The Ballad of Dirk Oxenhammer: An Origin Story in Three Parts
Dirk Oxenhammer, veteran literary editor, sat back in his zebra-skin armchair and surveyed the pile of manila envelopes on his desk, each one adorned with a large red REJECTED! stamp. The exclamation mark wasn’t strictly necessary, but Dirk though it made the job a bit more fun. Sometimes he liked to imagine a loud buzzer went off every time he sentenced a manuscript to the trash pile. He’d have to see about getting one installed.
But for now, it was bourbon time.
Dirk opened the bottom drawer of his desk and selected a 92′ New Jersey Amber. He poured it into one of those round glasses with the flat bottoms that he’d seen on Mad Men and lit a cigar, letting the smoke curl around the glass in a way that seemed particularly gritty and hard-boiled. It was at times like this, when the office was empty and the crushed dreams of a dozen hopeful authors lay before him, that Dirk truly loved his job. He thought of himself as that giant dog from the stories, the one with three heads, guarding the gates of Writer Hell. And by God, he took his job seriously. No one was getting past him without meeting his impeccable standards.
Dirk was imagining himself plucking scruffy college dropouts from the ground and tearing them in half with his jaws when he noticed a corner of manila peeking out from underneath the latest issue of Gun-Fishing magazine. He froze, his glass halfway to his lips.
He could just stamp it and throw it on the pile. No one could prove he hadn’t read it. It was probably terrible anyway.
Dirk sighed and put down his glass. The Oxenhammer family name didn’t have a whole lot of glory attached to it, but they always finished what they started. You kept shooting until the screaming stopped. His grandfather used to say that. No one would ever tell Dirk what he did for a living.
He picked the envelope up, wincing at its considerable girth. There was a little sticky note attached to the front, no doubt from some underling trying to sway the judgement of The Hammer. Dirk swept it imperiously from the envelope with the back of his hand, causing it to flutter onto his desk instead of flying dramatically across the room like he had planned. He pulled the manuscript out and glanced at the title page.
The Name of The Wind
Before I summarize my thoughts on The Name of The Wind I think it’s important to remind everyone of how this book has been received by critics and fantasy fandom at large. You may mentally insert appropriate music, possibly something like this. Names have been omitted to protect the tasteless.
“Best Books of the Year” (2007) – Publishers Weekly – Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror
“This is why I love fantasy so much. After a recent string of okay fantasy novels, a couple of good ones but nothing to get really excited about, I’ve rediscovered my passion thanks to this book. I’m so impressed, and so in love, I can’t begin to describe it.”
“One of the reviews I read compared it to The Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings, saying that the book was equal to the best of fantasy written thus far. Well let me tell you, this doesn’t stand alongside the fantasy greats, it knocks them off the shelves.”
“But when you read this book, you’re immersed in Kvothe’s world. The cultures and geography and characters and details, everything is amazingly well developed.” […..] ” If you’re a worldbuilding junkie, you should enjoy this one.”
“I know many people have praised Rothfuss’ prose before me and I can only agree with them. It was stunningly good. I simply loved reading Rothfuss. Especially the little poems in the book and that comes from someone who rarely reads or enjoys poetry.”
“Now, The Name of the Wind isn’t something you just plow through. It’s not just some McDonald’s you picked up to satiate the appetite. You have to saver it, like a fine wine or my favorite, a delectable piece of Lindt chocolate.”
“As soon as I finished page 722, I turned back and started reading page 1. By far the best fantasy I’ve read in years. Depth and richness unparalleled since Tolkien. Greatly superior to Rowlings and Jordan in creating a believable world, even down to the laws governing it’s particular brand of magic.”
“It’s a great piece of fiction that I feel is really original. The amount of effort that went into this particular book from the research I’ve done was outstanding. The author really put it all into it and then some.”
“THIS BOOK IS AWSOME!!!
I’ll show you how good this book is … in two ways .. one way for the girls and one way for the boys …
GIRLS … this book is AS GOOD AS:
Christina Aguilera’s Closet”
“This one starts out slow, but picks up tremendously around page 80, again at page 200, and is addictive and impossible to put down by page 300.”
“This is what fantasy is supposed to be. There is nothing I can say that can really do it justice.”
“What elegant writing, what a wonderful, rich, sweeping story that is so epic and complex it defies any thought I would have of trying to summarize.”
