The Wise Man's Fear, released earlier this year, is the second book in Patrick Rothfuss' The Kingkiller Chronicles. The first book, The Name of the Wind, was a surprise hit in 2007 and to say that The Wise Man's Fear was highly anticipated is no understatement.
The Wise Man's Fear continues the story of the wizard Kvothe. In the "present", Kvothe is an innkeeper and a shadow of his former self. In his self-imposed exile, Old Kvothe tends tables, serves food and pours his heart out to his captive biographer, the handily-named Chronicler. This serves as the book's framing device.
The bulk of The Wise Man's Fear is set in the past, following the progress of the young Kvothe as he begins to explore his magical powers. The word "bulk" is also no understatement - The Wise Man's Fear weighs in at almost a thousand pages. Unfortunately, there is a misleading word involved, and that is "progress". The Wise Man's Fear is a chronicle of tepid nothingness: vacuous philosophy, clumsy social commentary, vapid romance and nothing even approaching a plot.
The last point is the easiest with which to begin. The Name of the Wind ended with the teenage Kvothe established at the University. He's starting to learn the mystical art of naming, he's wooing the elusive Denna, he's in a rivalry with another student and he's trying to learn more about the mysterious Chandrian (demonic entities that killed his family waaaaay back in the early chapters). The Wise Man's Fear [and this would be a spoiler if anything actually happened] ends in exactly the same place. Kvothe is starting to learn the mystical art of naming, he's still wooing Denna, he's still in a bloody rivalry with the same student and his efforts to learn more about the Chandrian have proved completely futile.
Even inside the framing device, there have been very few developments. Kvothe is still crabby and powerless, the world is still going to hell in a handbasket, and his apprentice is still grumpy. If Mr. Rothfuss actually intends to wrap up this trilogy in the third book, he'll either be switching gears into an action-packed blitzkrieg or concluding with a damp squib. Kvothes both young and old are stuck in limbo. Not only are they not close to accomplishing their respective "quests", neither of them have actually defined what their quest are. This could be the ultimate in post-revisionist high fantasy: an epic without a plot.
In the absence of plot, what fills the pages of The Wise Man's Fear?
It is important to note that saying nothing can still take up a lot of space. Take Kvothe's search for the Chandrian, for example:
- Kvothe reiterates how he's banned from the library.
- Kvothe gets un-banned from the library.
- Kvothe learns how to use the library.
- Kvothe uses the library.
- Kvothe finds books.
- Kvothe reads books.
- Kvothe reads books to us to show how unhelpful those books are.
- Kvothe learns more languages.
- Kvothe finds books in those languages.
- Kvothe reads those books too.
The conclusion? Kvothe sulks. After hundreds of hours of reading, he's learned nothing new. This is a sentiment the reader can easily appreciate.
What makes this more frustrating is that there are brief windows of opportunity during which Mr. Rothfuss could tell an actual story. The first is when l'il Kvothe goes on trial for witchcraft. His actions in the previous book have come back to haunt him, and he's hauled before the city magistrate to explain them. Back in the "present", ol' Kvothe cuts the story short. Everyone, apparently, knows the brilliant and fascinating story of how he defended himself from being burned alive. Everyone, that is, in Patrick Rothfuss' head. This tantalizing hint of legal drama aborted, we return to l'il Kvothe, just in time for him to tell us about his study habits. Whew.
The second, even more bewildering occasion, is when Kvothe actually leaves the University. He heads off for distant lands to meet a possible patron. But his journey is interrupted: "In brief, there was a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order. It also goes without saying that I did a great many things, some heroic, some ill-advised, some clever and audacious." (8697) Really? Show me.
As it is, the reader sees none of it. Kvothe gets on a ship, Kvothe gets off the ship without the least peep of a storm or the barest shadow of a pirate. Instead, the reader is subjected to the arrogant paragraph above and then limply tossed into six straight chapters of Kvothe's sartorial woes and, may God have mercy on our souls, cod liver oil. Pirates? Not a one. Dousing a grumpy old man with digestive medications? Chapters.
But, even Mr. Rothfuss' now-legendary dedication to trivia can't fill 1,000 pages with cod liver oil and the knot-language of the Yllish people. So what actually does happen in The Wise Man's Fear?
Well, most importantly, everyone loves Kvothe. Auri (the lunatic hippie-chick), Denna (the manic pixie dream girl) and Fela (his beautiful classmate) are leftovers from the first book.
