Tuesday 22 March 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels I have ever read. It is among my all-time favourite novels. It is also the first book in a trilogy. Now, after a long wait, the second book is out.

The Wise Man's Fear picks up where Name of the Wind left off. We're still in an inn, somewhere in the sticks. We're still watching the innkeeper, Kote, his apprentice, Bast, and the Chronicler. Bast is someone from Faerie. Chronicler is there to record the life history of a famous shaper of history, Kvothe. Kote is Kvothe, in hiding... and his story is now in its second day of telling.

Kvothe's story is swashbuckling, energetic stuff. Read the blurb on the back of Name of the Wind, and you know you're in for a tale of adventure. The same is true for Wise Man's Fear: adventure, hijinx, magic, and all told in beautiful prose with a real sense of music and rhythm and an aural aesthetic to it. This is exciting, plot- and character driven adventure, written in a masterly way.

Despite all that, there are reasons why Wise Man's Fear does not get the perfect rating that Name of the Wind got from me. The first of these may be quite subjective: I like Kvothe best when he's at the University. Name of the Wind took him from childhood to University, and then, in the final act, to follow a lead and find a dragon (well, draccus) and have a big adventure as finale. Wise Man's Fear is different: we spend the first third of the book at University, and then Kvothe finds himself going out into the wider world in a self-imposed exile for two terms. He has adventures, spends time at court, chases bandits, learns kung fu, becomes the world's greatest lover, ... well, not quite, but almost. For me, those parts of the book simply did not quite have the same fascination.

At University, there is Elodin to fascinate the reader (perhaps not unlike Dumbledore in Harry Potter, but less stable and grounded). There is Auri to delight. But there is no more exposition happening: Patrick Rothfuss has explained the rules of magic in this world, set out the principles, and does not take the reader into higher levels in this book. Perhaps no one else would want second or third year level magic theories in a book - but I found myself missing something. Perhaps I wanted Elodin to give up a secret or two. Perhaps I wanted a bit more progress towards finding out about the Chandrian. Perhaps I wanted movement in the back story as well as the story in the foreground. And Wise Man's Fear did not move the back story as much as I would have hoped for: the main new thing are the Amyr, a long extinct (or are they?) Knights Templar type movement...

One big accusation that has been levelled against the Kingkiller Chronicles is that the books are wish fulfilment literature. Well, it's true. Academically brilliant, brave hero who can sing, play instruments, write poetry and songs that know no equal, do magic way beyond the abilities of his peers... yeah, there is something a bit escapist about it. But this is tempered by Kvothe's poverty, his ability to make lifelong enemies, his rashness, his bumbling foolishness around girls (and Denna in particular)... one of the reasons the first book earned its length is that each talent of Kvothe is earned, and as reader, we earn it with him, we feel his efforts. Wise Man's Fear, however, cheats. Let's just say that the exact how and where and why of Kvothe's sexual awakening seems to just fall in his lap, unearned, unstruggled for, unlikely... And then we spend (what feels like) a hundred pages there. No, not in a hundred-page long scene of canoodling, but a hundred pages of Kvothe plus one, in their own little world. If these books were in any way comparable to Lord of the Rings, this would be their Tom Bombadil moment...

For a writer who really likes women, and seems to respect them, populating his novels with a variety of confident, competent female characters, it seems a little bit disappointing. It's as if Kvothe's clumsiness around women could not be resolved gradually, as if something had to pop, and as if Kvothe was somehow never going to get there with real women... It's not the most satisfying or gratifying way to do character growth.

This is also the place where the book seems to get bogged down a bit in silly phrases. Where the language has been beautiful and elegant throughout, it suddenly turns corny. Sexual positions get names that could be straight from the Karma Sutra ("the thousand hands", "the twisted lotus flower"), and, not long thereafter, Kvothe learns his world's equivalent of Yoga and Kung Fu, and each movement has similar sounding names ("the falling leaves", "the itching backside" ... well, not perhaps the latter) - after one and a half books of beautifully written, exciting prose, the reader is suddenly faced with about three hundred pages of slightly cheesy shorthand spoiling the otherwise ornate aural landscape of the story.

Finally, the biggest reason why the book lost a star is quite simply this: Kvothe fails Denna in one way. Let's just say he is informed of Denna being in a situation she could probably use some saving from, and he makes choices that lead him towards trying to find out more about the Chandrian, rather than towards finding her and helping... Yes, the Chandrian, and the murder of Kvothe's family when he was a child are important things. But now, years after the fact, and after so much emotional investment in Denna, I would have expected him to put her wellbeing before his own revenge, any time. And yes, he might not have known where to find her or how to help her, but he does not even try. It certainly deducts from his hero-points.

I should clarify something at this point: I have spent most of this review highlighting elements I found frustrating or disappointing about the novel. However, this does not mean the novel is bad, or average, or merely OK. No, this is a very good, very well-written, very enjoyable novel. It's 1000 pages long, and I read the first 250 of those in one hungry leap. The reason I go into negatives is simply that they stand out, in this novel of masterliness. It's a bit like spending a week in the most beautiful, sunny holiday spot on Earth, and being rained on for half an hour of that week: when the holiday is over, I remember that half hour in more detail than the week of joy.

So: this novel is very good. It is a wonderful sequel. It is not as flawless as the first, and it had stretches where I wanted it to be in a different place, take a different direction. But it is still good.

(Lastly, the novel does signal, just as the first did, where it is headed: into darkness. After all the joyful energy in these two novels, with some bittersweet moments and a threatening cloud of terror on the horizon, I feel not just anticipation for the final novel; I also feel a bit of dread. I care too much about all these characters. I think if it goes the way it is signalling, I may have to keep tissues handy while reading the next one, a decade or so from now...)

Rating: 4/5

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