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Book Review: The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

One-line summary: The second book in the trilogy has everything that made the first book great, but didn't raise the bar.



Daw Books, 2011, 994 pages


"My name is Kvothe. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me."

So begins the tale of a hero told from his own point of view — a story unequaled in fantasy literature. Now in The Wise Man's Fear, Day Two of The Kingkiller Chronicle, an escalating rivalry with a powerful member of the nobility forces Kvothe to leave the University and seek his fortune abroad. Adrift, penniless, and alone, he travels to Vintas, where he quickly becomes entangled in the politics of courtly society.

While attempting to curry favor with a powerful noble, Kvothe uncovers an assassination attempt, comes into conflict with a rival arcanist, and leads a group of mercenaries into the wild, in an attempt to solve the mystery of who (or what) is waylaying travelers on the King's Road. All the while, Kvothe searches for answers, attempting to uncover the truth about the mysterious Amyr, the Chandrian, and the death of his parents.

Along the way, Kvothe is put on trial by the legendary Adem mercenaries, is forced to reclaim the honor of the Edema Ruh, and travels into the Fae realm. There he meets Felurian, the faerie woman no man can resist, and who no man has ever survived... until Kvothe.

In The Wise Man's Fear, Kvothe takes his first steps on the path of the hero and learns how difficult life can be when a man becomes a legend in his own time.



Usually I avoid reading other reviews of a book I'm going to read until after I read it myself, but I made the mistake of reading the first part of Daniel Hemmens's snarky take-down of The Wise Man's Fear before I started this, and so I was prepared to join the Cool Kids who fashionably hate on books that have become enormously popular and fanboyed in the geekosphere.

I went back and read the rest of it after I finished the book (and this review) and... well, Hemmens isn't completely off in his criticisms, but as with his snarky take-down of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which I also enjoyed -- the book and the take-down), he's just a little too preoccupied with being clever, and while his opinion of the book obviously isn't wrong in terms of whether or not it worked for him, he does at times sacrifice accuracy and context for snark while he's merrily ripping into it. He and I pick on a lot of the same flaws, but the bottom line is that I liked it and he didn't. But go read his review if you want to see a much more critical one.

I cannot lie: despite its flaws, I still enjoyed The Wise Man's Fear for all the reasons I loved The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss remains a master storyteller, and Kvothe's story is the sort anyone would enjoy hearing around a campfire, or listening to over rounds of beer in a tavern. I don't think Rothfuss is the Second Coming of Tolkien*, but his writing is grand and a pleasure to read and his characters are funny, tragic, wicked, and adventuresome.

That said, the second book in the series is essentially a continuation of the first that doesn't actually elevate the story, or even advance it much. The Name of the Wind wowed readers with Rothfuss's storytelling abilities, and left all sorts of tantalizing hints and ominous forebodings. In book two, we get a little more of Kvothe's legend fleshed out, and he levels up a gazillion times, but that's pretty much it. It's like being stuffed on a marvelous gourmet meal that tastes exactly like the last gourmet meal.

Kvothe becomes the biggest, baddest, faerie-bangin' bandit-killin' 12th-level Mage/Monk/Bard in the land.



In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe was a bit of a Gary Stu. Raised by a gypsy troop (they're not called "gypsies" in the book, but basically they're fantasy gypsies) that was slaughtered by mysterious demonic beings known as the Chandrian, Kvothe has a fantasy-Dickensian childhood growing up on the streets of a big city, before bluffing his way into the Arcanum where he becomes the youngest University student ever. I commented in my review of the first book that Kvothe is almost a Gary Stu, with all of his amazing talents at magic, music, languages, horseback riding, bluffing, acting, and basically everything else he does, but I was willing to withhold the "Stu" label because I thought Rothfuss was cleverly subverting the trope. He's actually telling the story of a bonafide legendary hero, and heroes have to have some Stu in them, at least in fairy tales (and these books are at least half fairy tale). Also, more pertinently, it's Kvothe telling his own story, and there are lots of hints in the first book that Kvothe is a somewhat unreliable narrator. So while I was rolling my eyes a bit at all the times in The Name of the Wind that Kvothe manages to outsmart everyone around him and do yet another thing that No One Has Ever Done Before --

Inconceivable!

-- it's also clear that Kvothe's reputation has been exaggerated and he took credit for lots of things he didn't really do, or at least not quite in the way the legends say he did.

In The Wise Man's Fear, Rothfuss dances right over the line from subverting the trope to partying with it at Mardi Gras. Kvothe is still 15-16 years old throughout the book, and yet in his first adventure outside the University, he's sent by his would-be patron Count Threpe to act as advisor to Maer Alveron, a wealthy and powerful noble who's a king in all but name, on a "delicate matter." Threpe (a minor nobleman) sends Kvothe to his friend on the strength of Kvothe's amazing musical ability and silver tongue. What is the delicate matter the Maer needs help with?