Auri only talks to Kvothe, mostly about bread that thinks it is a panda and lemons that have the hearts of puppies (sadly, she never mentions epic fantasy that thinks it is Milan Kundera, but that's implied).
Denna, who was annoying and flaky in the first book, returns to be extra annoying and flaky. She's still loved by all the boys, but the only one she likes? Kvothe. Because he loves her for her, dammit. He's not like all those other jocks; he'd treat her reeeeeeeal nice. Denna, as a graduate of the Frank Miller School of Progressive Female Characters, gets a wee bit of a backstory. She's [suprise!] a reformed prostitute. She's also been physically abused by her evil master. Women in Kvothelandia don't fare so well, but they do tick a lot of genre-trope boxes. Denna, as the primary love interest, gets to be extra-extra-in-need-of-saving.
Finally Fela, who is so spectacularly uninteresting that she's repeatedly introduced as "the hottest girl in school". She's also, of course, only also defined by her love of Kvothe. Ironically, at one point it seems that Fela is actually a better wizard than Kvothe - something Mr. Rothfuss very quickly buries. Fela may have already mastered the magical true name of the earth, but, more importantly, she's got a great rack.
Added to this list are an entirely new set of conquests. Kvothe can hardly travel six yards without tripping over another willing female companion, from the inn's new serving girl (7836), to the waitress that propositions him as a way of greeting (12139) to the Adem weapons instructor (17991) to a martial arts expert (18444) to a casual swathe of female townies (22176). Basically, he's a magnet for the ladies. And what's not to love? He's handsome, talented and clearly magnificent. All and all, a fantastic catch for a fifteen year old.
I suspect that even Mr. Rothfuss forgets Kvothe's age at times, especially since the women he's paired with are all much older. The aforementioned weapons instructor, for example, is 26. The martial arts expert, Penthe, is described as "not very old... she didn't look much over twenty" (18444). To a fifteen year old? Twenty is ooooold. And not just that, but the likelihood of multiple twenty-somethings finding a 15 year old to be an appealing sexual companion? Even in the lavishly-described sexual freedom of the Adem culture, that's particularly hard to stomach.
But still, what's 26 to Kvothe? After all, this is the man who loses his virginity to Felurian! Felurian is a mythical sex fairy - the subject of many stories (many, many, many stories - all background information in Kvotheland is given in triplicate). She lures men off into her pan-dimensional playground, sexes them, sexes them again, then keeps on sexing them until they go mad. SHE BREAKS MEN WITH HER LADYLAND. But not Kvothe. Although he initially falls for Felurian's sexual wiles, he's got such a strong sense of self (again, fifteen!) that he soon becomes her master. In fact, when Felurian learns that Kvothe was a virgin before their encounter, she can't believe it; "You tell me a faerie story, my Kvothe.... you were like a gentle summer storm... you were a dancer fresh upon the field." (15140)
[Quick break to be sick on the floor.]
So, first, let's all agree to never say those phrases to anyone, ever. Second, unless "gentle summer storm" means "you messed your pants before I could even take my top off", let's accept that this is a pretty poor reflection of an adolescent's very first sexual experience. And third, let's take a deep breath and realize how incredibly wrong this is. An immortal (or, at the very least, very, very, very old) woman kidnaps a teenage boy and uses him for sex. I know this is a timeless tradition in pornographic musings, but that doesn't make it ok. Were the genders reversed, it'd be even more obviously creepy (or Twilight). Either way, an illustrated version of this book would be illegal in both the US and UK.
Mind you, in The Wise Man's Fear, everything is about love (and the act thereof) - and that's where the thousand pages all become necessary. Be it a lecture about magic names or a bout of swordfighting, everyone invariably drops what they're doing and wangs about about the intangible, unknowable, oh-so-beautiful, endless nature of luv-twoo-luv. For Kvothe, that dancer on the fresh field of sexuality, everything is particularly laden with meaning. At one point he's even lost in the "powerful eroticism" of Denna warming up on the harp, as "the sound of it was like hammers on bells, like water over stones, like birdsong through air" (11563). Mental note: don't let Kvothe near the bird feeder.
Despite the constant discourse, nothing is actually settled about love. In fact, nothing is actually settled about anything in The Wise Man's Fear. Kvothe and Mr. Rothfuss pick up and discard Deep Philosophical Musings in every chapter, pondering the Nature of Names, Predestination vs Free Will, the Subconscious Mind and, perhaps most frighteningly of all, the Greater Good.