“This outstanding fantasy debut from Patrick Rothfuss exceeds all expectations. Tolkien fans will be enthralled, Harry Potter fans will rejoice, and even non-fantasy readers will be held spellbound by the captivating story of Kvothe”
And so on. I would like to emphasize that I didn’t write any of these myself or alter them in any way.
What really makes me feel as though these reviews must be describing a different book is the fact that people keep praising Rothfuss’ writing as beautiful and rich and complex even the prose in the book is workmanlike at best and laughably overblown and amateurish at worst. I can’t remember a single sentence or line of dialogue that struck me as eloquently written or memorable in any way. Reading this book is like wading through lukewarm oatmeal, except some of the oatmeal is actually piranhas.
I have a checklist in my head of common amateur writing tropes, built up over years of trying to read first-time YA authors during the post-Twilight boom. The Name of The Wind hits damn near every one of them, from the self-important purple prose to the need to pair every line of dialogue with an action to the fact that everyone won’t stop fucking grinning.
Let’s talk about Kvothe. Oh, is there ever a lot to talk about.
Right off the bat Rothfuss joins the seemingly endless ranks of mediocre writers who don’t have a grasp on how to write young characters. “Old” Kvothe in the framing story acts like a world-weary 50 year old despite being around 25 or so while 15 year old Kvothe acts like, well, a 25 year old, confident and well spoken and easily able to navigate the world of adults as though he’s been doing it for years. What’s more everyone else acts like Kvothe is far older than his given age as well. Kvothe is supposed to be exceptionally young to be in wizard school but this never comes up. No one treats him differently or looks down on him apart from Ambrose and Not-Snape, who are just irrationally jealous of his talents, he has no trouble socializing or fitting in.
This is far from the only time Kvothe’s actual persona differs wildly from what he tells us about himself. Throughout the story much is made of how Kvothe is inexperienced and shy around women, as helpless as a baby lost in a forest, yet the second a woman appears he turns into a smooth-talking ladykiller seemingly moments away from acquiring a harem of adoring groupies. Rothfuss is simply having his cake and eating it, setting Kvothe up as awkward and inexperienced to appeal to his awkward and inexperienced audience, but unwilling to actually give Kvothe any flaws.
Kvothe does not change throughout the book. He’s more or less the same at ten as he is at fifteen, and at twenty-five, give or take some angst. His descent into numbness and grief on the streets of Tarbean is the only point at which his character seems to change, but that passes with such little fanfare that might as well not have happened.
There are other character In The Name of The Wind. It would be easy to forget, obscured as they are in the penumbra of Kvothe’s all-consuming shadow. They are two-dimensional automatons, existing solely in relation to Kvothe. Ambrose exists to hate him. Ben exists to teach him, and vanishes from the story as soon as his function is fulfilled. Denna exists to be in love with him. She has some sort of dark past but only so Kvothe can claim virtue by promising not to hurt her as she was hurt before. The Masters are there to praise Kvothe or hinder his progress as the plot demands. I have no sense of who these people are as people, no idea what their interests are or what their lives are like. They may as well cease to exist as soon as Kvothe leaves the room.
I can accept this kind of storytelling if the protagonist is sufficiently fascinating to carry the entire story on their shoulders, but Kvothe falls far short of meeting that requirement. I didn’t care about him at any point in the novel, nor do I care about him having finished it. Even the brief spark of sympathy Rothfuss garnered during the Tarbean sequence was extinguished when it became apparent how laughably maudlin and over the top the book’s idea of drama is.
In terms of story…. well, there is no story. The Name of The Wind doesn’t have a plot.
No, seriously. I’m not exaggerating at all, it really doesn’t. The book sets up the characters and scenarios it’s ostensibly going to be dealing with, spins its wheels for hundreds of pages with irrelevant side-stories that don’t have any purpose and then abruptly stops at a point no different from any other in the preceding chapters since Kvothe arrived at wizard school. Please try to tell me what the actual point of all of this was. Kvothe didn’t grow as a character, he didn’t learn anything or do anything, he’s no closer to his goal of defeating the Chandrian than he was five minutes after his parents were murdered. The Chandrian themselves may as well not have been in the story. Their only purpose is to motivate Kvothe to eventually end up at the University- something he was seemingly inevitably going to do anyway- and then prompt a trip to Trebon that serves no purpose. They show up once for about five pages and then are never seen and barely mentioned again after that.
