Some notes on style in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

I’m attempting to read Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind for the
Liverpool One Science Fiction and Fantasy Bookclub.

I’m finding it hardgoing. Perhaps some quotes from the text will help clarify why.

He pulled more beer for Jake, Shep, and Old Cob, moving with an air of bustling efficiency.

There’s a general overuse of “bustling” to describe a) any scene with a pub, and especially b) how good Kvothe is at running a pub. (The phrase reminds me, for some reason, of Dan Brown’s “moved briskly about” as dissected neatly by LanguageLog.)

Old Cob tucked away his bowl of stew with the predatory efficiency of a lifetime bachelor.

Here’s some more “efficiency” on the other hand. I quite like the idea of “predatory efficiency” though I’m not sure it applies so well to a lifetime bachelor’s attitude to stew. “Mercenary efficiency” might work better – presumably he normally pays for the stews, as opposed to hunting them down.

One at a time, Kote wiped their bottoms clean of the strawberry wine and set them on the bar between himself and Chronicler, as if they might defend him.

I’m really worried about “wiped their bottoms”: I just don’t understand if it’s deliberately jarring, or just careless, I’m assuming the latter. I don’t understand what the metaphor of defence means either: the Chronicler is unarmed, and not a threat.

For a moment fierce longing and regret warred across his face.

Then they were gone, replaced by the weary face of an innkeeper[...]

replaced” is very odd: it’s the same face, just without the emotions waging battle across his face. And why “an innkeeper”? It’s the same innkeeper whose face Kote was wearing before his emotions declared war on each other. On his face.

Kvothe had stopped speaking, and while he seemed to be staring down at his folded hands, in reality his eyes were far away.

In reality, they were still in his head.

There was a fleshy thump followed by a slightly pained chortle in my father’s baritone.

Is this a eupehemism for Kvothe’s mother having just kicked the father in the testicles?

She was a widow, fairly wealthy, fairly young, and to my inexperienced eyes, fairly attractive. The official story was that she needed someone to tutor her young son. However, anyone who saw the two of them walking together knew the truth behind that story.

“Official” is a weak, bureaucratic word. Worse, this paragraph makes no sense at all: what does “the two of them” mean? After some parsing, you realise that this is the widow plus the character mentioned in the previous paragraph.

“Semantics,” she shrugged.

People in pre-technological societies are always using Eng.Lit. terminology as putdowns.

Several oddly structured sentences make me wonder whether he had an editor…

My mother swatted him, then caught one of his hands in her own and unfolded it for Ben to see.

Her own hand? Or his?

He brought an earthenware jug up from underneath the bar, then set it on the bar with a hollow sound.

The hollow sound though comes from the jug, not from his action.

And there are continuous strange metaphors that could be poetic, in that they’re surprising and vivid. But good poetry has metaphors that are strange but somehow, viscerally, true despite (or even better) because of that strangeness. So consider:

His eyes were wild around the edges, like a skittish horse.

What did his eyes look like? Were they likely to rear up out of their sockets (perhaps in order to be far away in reality?) Or does it mean that he‘s metonymically skittish? Or that his eyes are like horse’s eyes? Are they only wild around the edges (i.e. red? Or fluttering with nerves/lack of sleep?)

a sword in its pure form. It was slender and graceful. It was deadly as a sharp stone beneath swift water.

This is a really interesting one. A sharp stone is deadly if you hit someone with it of course, but under swift water suggests instead slipping in a river and cracking your head on the stone. Accidental drowning is certainly deadly, but it is of course accidental, without agency, in exactly the way that a sword isn’t.

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.

That’s a beautiful phrase. But does it mean anything? How many things do you need to know before you can move with a subtle certainty? Which things? Surely “how to move with subtle certainty” would be just one thing. Precision in movement could alternatively come from martial arts, or dance, or theatre. Possibly from many of those, but maybe not. And he could know arbitrarily many things of other types (accountancy, botany, the anthropology of chimpanzee troupes, …) without this affecting how he moved at all.

I suspect that the opening prologue is meant to be poetic, and has been worked on to that purpose. It doesn’t work for me though:

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

Starting the novel with “It was night again” suggests that a major theme would be the cyclical nature of time, moving between day and night. If that’s the case, then this is nicely poetic. I haven’t yet seen any evidence for that, so I’ll reserve judgement.

The “silence of three parts” sounds like it’s meant to be clever, rather than actually being clever.

But never mind the prologue, what about the publisher’s blurb?

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

The “I was expelled from University” slightly disrupts the portentous epic boasting, making it sound more like petulant student boasting. Then some precocious boasting about how clever he was to get in so young.

But what’s “You may have heard of me” doing? (Apart from breaking up the boasting with some false modesty, I mean.) In the context of the story, he’s telling this to an audience who already knows who he is. This might be explained by the fact that he’s not actually telling the story to the scribe. Though the scribe is himself a storyteller, (or the Chronicler) he’s not allowed to tell the story himself. Instead, Kvothe has the hubris to co-opt the poor scribe as a mere human dictaphone. Oh, and he’s going to check up on him too, to make sure he doesn’t dare edit the story, because he just taught himself shorthand in 20 minutes.

While we’re on the subject, you’d best not forget the stern reminder that he didn’t just grow up with a family of traveling minstrels! Oh no! He grew up with the Edema Ruh. Who are a family of traveling minstrels.

Apparently some people like the writing style:

prose is absurdly stunning, the type that makes me cry at its sheer beauty. (thebooksmugglers)

the sometimes ambiguous lines between poetry and prose begin to blur. (reviewstream)

Are these people on crack, or am I missing something? ;-)