Friday, 18 March 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, Kvothe the Kingkiller. He is a legend but the real man is an enigma. A man named Chronicler is trying to find out the truth behind the legend by convincing Kvothe to tell him his life story, a task so long it will take three days to complete.


On the second day, Kvothe relates more of his time at the Commonwealth University, his ongoing feud with another student named Ambrose and his increasingly proficient studies in various areas. He also tells of his time spent in Vintas, serving a nobleman seeking to woo a lady, and learning the arts of combat in far Ademre. But how much of Kvothe's story is truth and how much is his own fabrication?

The Wise Man's Fear is the sequel to The Name of the Wind and the second in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. Since the trilogy was originally one extremely long novel split into three parts, The Wise Man's Fear has little preamble and not much of the climax. It starts, we follow the story for a time, and then it ends with little resolved. For a novel that is 1,000 pages long in hardcover, that should be a fairly damning comment.

Rothfuss's saving grace is his immense writing skill. He could make the telephone directory sound warm and interesting, and whilst the book is extremely long most of the chapters are short and snappy. The narrative is divided into two distinct sections, basically Kvothe in the University and Kvothe out in the world, and these sections are themselves fairly episodic. Whilst Kvothe's hunt for information about the Chandrian, the mysterious creatures that killed his family, provides a narrative spine of sorts, sometimes dozens of chapters pass without this plot element being as much as mentioned.

As a result The Wise Man's Fear feels less like a novel and more like a collection of tightly linked short stories (a feeling added to by the fact that one episode in the novel, The Road to Levinshir, was previously published as a separate short story almost a decade ago). This dichotomy - a very episodic book presented as a single novel - creates problems for pacing and consistency, with some of the episodes and stories being fascinating and others being tedious, whilst several more interesting-sounding incidents (like Kvothe standing trial for a misdemeanour) are skipped over in a couple of paragraphs. The Name of the Wind suffered from this as well, such as the incongruous and dull draccus incident towards the end of the book, but due to its much greater length The Wise Man's Fear is even more prone to it. Kvothe's dalliance with a famous Fae temptress goes on for far too long and winds up feeling a bit like the porn version of Tom Bombadil, whilst Kvothe's training montage with the Klingon Aiel Dothraki Vikings of the far north-east is just plain dull. Those who found Kvothe insufferable and Gary Stu-esque in the first novel will likely plain hate him here, as he picks up a ton more skills (including unarmed and armed combat, more magical skills and several more languages) with ease.

But Rothfuss does seem to be more overtly pulling the wool over the reader's eyes here. Kvothe reports on his badass fighting skills but then in a 'present' incident is unable to effectively defend himself from attack. Is this because he overrated his combat abilities, or because he's rusty, or because he deliberately holds back? The reader is invited to decide. Anomalies in Kvothe's story are also pointed out by Chronicler, and Kvothe admits to occasionally sprucing up his story. He's not exactly an unreliable narrator on the scale of Severian in The Book of the New Sun, but Rothfuss is at least letting the reader know that Kvothe himself might not be the best person to tell his tale, but he's all we've got to go on.


Elsewhere, plot elements are carefully alluded to rather than being spelt out, such as the motivations and identity of Denna's mysterious employer, or the relationship between Kvothe and a minor character that Kvothe himself is totally oblivious to. There is an impressive degree of subtlety running through this brick-thick tome that will no doubt raise questions and discussions that will keep fantasy forums busy until the final volume is released.

Rothfuss's powers of prose and characterisation remain highly impressive. The writing is rich and atmospheric, setting the scene perfectly, and Rothfuss has a keen eye for detail, humour and warmth (though in this book slightly more undercut by bitterness and cynicism), but those hoping for the story to explode into life, become bigger and more epic, will be disappointed. In a way Rothfuss is writing an anti-epic fantasy, with the focus narrowly on one character and the ordinary events that have been inflated out of all proportion. This forces the reader to keep downplaying expectations, since Rothfuss isn't playing the same game as a lot of other epic fantasy authors.

The Wise Man's Fear (****) is a difficult book to review, as it's well-written, sometimes compulsively page-turning and features some extremely well-played and subtle storytelling. On other, briefer, occasions it's tediously dull, cloying and prone to attacks of purple prose (particularly in the frisky fairy section). The book is also monstrously overlong and could have been split into two or three more focused, shorter books without too much of a problem. But Rothfuss is too good a writer to let the book's many issues sink it, and the book ends with the reader left wanting to know what happens next, which is the key thing. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

14 comments:

RobB said...

Good review Adam though you hit up on the one thing I didn't quite process until now - the episodic nature of the novel. Episodic novels aren't necessarily bad things, but the Adem and the Fae Fantasy could have both been trimmed by half. At least.

Madwand said...

"Kvothe's dalliance with a famous Fae temptress goes on for far too long and winds up feeling a bit like the porn version of Tom Bombadil..."
Nicely put!

