The story within the story is one of the oldest formats in storytelling; probably the most famous were the stories that Scharezade spun for 1,001 nights to keep her and her sister alive in The Tales From Arabian Nights, yet to do it well requires probably more skill than just telling a story. First of all it means you have to be able to keep your audience interested in a minimum of two story lines, that of the storyteller, and that of the story the storyteller is telling.
The real difficulty is keeping interest alive in the story that has motivated the story telling. Of course there are exceptions, like in Coleridge’s “The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner,” where no one gives a rat’s ass about the wedding guest who the Mariner corners with his tale, but in general there needs to be some sort of dynamic connecting the two threads of story that sustains our interest in the overall story. Otherwise the author runs the risk of her reader losing interest, or failing to keep track of, the reason for the story being told in the first place.
Of course one way is to have the storyteller recounting his own history, but that creates its own sets of challenges for an author. Coming up with a reason for the story to be told is of course important, but if the author has any intent of going on with the story, how well he is able to blend the past and the present in order to create interest in the future is just as necessary. There has to be something about the story being told that will convince a reader there is the potential for something interesting still to come for the current time period. While it’s interesting enough to find out the character’s history, there’s no real suspense involved as he or she are obviously going to come out of the story alive as they are the one telling it.
In the first book of his The Kingkiller Chronicle series, The Name Of The Wind, a DAW Books publication distributed by Penguin Canada being released as a mass market paperback on April 3, 2008, Patrick Rothfuss takes up just that challenge as he begins the story of Kvothe. As is the case with most fantasy books these days the setting is a world with basic agrarian technology where magic is used in place of science, and an ancient evil has faded into myth and memory.
Thankfully Rothfuss is a skilled enough writer that he is able to take the familiar components and make something fresh out of them by having his lead character deconstruct his own legend. Kvothe is living in disguise at the end of nowhere as the owner of a simple inn in a small village. For the year that he has owned the Wayfarer Inn he has kept to himself, barely interacting with his regulars. He serves them their meals and ales, and listens to their designated story teller tell the old tales of an earlier great hero and the evil race of demons that he fought known as the Chandrian.
Things haven’t been going that well in the world recently, and there’s talk of a third tithe this year as the King’s army has been embroiled in a nasty war that doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. Travelling on the road isn’t as safe as it used to be, and folk have actually begun taking to locking and bolting their doors at night. Still it comes as a nasty surprise when one of their number is attacked by a nasty spider-like creature that killed his horse and would have killed him had it not been crushed by his dying horse’s collapsing on it. Yet that nasty is nothing more than a portend of what’s to come. Sure that where there was one there would be more of the spider like creatures, Kvothe sets out to destroy the remainder.
In the process of doing so he rescues a traveller, who as bad luck would have it, was tracking down a rumour that Kvothe was to be found in this part of the world. Devan Lochees is a scribe, a chronicler of stories, events, and natural history. In his own way he is as famous as Kvothe and goes simply by the name of his profession, Chronicler. Needless to say it’s his presence that is the catalyst for Kvothe to begin the recounting of his life’s story; of which the first seventeen years or so take up the balance of The Name Of The Wind.
It’s pretty much the typical “hero’s” upbringing: a child prodigy with a gift for learning, he grew up on the road with his parent’s troupe of travelling players. Although they were what sounds like that world’s equivalent of gypsies, the troupe were skilled enough that they had the patronage of a member of the nobility and were treated well. It was during this time that the two things that would define Kvothe’s life occurred; he met his first teacher who introduced him to the workings of magic, and he found out that the Chandrian really existed and weren’t just in old tales to frighten children with.
Kvothe’s father was a master musician and had been working on a song based on the legends of the Chandrian for years. One evening when the troupe made camp early, Kovthe went for a walk in the woods for an hour and came back to fine the caravans in flames and everybody dead. The Chandrian were not pleased with his father’s attempts to capture them in song and exacted their vengeance. It was only by fortune that he escapes them when he returns and finds them still there.
Driven by thoughts of revenge he stays alive for three years begging and thieving on the streets of a city, until he finally works up the nerve to do what his teacher wanted him to do; apply at the University to continue his education in that world’s version of magic. It’s during his time at University that his legend is born. One of the best parts of the book is when we hear the local storytellers telling their versions of events we’ve heard Kvothe recounting to the Chronicler. You could barely tell that they were talking about the same thing; in fact, if it weren’t for the name being the same, you’d never know.
Rothfuss is a skilled story teller himself and wisely gives us breaks in Kvothe’s story telling periodically to bring us back to the present day. Each time he does he increases the air of foreboding that he had established at the beginning of the book that portend it’s not just Chronicler who is going to catch up with Kvothe, but other, more otherworldly creatures as well. As Rothfuss has Kvothe telling his story he is feeding us the information about his character, his abilities, and how his desire for knowledge of the Chandrian continued to consume him during his early months at the University.
As Kvothe is laying the groundwork for his war with the Chandrian, Rothfuss is leading us to believe that some sort of fell creatures are seeking out Kvothe, and his worst battles are still to come. We still don’t know the story of what happened during the balance of the intervening years that lie between the present and when Kvothe was still in University as The Name Of The Wind comes to an end. In fact like all good story tellers Rothfuss has actually generated more questions than answered questions with his opening book.
We still know as little about the Chandrain as before Kvothe went to University, but we do know that as a student in university he was still a prodigy with a gift for learning magic quickly, and might even be capable of learning how to speak the names of elements in the right way to control them–hence the book’s title. We also know that whatever peace was to be found at the Wayfarer Inn has been shattered and not just by the arrival of Chronicler.
The Name Of The Wind is a fast-paced and entertaining first book of what promises to be an exciting series. Patrick Rothfuss has woven a nice net of past, present, and potentials to catch our interest and whet our appetite to find out what the future holds; both for the younger Kvothe, and his present day self as well.