Wooing a much younger woman.

Wait, what?

This was the point where I know I would have said "Now just hold on a darn minute" even if I hadn't already read Hemmens's review. Kvothe, at this point in his life, has precisely zero experience with romance. He's never even had a girlfriend (unless you count Denna, the courtesan/musician/mysterious free spirit who's possibly a minion of the Chandrian) and frequently makes comments about how he "doesn't understand women." One of the threads running throughout the earlier narrative is how girls are totally into Kvothe but he never picks up on it because he's so clueless, and despite being such a fantastic actor and performer and bluffer, he can always be made to blush and stammer by a girl coming on to him or idle remarks about his lack of experience.

But Maer Alveron, a much older, experienced man who is as rich and powerful as a king and has been ruling his city since he was Kvothe's age, is going to take advice from a fifteen-year-old virgin about how to woo one of the most beautiful women in the kingdom.

This would be funny (and could have been another brilliant subversion), especially being interspersed as it was with Kvothe's disastrous handling of his own relationship with Denna, except it's played straight with no hint that either the author or the character is aware of the irony. Kvothe plays Cyrano to the Maer, writing love songs and poetry for him and giving him helpful advice on courting (Kvothe, who has never even had a girlfriend and grew up as a gypsy trouper and then a street urchin, is advising a nobleman on how to court a noblewoman!), and the Maer dutifully recites his poetry to the prospective bride, and it totally works.

Dude, seriously? Now Kvothe is a medieval Pick-Up Artist schoolin' other dudes in how to score.

Chicks dig love songs written by 15-year-old virgins

Dudes vastly older, wiser, more experienced, and more powerful than him. Did I mention that at this point he's still a virgin and has never even had a girlfriend?

After helping the Maer win his trophy wife (and, incidentally, saving him from an assassination attempt), Kvothe's reward is that he gets sent on a camping trip to stop bandits. Of course he's full of useful strategic and tactical advice, which the veteran warriors he's leading obey despite their leader being a 15-year-old musician.

Yes, in fairness Kvothe hides the fact that he's so young, and likewise he's good at pretending he's got experience and skills he doesn't, but halfway through this book it was really getting to be a little much, because it no longer felt like Rothfuss was subverting the trope with an unreliable narrator: Kvothe really is just that fucking awesome. During his camping trip, he makes friends with an Adem mercenary, the Adem being a sort of Mystical Warrior People, who proceeds to start teaching Kvothe his secrets (which we later learn is practically a capital offense among the Adem) just because he's nice to him and takes the time to try to learn some of his language.

Kvothe turns sixteen and he's a sex machine...



And then there's Felurian and the sexin'. Hemmens wasn't wrong about that part. Yes, Kvothe really does lose his virginity to a mythical fairy sex goddess who just happens to pop up in front of him in the woods. The ensuing sex scene is blissfully devoid of turgid organs and other attempts at graphic eroticism, but it's not devoid of this:


There was no doubt, no hesitation. I knew exactly what to do.


Really? Really? I was dying for Rothfuss to provide another one of Kvothe's bullshit explanations about how he could figure out how to do something he'd never done before better than people who've been doing it all their lives because of all the songs and legends he's memorized or because he's a keen observer and imitator or because he's goddamn Edema Ruh and sexin' is in their blood or... something, but no, he just proceeds to bang a fairy goddess like it ain't no thang, and he's so good at it that this fairy goddess, who is legendary for fucking mens' brains out from time immemorial, can't tell he's never done it before!

And Kvothe's escape from Felurian (he is of course the first man ever to leave Felurian alive with his mind unbroken) is basically another page out of the Pick-Up Artist handbook: he negs her. Seriously. I mean, it's cleverly done, in a way, but ggkakaaakkkaaacome on!

(I swear I collected these links in a few minutes of Googling -- I didn't have them bookmarked or anything. >.>)

Oh... groan. Patrick Rothfuss, you are such an awesome writer, your storytelling is wonderful, I love your books despite the fact that Kvothe is beginning to read like a highly skilled, professional author with serious literary chops decided to rewrite a Piers Anthony novel so that it's actually good (no, no, that's not fair, that's low -- I'm just bitter and sacrificing accuracy for snark because I was head-desking at this point) -- Rothfuss, why you gotta do me like this?

Penny Arcade thinks Kvothe is Da Man

When the man-children of Penny Arcade find your Gary Stu's sexual awesomeness to be mockworthy, you're no longer subverting the trope, you're reveling in it.