I actually dislike Pat Rothfuss' way of making the reader doubt Kvothe's truthfulness. If he wasn't at least partially badass, Bast would not be there. Pat also talks about Kvothe not really being the Hero some people think him to be as most of his escapade depend on luck etc. My impression was that Heroes always have to be lucky or they wouldn't survive long enough for any stories to be made about them. This leads me to believe kvothe really IS badass even if Pat himself doesn't realise it yet. To me this only makes all Pat's attempts at misleading us to think otherwise seem rather awkward. I am however curious why Kvothe is holding back or what kind of psychological block is to blame or something.. :)

Overall I liked the book even if it was longwinded as hell.

Wise Bass said...

I'm honestly not sure about Kvothe's fighting skills. In the inn fight, it looked for a brief moment like he was about to kick the asses of the soldiers, before he suddenly "remembered" that he was just an innkeeper, and let himself get beat up. Or at least that's what Bast thought.*

* It'd be interesting if Bast only knew the exaggerated rumors as well, so his view of Kvothe's abilities don't match that of the real Kvothe's.

I agree that the whole training with the Latest Warrior Race Knock-off was kind of lame and dull. Why does it always have to be swords? Why couldn't the Warrior Race have spears as their primary weapons, or the like?

bozo said...

I think you nailed it saying "Rothfuss isn't playing the same game as a lot of other epic fantasy authors". This is, in the end, an introverted story told by a first-person narrator who does not really care about his own "epicness", but rather about his music, his girl, his money problems, and knows himself too well to ever fall for his own legend. While I understand this can be regarded as boring, I find it is very believable and also refreshing. Similarly refreshing as the First Law trilogy, although in another sense, Rothfuss of course is the exact opposite of Abercrombie: the number of essentially nice and decent (at least trying to be) people in Pat's two books is, I believe, unparalleled in recent years. And I think this is refreshing, too. Much like writing a convincing and interesting story about a successful marriage - much harder to pull off than writing about a breaking one. (Apparently only Anne Tyler can do it).
In the end, what matters most to me, despite your absolutely valid criticisms: the prose just shines! This is /beautifully/ written! Considerably more so than the first book, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

I think the scenes in with the Fae were written/told in a strange poetic meter to purposefully mess with the reader...

Anonymous said...

"porn version of Tom Bombadil" is lifted from one of the commenters he mentions

Anonymous said...

I agree, and would perhaps go much further. Pretty much every page that had Kvothe outside of the university and Imre was a wasted page. It's hard to imagine how he'll wrap things up in just one more novel.

Also, what do you mean by the "minor character that Kvothe himself is totally oblivious to." That doesn't ring a bell. Did I miss something or am I as oblivious as Kvothe? Give me a hint, fair readers!

John said...

"Also, what do you mean by the "minor character that Kvothe himself is totally oblivious to." That doesn't ring a bell. Did I miss something or am I as oblivious as Kvothe? Give me a hint, fair readers!"

Seven things has Lady Lackless, keeps them underneath her black dress...

David Wagner said...

Great review - I had many similar feelings after reading it, and echo'd many of your thoughts (unintentionally) in the review I wrote as well, for my blog. It makes me feel good, that I evaluated the experience in ways similar to a pro like you! I purposely avoided reading any reviews before reading/evaluating the book myself.

Keep up the good work, eh!

Anonymous said...

Pat seems to overdo one thing continuously in these 2 books: everytime we are near a breakthrough (either with the Chandrian or with Deanne) where the plot can move on significantly, something bad happens: either a message is not received, or there is a fight over a silly thing. It just seems overdone: one deus-ex-machine after another, just to keep the story going on.

Yohan said...

I did not the Fae part, as at least there was something interesting going on. But the Adem dragged horribly. The part where they sat around int he woods ngiths after night telling stories while hunting the bandits needed trimming.

As someone said before...surely this will not be finished in a trilogy? 4 books?

Or perhaps the first trilogy just deals with Kvothe's early teen life.

3rdI said...

I couldn't disagree with you more regarding your assessment about the book being too long. Everything in The Wise Man's Fear is exactly as long as it needs to be. Nothing forced and certainly no over indulgence. Apparently Locus Magazine agrees.

Locus Online Review of The Wise Man's Fear

Anonymous said...

Your review and the comments make me skeptical as to whether or not I'm going to like it. You seem to be praising the boringness of the book. It's like you're saying oh, he's such a beautiful writer it makes up for how boring and longwinded it is. I'm almost afraid to buy it, though I'd give it a try for free.

DH said...

It is a large book. There are lot of things I don't like in it, but as a whole the book is great. My main issue however is that the time it takes for Kvothe to tell his story doesn't ad up. Three days to tell it? The audiobook version clocks it at almost 43 hours. Assuming that they sleep, eat and take time to do some other stuff at around 10 hours that would leave only 14 left. Even if Kvothe talk at double the speed of Nick Podehl he won't make it. If he triples the speed he talks it might be possible, but to be honest that would just sound stupid and give poor Chronicler a heart attack as he attempts to write it, even in his code.

Not really a major issue and nothing you think about while reading the book, but it does bother the hell out of me...