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The Wise Man’s Fear, By Patrick Rothfuss

Flawed hero with the magic touch

Part of the point of novels of the fantastic is to tell the same stories over and over again, making them new, with characters that matter to us, and the invention less about what happens than how it happens. In the first volume of Patrick Rothfuss's trilogy, The Name of the Wind, his young hero Kvothe kills a dragon – but it is a dumb beast on a rampage, off its head on drugs. He only bothers because it has wandered into a town.

The scene has as much in common with Orwell's killing of an elephant as it does with St George. Without even the slightest element of burlesque, Rothfuss makes a world in which his hero learns to call down the lightning, or wanders off into a faerie world that is determinedly unromantic while at the same time passionately involving.

His powers, his music, his fighting skills all apparently taken from him or renounced, Kvothe is now a man in his thirties living quietly in hiding while the legends of his teen heyday run wild. A chronicler interviews him for the truth. As a boy, he is orphaned when his parents' troupe of players is butchered by immortal wizards for knowing too much; as an adolescent, he talks his way into the school where wizardry is taught. He is training himself for his revenge, and to track down the truth about beings who go to considerable trouble to wipe out any knowledge of them. Along the way, he is shipwrecked, seduced, put in charge of a detachment of bandit-hunters, and exiled from court.

The attractive thing about Rothfuss's young hero is that he is deeply fallible. In the frame narrative he is riddled with self-doubt and guilt over things we have yet to find out about, while in the body of the text he is a gifted, arrogant brat whose sharp tongue and temper often buy him more trouble than his intelligence and luck can get him out of. Kvothe nurses a passionate fondness for Deena, a mysterious damaged girl whom Rothfuss makes as real as Kvothe without revealing any of her secrets. Minor characters are equally solid.

Nor does Rothfuss neglect the other expected aspects of the post-Tolkien epic fantasy. By hints and slow increments, stories, songs and fragments of language build up a sense of the tragic back story of a world which someone, perhaps our hero, has shattered beyond repair.