I am still holding out hope for the "unreliable narrator" explanation and that we'll find out in book three that half of what Kvothe has been telling us is pure bullshit. I wouldn't put it past Rothfuss to do that. But honestly, I don't think that's going to be the case. I think we're going to have to accept that Kvothe really is the biggest and best Gary Stu ever.

An Epic Tale for an Epic Stu



And despite all that, the chapters with Felurian were some of the best writing in the book. The contest of wills between Kvothe and Felurian, the way they at times fell into rhyming dialog, the emotions invoked by music and magic, the creepiness and the mystery of the fey world, was all superbly captured. If you forget about the whole sixteen-year-old-virgin-impressing-a-sex-goddess-with-his-skillz bit, it really is like hearing a great fairy tale. And the encounter with the Cthaeh... Shudder. Yes, that was some seriously dire foreshadowing, which I hope does not fizzle in book three.

But the rest of the book? Well, Kvothe goes to learn martial arts and philosophy from the Adem (and once again totally impresses them all with improbable showboating, despite being a "barbarian" who literally gets his ass kicked by a little girl for a while), and then he returns home to the University (with a side trip to kick some more bandits' asses and also add a bit of grimdark with two young girls who were abducted by the bandits), with a few pages added to his character sheet. We've gotten some more hints dropped about the Chandrian, and some dire portents for book three, but the middle book of the trilogy has basically teased us with promises of more of what was promised in the first book.

Also, the Adem are a supercivilized, philosophical mercenary people with awesome martial arts skills, and once again Rothfuss makes them interesting enough to subvert most of the expected tropes (at least there is no mention of katanas, thank gawd) but they have a suspiciously libertine philosophy when it comes to sex and nudity (i.e., yes, Kvothe really does have sex with two ninjas, though at least it wasn't both of them at the same time) and... they have not figured out that humans don't reproduce by parthenogenesis. While I appreciated Rothfuss's attempt at a genuinely matriarchal warrior society, it required too much of a cultural blind spot; I don't know of any real-world culture that didn't figure out pretty readily that men have something to do with baby-making.

That said, let me repeat again: it's a great story. It's all great stories. It's a bunch of great stories. Half the stories in The Wise Man's Fear have no direct bearing on the plot, as Kvothe tells and hears legends from a variety of sources. But Rothfuss is a careful, clever storyteller who lays easter eggs painted with delicate foreshadowing all over the place, so I expect that all of the stories Kvothe tells around a campfire and the fairy tales Felurian relates to him between bouts of sexin' will come back with revelatory significance in the final book, but if you want pure linear forward-moving plot, this is not the series to become invested in because there are a lot of side trips.

Likewise, it's hard to tell how much of Kvothe's autobiographical exploits should be taken at face value. Is he a great big braggart making half this shit up? There are plenty of hints, and he admits that a lot of his legend was deliberately manufactured. At the same time, there is a scene midway through this book where his fey protege Bast accuses him of making up one particularly significant bit, and Kvothe gives an impassioned speech about how this story is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. So either Rothfuss is screwing with us and Kvothe is a huge liar, or he's carefully building up the legend of someone who actually deserves to be called a legend... and a Gary Stu.

I am totally on board for book three. Even if I am dissatisfied with how Rothfuss wraps things up, his writing and storytelling alone makes him worth the read. But he's now set expectations so high (as well as triggered so many of my BS alarms) that if the conclusion of the Kingkiller Chronicle is not an epic work of genius, there is no way I'll be able to feel anything but let down.

Last point: about that bloat. All those tangents, all those subplots and extraneous tales, make this a big book. I actually listened to this book as an audiobook. The Wise Man's Fear is the second day of Kvothe's three-day narration of his life story. It's almost all Kvothe talking in the past tense, except for a few interludes involving people coming to the inn where he's telling this tale. In other words, everything that happens in this book is supposed to fit within one day's telling.

The audiobook is forty-three hours long. Just sayin'.

Actually, I enjoyed Rothfuss's writing more than I enjoyed Tolkien's. But Tolkien created an epic, genre-defining masterpiece. Rothfuss isn't reinventing anything; his pie recipe isn't new and original, it's just a damn good pie.


Verdict: It's still great, but while The Name of the Wind was all that and a bag of chips, The Wise Man's Fear was just another bag of chips. Tasty, tasty chips. If you liked book one, you'll enjoy book two, but you could summarize it as "Kvothe learns a bunch of new shit and gains some skillz" and probably skip from book one to book three without missing much in terms of the plot.
Tags: books, fantasy, patrick rothfuss, reviews
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