The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
I really enjoyed The Name of the Wind, the debut release of Patrick Rothfuss and the first in the ‘Kingkiller Chronicle’ trilogy. The second novel, The Wise Man’s Fear, comfortably lives up to its predecessor, with the one downside being the now unbearable wait for the next, and concluding, novel in the series. Hopefully Rothfuss is more of a Brandon Sanderson and less of a George R. R. Martin and we get this novel soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Wise Man’s Fear follows the second day of Kvothe’s retelling of his life to Chronicler and his mysterious Fae companion Bast. Kvothe’s tale on this second day encompasses moments vital to his legend, such as his encounter with the mythic Felurian, his martial training with the Adem and his time at the court of the Maer of Vintas.
The geographic scale of The Wise Man’s Fear is much grander than The Name of the Wind. Where the vast majority of the latter took place in the Commonwealth, with the focus falling squarely on introducing us to Kvothe’s character rather than building the world itself, in The Wise Man’s Fear Rothfuss understands that we know Kvothe by now and that the focus can shift slightly to the world in which he lives. Although many elements of this world don’t immediately leap out as new or innovative, there’s always more to them than you might first think. For example, the isolated warrior people of the Adem may, at first glance, seem highly similar to Stephen Donaldson’s Haruchai or Steven Erikson’s Seguleh, but as we get to know them and their culture, we find that there’s more to them than we may at first be apparent. This novel gives us our first real introduction to the world of the Fae, merely hinted at in The Name of the Wind, giving us enough to satisfy without spoiling the mystery. Although I felt that Rothfuss’ worldbuilding could have been better in The Name of the Wind, having now read The Wise Man’s Fear I understand to a much greater extent what he was doing.
The Wise Man’s Fear isn’t a novel which rushes itself, and Rothfuss takes his time when telling the story. My biggest issue with this novel isn’t so much with the plot or Rothfuss’ writing, but with the structure. It’s quite clear in this novel that Rothfuss writes these novels as one continuous story, with the splits between the novels coming more from publishers than from authorial intent. This leads to an odd opening couple of hundred pages, which feel more like a climax to The Name of the Wind rather to an introduction to The Wise Man’s Fear. However, I suspect that if read right after one another this wouldn’t really be an issue, and perhaps this is Rothfuss’ intent. In many ways, the ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’ flow together into one continuous story to a greater extent than many other fantasy series, and I suspect that the real cleverness of Rothfuss will only be entirely revealed with the release of the third novel in the trilogy.
Some readers have felt that The Wise Man’s Fear does not forward Kvothe’s tale enough, and that it does not engage closely enough with the central mystery of the Chandrian and the Amyr. I honestly feel that these people are missing the point of the novel. Some who view a good story as being a largely linear route from point A to point B might feel this, focusing upon the central conflicts and nothing else, but I truly believe that these details are what makes a story great. The difficult balance, a balance which many fantasy writers don’t quite get right, is in ensuring that secondary story arcs are interesting and supports the central narrative, and don’t simply exist alongside the main story. Although it may not be in an obvious fashion, everything Kvothe does supports his journey towards glory, and later his inevitable downfall into the shadow of a man we see in the frame narrative.
The question of Kvothe as an unreliable narrator is floated to a greater extent in The Wise Man’s Fear than in The Name of the Wind. Kvothe is, fundamentally, a storyteller, and his conscious inflation of his own legend in his younger years is repeated throughout the novel. Although he claims that the story that he is telling Chronicler and Bast is the unvarnished truth, why should we believe him? There has been some criticism in this novel that almost every female character is a sexualised fantasy; here we have the intelligent and witty ‘girl next door’, here we have the sultry and experienced seductress from a foreign land, and soon we have the innocent young maid, attractive in her purity. Far from making Rothfuss as misogynist, as some have accused him, I’m more inclined towards the belief that Rothfuss is simply reflecting the mindset of a 16 year old boy. A divide must be drawn between Rothfuss and Kvothe. Rothfuss remains an interesting and clever writer, more so than he may first seem, which is particularly impressive given how early he is in his career.
Although the character focus is still squarely upon Kvothe, the secondary characters feel more vivid this time around. Of particular note is Elodin, the master of Naming at the University, as an incredibly amusing figure. There’s something of Albus Dumbledore in his whimsical strangeness, but also a darkness and a callousness which makes him particularly intriguing. I also enjoyed the noble brat Ambrose Jakis, a character who reaches Joffrey Baratheon levels of nastiness, and look forward to the seeing how much further his rivalry with Kvothe can be pushed. The new characters are interesting too, particularly the warrior-monk Adem people.
The Wise Man’s Fear is brilliant, annoyingly so, because now I must add the ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’ to ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and ‘The Stormlight Archive’ to my ‘series in which I impatiently await the next volume’ list. The reception of The Wise Man’s Fear wasn’t quite as rapturous as that of The Name of the Wind, but I actually believe that it is a stronger novel in many respects. Bring on book 3 Mr. Rothfuss!