Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

After years of anxious waiting, The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is one of this year’s most anticipated epic fantasy books. Following up on the hugely popular (though not universally so) debut, The Name of the Wind (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), fans and critics alike are wondering if The Wise Man’s Fear lives up to its predecessor. In my opinion it does – it features the same wondrous story-telling, entertaining style and shows improvement in Rothfuss’ craft. Translation: if you liked The Name of the Wind, you can bet that you’ll like The Wise Man’s Fear – probably even more.

The Wise Man’s Fear picks up on day two of an older Kvothe’s narration of his life, his coming of age and into legend, to the Chronicler. The story begins shortly after the events of The Name of the Wind and carries things forward. We follow Kvothe as he continues his studies at the University, takes time off to see the world, attempts to gain a patron, learns to fight, gets in over his head, and eventually returns to the University. For those like me who haven’t read The Name of the Wind since its release in 2007, a re-read could be beneficial, but I was just fine without one.

In this series, Rothfuss sets out deconstruct the standard epic fantasy hero. To do this he must embrace a number of the classic tropes involved – Kvothe is orphaned, driven to avenge his parents’ death, attractive, arrogant, gifted (at music and in some academic pursuits), an adolescent coming of age, a legendary fighter, a talented wizard, etc. The joy for me is in watching Rothfuss slowly dissect this ideal fantasy hero – a classic Gary Stu if you will. Rothfuss chooses to do so by having an older and (possibly) wiser hero relay his story to a chronicler and the reader sees this all through the first person perspective of Kvothe telling his coming of age story. Kvothe chooses what to share and how to share it while periodic interludes provide hints of the popular versions of these events as told by people at large and offer other fun and interesting perspectives. Kvothe often leaves out what would otherwise seem rather important – like the time he is on a ship attacked and sunk by pirates which he barely survives after which he spends time as a penniless beggar is glossed over in only a couple of lines, yet he spends pages mooning over the girl of his dreams. Apparently one of the more infamous events in Kvothe’s popular lore is a trial that he eventually wins – yet he barely mentions it in his retelling, much to the chronicler’s chagrin. The reader is left wondering which is more at work – the exaggeration of rumor or Kvothe’s own version of things?

It’s in this style with Kvothe as a narrator that is both one of Rothfuss’ greatest strengths and weaknesses. The reader sees that the infamous Kvothe Kingkiller is at times nothing more than bumbling idiot of an adolescent – utterly clueless about events around him and women in particular. We get to see Kvothe learn to fight in a distant land where he gets his butt kicked repeatedly (often by little girls) and never even becomes an average fighter among those that teach him. And at other times we see nothing but arrogance. Kvothe tells the stories he wants – so we get to see him talk endlessly about his lady love. We get to hear all about those stories from the University – you know the types that your buddy tells over and over even though you’ve heard them all 1000 times before. The events that you feel are important are either lacking or different. And it’s all complicated by the factor that Kvothe is probably not the most reliable narrator – did he ever grow beyond that arrogant kid who loved to embellish stories about himself?

Through it all, the journey is in the story and the story is in the journey. Rothfuss’ books aren’t set up with the awe-inspiring climatic events of the standard epic fantasy. The main events in the book are internal to Kvothe – what means most to him. The rejection of his lady-love is a much more important event to him than slaughtering a gang of murderous imposters and rescuing a couple of village girls – while both impact him greatly, one haunts him in a much more profound way even though he himself thinks it should be otherwise. Rothfuss reinforces his emphasis on the journey by utilizing stories-within-stories-within-stories.

The truth is that all of this would be a complete failure if not for Rothfuss’ incredible story-telling ability. The style that he writes with is intoxicating and addictive – there is energy to his story-telling that cannot be denied. Calling the book a page-turner doesn’t quite do it – this is a 1000+ page book that reads like a book less than half its size. In a time when I have very limited time for reading, I still managed to finish it in less than a week. The way Rothfuss writes makes me think he’s one of those people that you could spend all night listening to as they tell one ridiculous story after another. At the time of your listening you are having the time of your life, later in retrospect you kind of wonder what the big deal was.

So, in my mind The Wise Man’s Fear absolutely lives up to and even surpasses Rothfuss’ entertaining debut, The Name of the Wind. However, I think it’s also equally clear that The Wise Man’s Fear has essentially the same strengths and weaknesses as The Name of the Wind. Like me, many fans will get lost in Rothfuss’ superb story-telling, while others will be let down by a book that begins and ends at the University and once again lacks the standard climatic ending of a typical epic fantasy book. A book that still offers no hints about the king-killing of the trilogy title of The Kingkiller Chronicle and no resolution to plots set in motion in book 1. For me the value is in the journey – the story – and with Rothfuss telling, I’m all ears. 8-8.5/10

Related Posts: Review of The Name of the Wind (note, this is an early review in the first couple of years of the blog – I like to think I’m a bit better at it now)


Ron Buckmire said...

Wow! How did you get a review copy and a review out so early??

I'm also dying to see what you think about Mieville's Embassytown.

Rothfuss' first book was one of the best fantasy books I have ever read. I read it twice and am looking forward to picking up The Wise Man's Fear tomorrow.

Ted Cross said...

I wish I could read it now! I don't buy hardcovers, so I always have to wait for the mass market paperback to come out.

Ryan said...

As always, nice review Neth. The Wise Man's Fear has been uplifted to buy-in-hardback status due to how impressed I was with the Name of the Wind. It was quite easy to forget that it was a debut novel, given how skilled Rothfuss is as a writer already.

Neth said...

@Mad Prof - Daw sent me a copy back in early January, so I actually read the book nearly 2 months ago.

Embassytown is interesting so far with Mieville writing science fiction.

@Ted - library dude

@Ryan - thanks and enjoy the book

Ted Cross said...

Neth - I live in Azerbaijan, so no library for me!

Neth said...

@Ted - well, I suppose that's a pretty good excuse :)

rose of academe said...

I don't think it's fair to say that this book doesn't move the plotlines from Book 1 forward. For example, it seems pretty clear that Meluan's sister was Kvothe's mother - and possibly that Kvothe is the 'son who brings the blood' in the poem about the Lackless door. I suspect that a lot of loose ends will tie up very neatly in the final book.


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