiny “I deserve this” bull, both the author, and the characters around him actively razz him for it, while in The Name of the Wind, everyone else around him seems to basically say “You’re right, Kvothe, you are really that awesome”.
Don’t even get me started on the love story: it’s basically a combo of everything that ever annoyed me about John Green protagonists (angst, neurosis, whiny-ness, putting girls on pedestals), and the aforementioned shameless self promotion. AUGH. No, but seriously, if you can look past all that, there’s a solid book underneath. The world is pretty interesting, if a bit confusing, and the other characters, even Kvothe at times, endear themselves to the reader. The chemistry between Kvothe and his friends is fun, because it’s more like an 80’s coming of age film than Harry Potter, and the plot can be very entertaining at points, leading in unexpected new directions every few chapters.
But as for it being “dark”, it was nowhere near, and except for the occasional curse word or sexual reference, it could be a juvenile fantasy novel. So honestly, for the most part, I enjoyed The Name of the Wind. Is it “the best story told in any medium in the past 10 years”? No way.