The discussion of the Greater Good leads to Mr. Rotfhuss' most egregious misstep. This takes place in an otherwise harmless conversation between Kvothe and his friend Simmon. In Kvothe's search (endless, detailed, unresolved, futile, etc.) for a mysterious order known as the Amyr, he finds the journals of a man named Gibea. Gibea is a monstrous duke who wrote volumes on the human body. His research was done by cutting up thousands of his peasants and watching how their bodies worked - generally while they were still alive. Simmon describes the scale of the horror by pointing out that after Gibea's death, the authorities dug up "the bones of twenty thousand people... women and children. Twenty thousand! And those are just the ones they found!". (7276)
Simmon grew up in what used to be Gibea's duchy and his family was directly impacted by the duke's hideous experiments. Therefore, with a nod to diplomacy, Kvothe decides not to pursue the argument further. Clearly Simmon is being overly emotional about the whole "mass annihilation of his people" thing. Kvothe does, however, think Gibea is defensible, telling the reader that "I wanted to point out that Gibea wasn't necessarily corrupt. He was pursuing the Amyr's purpose, the greater good. While his experiments had been horrifying, his work advanced medicine in ways it was almost impossible to comprehend." (7343)
It is good to see that Randian objectivism isn't dead in fantasy. The Chosen (in this case, Kvothe's Amyr idols) report to no one and their actions - no matter how seemingly hideous to the common man - are for the greater good. The actions of the Chosen may seem inexplicable to most people, but as Kvothe goes on to rationalise, Gibea "probably saved ten times that many lives in the hundreds of years since". The landscape of epic fantasy is strewn with slippery slopes, but this one takes the cake. You don't often get your book's hero defending mass vivisection.
Still, it isn't like the book is particularly thoughtful or consistent at any other point. Another example (a slightly more harmless one) comes in the concluding pages of Kvothe's hundred-page-long sojourn with the mysterious and free-lovin' Adem people. The Adem talk with their hands - their language is complex and majestic, a bit like hammers on bells (in no way like dancers on fresh fields). Accordingly, they keep their eyes focused on one another's fingers, and never the face. Showing emotion with the face is deemed blasphemous and embarrassing. It is something reserved for "children" and "barbarians" and their people are trained from birth so that inflecting with their hands becomes a matter of instinct. When one Adem woman (Kvothe shags her, by the way) wants to learn how to communicate with the rest of the world, Kvothe even has to teach her to smile.
Of course, what happens one night at the end of his stay? He sees that their "impassivity dissolved quite easily after a few drinks, and we were all grinning like barbarians in no time" (18997). Normally, quite a sweet thought. Except in this case, it directly follows a hundred pages telling us exactly why this would never happen. The entire foundation of Adem culture, undone by two cans of Stella.
The book is littered with loose nuggets of philosophy - tiny fragments from the very bottom of the crisp packet of wisdom; ill-considered, ill-conceived and painfully self-conscious. The Wise Man's Fear is proof not that an infinite number of monkeys will eventually produce Hamlet but that an infinite number of Kvothe's monologues will result in Paulo Coelho.
2,500 words into this review (that's .06% the length of the book), I should probably say something nice. The Wise Man's Fear isn't wholly awful. However, it is an endless sargasso sea of half-baked philosophical musing and banal minutiae. Given its prodigious size, I could easily fill a dozen more reviews with examples of its self-indulgent excess. But, were it the first book in the series, The Wise Man's Fear could have achieved a sort of genre-traditional mediocrity. Picture a Fellowship of the Ring with no Black Riders, six hundred additional pages of Tom Bombadil and a liberal dose of statutory rape. (He's fifteen!)
The problem is, there already is a first book, and it was better than mediocre. The Name of the Wind was actually pretty good. The Wise Man's Fear isn't. Everything enjoyable about the series has been diluted to the point of invisibility and replaced by prurient ramblings and the sort of smugly commercial philosophy normally found in greeting cards.
It could be that the third book resolves everything in some sort of unanticipated way. Mr. Rothfuss clearly has a vast imagination. Perhaps he's already come up with a cunning scheme to write himself out of this box within the relatively confined space of another half-million words. To be frank, I not only doubt this, but I'll never know. The last thousand pages I've suffered included more cod liver oil, summer storms (shudder) and birdsong in air than anyone should ever have to tolerate. I've had my share. This dancer is off the fresh field for good.
All references are to Kindle locations. I could've gone back and found the page numbers in the hardcover, but life is short and the book is not.