Wise Man’s Fear

‘I trouped, traveled, loved, lost, trusted and was betrayed.’  Write that down and burn it for all the good it will do you.

– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is, hands down and without argument, my favorite epic fantasy novel ever.  Its world building is so thorough, so developed, and so rational that I’ve handed copies to dyed-in-the-wool hard sf fans and they thanked me.  I don’t care which element of fiction is the one that draws you, this book nails it.  To repeat myself: This is the book that takes a look at where every other book in the genre goes wrong, stares hard into that abyss, then cackles madly as it skips away. It’s not perfect, but nobody cares.

So it’s sequel had a lot to live up to.  It did not break my heart.  It did not disappoint.  If, somehow, you’ve read Name of the Wind and haven’t yet picked up The Wise Man’s Fear, go do that.  Don’t be afraid, it’s safe.  If you haven’t read either, I do not care what your preferred genre is, (unless you don’t read fiction) go get both of them.

Rampant spoilers below the jump.Like NotW, WMF continues the frame story where Kvothe pretending to be Kote gets manipulated by his fae buddy Bast and Chronicler into telling his story.  Bast’s touching man-crush on Kvothe is even better – he pulls some truly magnificent shenanigans to try shaking Kvothe out of his funk.  The world of the Wayside Inn, the people who come there and how they interact with their amiable outsider continues to be a great source of world building details and character development while having a story and hook all on its own.  The way Rothfuss squeezes every possible utility into every element of the book is why readers get inextricably absorbed and writers should read them twice.  Note all writers: steal everything about this man’s technique.

More bad things come to the Wayside Inn.  The townsfolk continue to struggle between coping with an increasingly harsh world and getting on with their lives.  Reading the frame story, you know exactly what’s going to happen in Kvothe’s tale, even if you couldn’t spell out the details, and so you get to indulge in all the emotional gratification of the conclusion even as Rothfuss takes you there.  Almost nothing that happened in WMF came as a surprise, it all felt inevitable and right, and that’s the proof of the quality in the world building.

Kvothe’s tale resumes pretty much exactly where we left it as well.  But the opening for Kvothe’s tale is where my reading experience for WMF got a little weird.  (If you didn’t believe me about spoilers earlier, run away now.  I’m about to reveal specific plot details) Right before admissions, Kvothe gets dosed, via Ambrose’s manipulations, with a plum bomb.  This is a bit of alchemy that removes Kvothe’s social inhibitions.  It’s meant to make him flub his admissions exam and thereby remove him from the University.  Instead, it sent me into a panic of “Oh my god, he’s using Star Trek plots.”  It worked out okay – the plumb bomb did not resurface at a critical climactic moment and explain horrible badness that followed – but it destroyed all of my devotion and trust for the book.  From that point on, while reading it, I could not give people an answer when they asked me what I thought of it.  I was hooked, I was enjoying it, and I was certain I was just pages away from having my heart broken.  I suspect I’ll unquestioningly adore WMF upon re-read, but it was a harrowing first read experience.

I’d like to take a moment to give a shout out to Devi.  She was awesome in NotW, and she gets better in WMF.  During his escalating feud with Ambrose, Kvothe shows up at Devi’s door, proceeds to be offensive and stupid, and she hands him his ass in a beautiful take-down that I’d really like to see her administer again.  Perhaps twice.

Ambrose’s shenanigans peak when he has Kvothe brought up against the iron law over their spat in Imre that got Kvothe’s lute smashed.  Then, Rothfuss summarizes the whole trial, where Kvothe is trapped in a small space against his will for the first time, he gets open support from professors he hasn’t interacted with much, and has his first open and potentially antagonistic interaction with the Tehlan church, a sequence that should have huge character and plot development implications, in two sentences.  And ends the chapter.  Did anybody else feel like they’d been kicked in the head at this point?

The book switches back to the frame story where Bast and Chronicler stand in for the reader with a giant WTF and Kvothe is a jerk about it.  That makes it better, and the discussion is an interesting examination of what stories are worth telling and why (a theme running throughout the book), but it never got past feeling like Rothfuss slapped a bandaid on a problem and kept on rolling.  I’d feel better about it if he didn’t do it again, summarizing what was clearly a huge adventure that had no character or plot implications (and likely would have read like a re-hash of his days in Tarbean) with no note about it.  In short, this second incident of summarizing would have been a much better time to break into the frame story for a meta-discussion about story.

Elodin is brilliant and wonderful, Haeme well used and then left alone, and Kilvin gets Anaea’s stamp of approval as a good teacher.

Denna.  Kvothe’s relationship with Denna flourishes nicely and convincingly, even though she still turns up in unlikely places.  She gets some truly great touches of character development, and we skirt near a tragic cliché, with Kvothe wanting to rescue her from her abusive patron, then turn it inside out very nicely.  At this point I’m so convinced that Haliax is her patron (which I think I’m meant to be) that if it doesn’t turn out that way, there will have to be some deft narrative involved.

