Two numbers—100/300—slither like a repeating mantra through the minds of all unpublished novelists as they open notebooks or laptops and approach the daily wrangle with words. These two numbers represent the Golden Rule oft recited by agents and publishers: debut novels must not exceed 100,000 words/300 pages if the author wants to see her/his art published (and damn it we do). And yet, at over a quarter million words and more than 600 pages Patrick Rothfuss’s first novel, THE NAME OF THE WIND, debuted at #11 on the New York Times Best Seller list.
The legions of hopeful novelists watching this happen back in 2007 might have been thinking, No fair! He broke the rules! But rules don’t exist in a vacuum. Successful literary agents and editors make money because they know what works and what sells and what sells big.
Rothfuss is obviously a renegade. A non-conformist. Like Thoreau, Picasso, Woolf. But then again, that’s what great artists do—create works that are so brilliant and profound and surprising they make you forget the rules. So how did Rothfuss do it?
Evidence Submission #1: Sublime Storytelling
THE NAME OF THE WIND is an epic escape told in the voice of Kote, an innkeeper in a quiet town. When a visitor named Chronicler is attacked by a swarm of spider-like creatures and Kote rescues him, it’s revealed that Kote is really the legendary Kvothe, a powerful arcanist, swordsman and musician. Kvothe agrees to tell Chronicler the story of his life over the span of three days. THE NAME OF THE WIND covers the first day of storytelling. It begins with Kvothe’s childhood as a brilliant young boy living with his parents in a troupe of traveling actors. He is mentored by an old man, an arcanist, who teaches him arcanist theories and practices, which include the sciences: botany, astronomy, anatomy, etc., and also the more magical subjects of alchemy and sympathy. When Kvothe is twelve, the troupe is attacked by a band of demons known as the Chandrian who murder the entire troupe including Kvothe’s parents. Alone in the forest, Kvothe teaches himself to play his father’s lute, then travels to a nearby city and becomes a beggar and thief, a child of the streets. After two years he escapes this life and talks his way into the University to study to be an arcanist. On the road there he meets and falls for Denna, a mysterious, dark-haired young woman. Kvothe intends to use the University’s archives to read about the Chandrian so he can avenge his parents. As Kvothe learns new skills in healing, metallurgy and sympathy, conflicts arise, and his goals continue to be thwarted by his crippling poverty as well as his quickly acquired nemeses—the wealthy student, Ambrose, and the petty, insecure Master Hemme.
The story is packed with fantastical elements readers of speculative fiction crave—magic and spells and imaginary creatures. But each element is taken a step beyond the typical genre trope. For example, the dragon isn’t a dragon but a drug-addicted draccus (think vegan dragon).
Evidence Submission #2: WORK!
In an interview with Dustin Kenall for The SF Site in April 2008, Rothfuss was asked if he expected his debut novel to achieve such resounding early success. He replied:
Rothfuss wrote the original novel as one gargantuan tome entitled THE SONG OF FLAME AND THUNDER, which encompassed all three days of Kvothe’s tale of his life. The publisher, DAW Books, split the original story into three books and called the trilogy the Kingkiller Chronicle. (The second book, THE WISE MAN’S FEAR was published in March 2011; the third book has not yet been released).
THE NAME OF THE WIND is the work of a manic reviser. Rothfuss’s process of writing/rewriting includes giving the manuscript to 60-80 readers and then incorporating their feedback into the work. He has been a student of the genre since before he could read. But the tale doesn’t take the easy road that the fantasy genre offers writers, allowing the fantastical elements and complicated plot line to do the work of keeping the reader engaged. Like Le Guin and Tolkien, Rothfuss draws the reader into the story from the first sentence with his poetic language. Which brings us to:
Evidence Submission #3: Sublime Moments of Literary Art
This story doesn’t start off like a typical fantasy novel. The single page Prologue is a prose poem about three kinds of silence. And like a poem’s closing stanza, the Epilogue is an echo of the beginning, repeating the first and last paragraphs of the opening:
There is room in this story for lyricism. And for the small moments that enrich a story. One intriguing character is Auri, a young woman, previously a student, who was mentally broken by the rigors of the University. She lives in the tunnels that run underneath the school. Kvothe slowly earns her trust by leaving food for her in the courtyard. They become friends and give each other presents. Their dialogue is random and rich and symbolic, again, like the lines of a poem.
Auri: I brought you a feather with the spring wind in it, but since you were late…you get a coin instead…It will keep you safe at night. As much as anything can, that is...
Kvothe: I’ve got some tomatoes, beans, and something special…Sea salt...
Auri: Why this is lovely, Kvothe. What lives in the salt?...
Kvothe: The dreams of fish…And sailor’s songs.
There are other gorgeous passages, especially when Kvothe is playing the lute, where the cadence and word choice lengthen the scene and immerse the reader fully within the character’s experience.
The only clunker in this story is Kvothe’s love interest, Denna. Throughout the novel she remains a mildly irritating enigma. Kvothe’s interactions with her are fuzzed over with clichéd language rendering Denna as a static and objectified character, a blurry camera shot of a female lead in an old movie. By the end of the story Kvothe (and thus the reader) knows no more about her than he did in their first scene together. She seems to be either an ornament on another boy’s arm or doing something ditzy like randomly stuffing unknown sticky black substances into her mouth.
The fan base of the Kingkiller Chronicle continues to expand. In October 2015 Rothfuss announced on his blog that he’d signed a deal with Lionsgate to make the Kingkiller Chronicle into a movie, TV series and video game. But Rothfuss is not one to hoard his good fortune. Every year at this time he promotes his charity, Worldbuilders.
In a Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast on Wired.com hosted by David Barr Kirtley, Rothfuss talks about his philanthropy:
Quotes by Thoreau, Tolkien and Picasso from Goodreads: Quotes About Literature