Four things happen in the plot of this book: Kvothe’s parents are murdered, he goes to wizard school, he finds a way back into he Archives, and in the present-day story Chronicler finds him at the Waystone. Those are the only events that actually move the plot forward. Oh, there are certainly things filling in the rest of the space. Characters go to places and say things. But it’s all pointless. It’s all quirky conversations and inane banter and stabs at humour and moon-eyed swooning between Kvothe and Denna and some bullshit about a dragon. And Kvothe Needs Money. Let us not forget that in what is supposedly an epic fantasy novel the protagonist spends a good third of the story trying to pay off his student loan.
I made a joke early on wondering if Rothfuss was trying to hit an arbitrary page number for some reason, but as the book went on I started to seriously suspect that this might be true. Despite the gossamer-thin wispiness of the plot Rothfuss feels the need to fortify it with vast, heaving buttresses of conversations and world building and travel sequences. Nothing can be allowed to happen until it has been bracketed by chapter upon chapter of the characters farting around doing nothing of consequence. Only then can the narrative inch forward with the pace of a wooden block sliding down a 179° incline.
The Name of The Wind is a book defined mostly by negative space, by characters not doing things. Kvothe spends three years not going to the University or trying to find a way out of Tarbean. Then he doesn’t try to find out more about the Chandrian or get back into the Archives. He learns about the Underthing and a secret route into the Archives but waits until the end of the book before deciding to enter the former to look for the latter. In Trebon he learns that a mysterious Chandrian-related artifact may be hidden in the burned out farmhouse and proceeds to spend about ten chapters not going inside for no obvious reason. If the point of all this is to show us that the origins of myths are dull, tedious stories about teenagers sitting around in fields then mission fucking accomplished I guess.
The other thing most reviewers talk about, apart from the sterling prose, are the “meta” elements of the story, wherein Rothfuss deconstructs fantasy tropes and examines the interplay between myth and reality. Both have been done before and both are executed here with all the skill and self-assured bravado of a high schooler trying to emulate their favorite novelist. Instead of organically bringing up situations in which we can appreciate the differences between the reality of Kvothe’s life and myths that grew around him Rothfuss has scenes- sometimes entire sub-plots- which seem to exist only so that two-dimensional NPCs can later make up stories about them. In the deconstruction department Rothfuss tilts at windmills that have lain broken and shattered for decades, frequently accompanied by having Kvothe flat out state that the scene we just read was Not Like It Would Be In A Story. Sometimes flash-forward chapters are devoted entirely to the characters sitting around talking about how what we just read was Not Like It Would Be In A Story.
Except that this is a story. A boring, plodding, meandering story populated by two dimensional shadows and the burning orb of flaming ego in whose light they are permitted to exist.
Dirk sat slumped at his desk, his fifth quart of bourbon in front of him. The night was quiet outside his office window save for the occasional gunshot and associated ambulance siren. Even the taxis had turned in. The city was asleep. The clock on his desk read 3:30 am.
For the first time since his days as a gung-ho student at Literary Editor Academy Dirk had read through an entire manuscript in one sitting. Not because he was enjoying it- dear God, no- but because he had been gripped by a deep, existential yearning from the first page. Who would write a book like this? Who would ever want to read it? He picked up the author photo that the Rothfuss kid had for some reason included with his manuscript. It offered Dirk no clues, although maybe he was just having trouble getting past the gnome outfit.
Dirk leaned forward and plucked the yellow sticky note from his desk, for the first time in his long career eager for the opinion of one of his peons.
Kvothe – real “Nice Guy”
Should be popular with the Reddit crowd
Dirk furrowed his brow. He guessed Kvothe was kind of a nice guy, but what did that have to with anything? And what was a red it crowd? Maybe it was supposed to be “read it” crowd, as in the readers? He couldn’t imagine any of the people who lined up in droves to buy his company’s bestsellers like Knife of Blades: The Bladeknife Chronicles and Throne of Kings: book one of the Throne of Kings Cycle going for this.
Dirk turned warily to the computer on his desk and blew the dust from the monitor. He didn’t like new technology. If typewriters were good enough for Shakespeare they were good enough for him. But sometimes you just needed answers. He turned the machine on, clicked through the explosion of porn ads that filled his screen ever since he had downloaded that helpful Snailware toolbar for his browser, and typed Reddit Nice Guy into the search box.
Alone in his dark office, he began to read.
While reading The Name of The Wind I frequently found myself thinking about how I’d tell the story differently. Now it’s easy for me, a non-writer, to sit here and lecture a published author on how he should write his own story, so let’s get started.
