In all art there is a necessary tension between the familiar and the new. The very act of creating a painting, a sculpture, a novel, or a song immerses the artist in conventions; if the conventions were not followed, how would we know we had encountered a work of art? For a writer of genre fiction, the conventional element is necessarily large, adding to the rules that define a novel further rules that define romance, detective, or fantasy.
I have been musing on this because I just read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, probably the most widely praised fantasy novel of 2007. I liked it, but I did not love it, and the reason I did not love it was that it felt to me a little too familiar. Of course it is not fair to expect a fantasy novelist to create something entirely new. I suspect that my own mood is part of the reason I did not like The Name of the Wind as much as some other readers did; lately I have been reading books of kinds I never read and listening to music by people I never heard of, in a quest for new and different things. And yet, you know, I have read several works of fantasy in the past decade that did feel original to me: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; Waterborn and The Briar King by Greg Keyes; Sabriel, by Garth Nix, an adolescent novel about a necromancer that is remarkably different from all other fantasy; Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy; and, of course, Harry Potter. So my standards of novelty are not impossible to meet. This story, though, which starts with a bunch of men eating stew in an inn and then proceeds through a caravan of impossibly talented gypsies and a band of ancient, evil demons to a university of magic where an impossibly talented young man dazzles the better professors, antagonizes the grouchy ones, makes friends and enemies, and falls in love with an amazingly desirable woman, didn't meet them.
The Name of the Wind has much to recommend it. The central character, Kvothe, is brave, resourceful, and witty. The world is rich. The evil demons are wicked and creepy. The university of magic has arcane traditions and a nicely insane headmaster. And so on. It is entertaining and I read it straight through. I plan to read the second book, when it comes out in paperback. But I don't know what the reviewer (cited on the back) was thinking when he said to "put it on the shelf beside The Lord of the Rings"; maybe he doesn't have any books by authors with names between R and T?
Rothfuss has a couple of weaknesses that bother me. For one, he doesn't seem to know anything about medieval or ancient history. Not that there is any special reason why a fantasy world has to be like medieval Europe, but it cuts into my suspension of disbelief when modern things are presented as if they were medieval commonplaces. (E.g., the tiny inn at the beginning has a bar, behind which the proprietor stands like a modern bartender; medieval inns had no such piece of furniture.) Worse, when he wants to impress us, Rothfuss tends to make things really big. Kvothe spends a few years as an orphan boy on the streets of a city, about which we are told little beyond that it is enormous: "It was too big, actually. It was immense. Seas of people, forests of buildings, roads wide as rivers." And so on. But I never figured out why it was there, what business its people did, who governed it, or what those forests of buildings actually looked like. Then there is the woman, Denna, who is praised to the sky and back to the abyss as the most beautiful and wonderful of beings but who seemed utterly unremarkable to me. She may be gorgeous, but she never says or does anything interesting, and I found her more annoying than anything else. She seemed to me like the enormous city, rendered amazing by hyperbole. Take away the superlatives, though, and there wasn't much to see.
One thing I liked was the conception of magic, which involves mental gymnastics like believing and disbelieving something at the same time, defined sources of energy, and "sympathy" of the old, neoplatonic kind. Another is the way Kvothe tries to track down his ancient demons through old songs and folktales. And, as I said, Kvothe himself is an impressive character. But on the shelf next to Tolkien it does not belong.