I’ve already written at length about why I think the framing story doesn’t work. Out it goes, replaced by Chronicler’s biographical notes written after Kvothe’s death (although I fully admit I could change my mind on this depending on how the last book plays out). After a brief opening chapter to set things up we get straight int Kvothe’s backstory. It’s much the same as the real version, except the Edema Ruh are changed up a bit. First of all they’re named something less dorky. Literally anything would do- you could call them Wordsketeers or Trundlesmiths and it would be better than the name Rothfuss gave them. They’re not rich elitists in this version, but poor itinerant actors who are educated and intelligent but forced to live just above the poverty line by prejudice that prevents them from holding any other profession. This is where Kvothe gets his scrappy survival skills, rather than on the streets of Tarbean. Ben comes along and teaches a slightly older (like 15 or 16) Kvothe for awhile then the troupe gets Chandrian’d like in the real story, with one crucial difference- Kvothe learns part of the story his parents were killed for knowing, perhaps by eavesdropping on them, enough to indicate that the first piece of the puzzle is in the Archives of wizard school. Also the Chandrian purposely decide to spare Kvothe, deciding he’s not a threat to them.
In this version the Chandrian are a semi-known quantity instead of shadowy mythical figures. Dark forces are at work wrecking shit and killing people in the countryside and it’s known that some ordinary humans are conspiring with them, either for promises of wealth and power or to spare them and their families from some sort of coming apocalypse. The exact nature of the entities behind all of this isn’t known, and different religions ascribe it to their particular Satan analogue or the work of demons.
Straight after this Kvothe goes to the University and gets admitted as he does in the book, through a mixture of intelligence and trickiness. In this version instead of giving him three talents the Masters agree to continue funding his education as long as he meets high academic standards, and rather than being a once in history exception this is a rare but recognized incentive given to talented students in Kvothe’s situation. Also, Kvothe accidentally lets slip during the interview that he knows something about the Chandrian.
Once in wizard school Kvothe socializes for a while and makes friends, having trouble fitting in due to his age. He meets Denna in Imre and the two tentatively strike up a friendship, but he’s hesitant due to his unfamiliarity with wider society outside the troupe and his status as a Not-Edema Ruh. Denna meanwhile seems reluctant to become attached to people for unknown reasons. They’re both involved in the local music scene and admire each other’s talents but don’t really get close initially. During his time at wizard school Kvothe learns magic. Not this over-complicated sympathy stuff, it’s just magic. There can be super special name magic as well, but we’re told early on what it is and what it’s about, and Kvothe learns it in a way that makes sense instead of discovering that the power was in him all along.
During all of this Kvothe steadily homes in on the book his parents were looking for, but on the cusp of finding it the Archives are attacked by a seemingly supernatural force. Kvothe is nearly killed and the book is stolen. The Chandrian have come to kill Kvothe to tie up their loose end, which he surmises means that they learned that he knew more than he was letting on from one of the Masters or someone close to them- either way there’s a Chandrian associated elements at wizard school and Kvothe has to figure out who it is and find out what the Chandrian are trying to hide.
And then nothing else that was in the book happens. There’s no endless wasting time at the University, no getting banned from the Archives and no fucking dragon. The plot is focused like a goddamn laser on Kvothe’s quest for revenge against the Chandrian and nothing else. Kvothe’s legend can grow and all that shit, although I’d just as soon toss the entire concept, but it has to be believable and organic. Maybe you could have short (short) intermissions where Devan tells us stories about Kvothe and we can try to spot for ourselves where the real version and the myth differs. And the book doesn’t fucking tell us where the two versions differ, we have to work it out.
The biggest change would be that the version of Kvothe we see most of the time in the real book- the suave badass- is the mythical Kvothe while the “true” version of the character is more grounded in reality and sympathetic. Honestly, I can’t even think of what specific changes you’d need to make to the character to achieve this. My overwhelming impression of Kvothe, as much as I have one at all, is a vague sense of annoyance ad irritation.
More than anything, in my ideal hypothetical Name of The Wind things would happen, frequently and with gusto. It would be a smorgasbord of events and phenomena, a medley of occurrences. You wouldn’t be able to move for all the things happening.
Now I’m not saying that my version of the story would win the Pulitzer price and top worldwide best seller lists, but it totally would.
Dirk stood at the window of his office and watched as the first light of morning washed over the city. He was a different man to the one who had opened that envelope a lifetime ago. What he saw on the Reddit had changed him.
He saw the Nice Guys. The PUAs. The MRAs. A great roiling mass of adolescent entitlement and adult anger. To think that such forces could exist just below the trembling membrane of a reality that until moments ago had seemed so solid, so unbreakable. They stirred in the darkness, hungry for light. They were coming. And this character, Kvothe, would be their king. No- their Prophet.
It was clear to Dirk that a terrible burden had been placed on his shoulders. Down one path lay the promise of the hard earned dollars of lonely, frustrated nerds filling his bank account, at the possible cost of the very fabric of civilization. Down the other path lay safety. Security. Gambling debts. A different man- a weaker man- would take his own life on the spot to escape the torment of such a choice. But Dirk Oxenhammer was no such man.
With trembling hands he reached for his phone and dialled a number. The call went through on the second ring. Only silence greeted him on the other side. Dirk’s underlings knew to be available at all hours of the night, and that they didn’t need to bother speaking to follow orders. He opened his mouth to say the words, his tongue dry, his voice hoarse.
“Publish the Rothfuss book. No edits.”
He threw the phone to the ground without bothering to hang up and looked at the first wave of early morning commuters swarming like ants below him, completely unaware of the forces that had just been unleashed into their world.
So why did The Name of The Wind turn out so bad?
You’re probably expecting me to say something about Rothfuss being a talentless hack, but that’s not it. In fact I don’t really blame Rothfuss at all. I blame the fans.
Let me explain. I read a lot of bad webcomics, mostly
to make myself feel good about my own art and writing skills for research and I’ve noticed a trend in bad webcomics: they tend to also be the first webcomic the author has ever put out. Because everyone sucks at first. Doesn’t matter if it’s writing or art or zero-gravity topiary, if it’s your first time doing it you’re going to vomit out an amateurish mess. That’s fine. It will be a stepping stone to something better. Unless you then put it out on the Internet, where it somehow attracts a following. People flock to your forums to sing you praises, they buy your crappy home mode merchandise. Maybe you even start making enough money to live off full time. And suddenly, there’s no reason to get better. You’re already on top. And what should be a stepping stone turns into the end point of your progress as a creator.
Now Rothfuss didn’t self-publish online, but the situation is broadly similar. This is clearly an amateur work (I don’t think I need to present any further evidence to convince you of that) that somehow got published and was received ludicrously well by a great number of people, most of whom were presumably suffering from blunt force trauma to the head while reading it. It should never have seen the cold light of day outside of Rothfuss’ hard drive, but it did, and the world is a worse place because of it.
To make matters worse the book was written over quite a long stretch of time. Rothfuss says seven years but I suspect he was at least mentally arranging the story in his head long before that, possibly back as a teenager. The book goes through several different “eras” each with notably different writing styles and influences. I’m not going to try and put them in a precise chronological order or anything, but here’s an overview of the different geological strata of The Name of The Wind:
1) The framing story. Grittier and darker than anything else in the book, it’s the most well plotted and paced but also has the most hysterically bad writing, possibly as a result of trying too hard to be literary as opposed to lack of experience. Most clearly influenced by George R.R. Martin.
2) Kvothe’s childhood and Tarbean. The best part of the book in my opinion, with some rather nice imagery that makes me suspect this was written later than the rest. Reads like a mix of Harry Potter and Wheel of Time leaning more toward the latter, particularly in the myth infodumps.
3) Wizard School and the dragon business in Trebon. This is where the book goes totally off the rails. The tone is much lighter and more YAish than what came before it and the dire pacing makes me suspect this is a reworked version of something Rothfuss came up with in his teens. Fully influenced by Harry Potter, by way of Earthsea.
The problem with The Name of The Wind (okay, one of the problems with the Name of The Wind) is that it’s such a mishmash of different elements and influences working at cross-purposes. The book has no idea what it wants to be and so most of the time ends up being nothing.
Despite the many, many words I’ve devoted to ripping this book apart I didn’t hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand erupting volcanoes. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, or even the worst fantasy book I’ve ever read. It’s just deeply boring and mediocre, inducing such frustration in me mainly due to the number of people who keep insisting it’s not.
I think that’s several thousand more words about The Name of The Wind than it deserves. I’m going to take a week or two off from blogging then jump straight into The Wise Man’s Fear, which is apparently longer and hated vehemently even by people who loved the first book.