This brings us to Felurian.  This was simultaneously one of the strongest parts of the book, and the section about which I am least enthusiastic.  This is the part of the book where we stumble face first into the numinous elements of the world, and Kvothe the logical arcanist brazens his way right through.  Important stuff happens here, but it read like a long, involved “Kvothe gets 20 points in Don Juan” and I liked him less for it.  Randy sex-crazed Kvothe with Felurian’s bag of tricks behind him read like an indulgence in that black pit of epic fantasy mistakes the series otherwise dodges so neatly.  This could just be me, but if we’re going to read what is functionally a sex-training montage, the least Rothfuss could do is drop in a few actual tips for the boys in the audience to pick up.  I think the part that bugged me most about this montage was that Kvothe basically pwns an undefeated thousand year old fae and she proceeds to sex him up, while the plot tries very hard to make us freak out over a talking tree.  The cthaeh, while cool, didn’t really tell Kvothe anything the audience didn’t already know, so the frame story stopping to wig out over it felt…forced.

The training montage with the Adem was better.  I spent the whole sequence terrified he was going to walk away grand champ Adem mercenary, and he didn’t.  It’s the first time I’ve seen this sort of initiation plot done well, and that was awesome.

As far as Kvothe’s Episode 2 Anakin Skywalker moment, well.  It was on the opposite end of the book from the Star Trek moment.  It succeeded at what Episode 2 tried to do, but can we take a moment to feel dirty for even saying that?

Ultimately, I think WMF is a solid middle of an excellent trilogy.  It wasn’t as spot-on as NotW, but that was a hard act to follow.  My faith in the series was shaken a bit, but at the end I’ve decided that it doesn’t deserve that, so I plan to be just as giddy and excited expecting the final book as I was leading up to this one.  And next time, not even Scott Walker will keep me from getting my copy the day it comes out.

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5 thoughts on “Wise Man’s Fear

  1. Thanks for being kind enough to wait to post this until I finished with the book! Hehe.

    I too lost some interest with Felurian. I was missing Kvothe’s shenanigans at the university leading up to Felurian, and then she happened and I found myself openly hoping he would leave already and go back home.

    We can discuss stuffs later, though.

    • I didn’t finish until last Monday, and didn’t get a chance to write the review until Saturday. Stupid Scott Walker, ruining my reading and blogging schedule.

  2. Good review. I eagerly wonder how I will pass the time for next eight years waiting for him to finish the trilogy. (Or do you think I am being too optimistic on that timeline?)

    A few random thoughts from my own experience, with no order or coherence:

    1. The entire Felurian sequence was weird for me to, but for different reasons. I strongly expected that Rothfuss would show that Faery magic was also rationally grounded and easy to comprehend. He decided to go a different route and say “Nope, their magic is crazy and makes no sense to mortals like us.”

    It was an odd shift. I didn’t expect to see that the magic in this world that really was more than just “glorified energy transfer”.

    2. I also can’t decide if I am supposed to think Kvothe is a savant, or if the University is really missing out by not having a proactive Edema Ruh affirmative action and outreach program. Sometimes we are told Kvothe is able to all of his awesome things because of his stage training and learning how to memorize lines. This especially the case during the Adem training sequence.

    3. I am intrigued to learn why the larger society in the novel is backwards and in a dark ages setting, and why information and knowledge can’t be preserved outside of a few enclaves. I partly suspect the Tehlin church has a role in this, but I also wonder whether this is what happens when the world as “real magic” in it, and people are scared shitless and unable to take the time that its a lot less miraculous than they think it is.

    4. I’ve been trying to get all my friends in DC to buy copies of NotW, and I’ve had the embarrassing problem of going with them to bookstores only to discover they have no copies available. (This has happened with two different people, and after searching multiple stores.)

    I take this as a good sign and that the books are selling like hot cakes, but I really hope they never turn it into a movie or TV series. Unlike the Harry Potter stories where translating them to screen didn’t inherently offend me, Kingkiller takes its responsibility as being told through a text-based medium so seriously that I can’t imagine it surviving the transfer to a visual one.

    5. Despite my snarky gripes earlier, I really enjoyed the book. I keep feeling we’re getting teased by his line of “I was expelled from the University at an age younger than most are allowed in”, its really unclear whether that expulsion has happened already or if his real expulsion (as opposed to the de-facto one in the middle of book two) is still in waiting.

    6. I think I only gripe about the book as a way of dealing with my anger that we don’t have book three yet.

    • 1. I’d have had to quit reading if he’d rationalized Faerie magic. You can’t do rational Fae. And besides, naming is clearly numinous magic
      2. Definitely a savant. Ben brings it up in NotW and his parents go, “Oh yeah, I guess we do have a boy genius.” Their obliviousness up to that point has always had me wondering about children among the Edema Ruh in general. The troupe had a mix of genders, so I’d imagine there were couples aside from his parents. But there’s no mention of other children, and he’s so poorly socialized by the time he gets to the University I suspect he’s never had friends who were peers. And then there are no kids in the band he meets in WMF, and that’s not one of the things that tips him off that these are bad guys. How does that work?
      3. I’m guessing distance and the unreliablness of communication. Kvothe needs invent the combustion engine and the ansible.
      4. It would make a phenomenal translation to the screen, as long as it was done as a giant year-long mini-series by HBO or something equivalent.
      5. At the end of NotW I thought that was it, and that it was lame. Now that he’s committed some seriously egregious malfeasance…maybe not. This is part of my weird lack-of-faith with WMF. It indicates that the few weaknesses from NotW might not be flaws after all, while introducing a whole bunch of other things that have me bothered.
      6. At least Rothfuss is adamantly on the record that there is only one more book. And a draft of Book 3 exists, so if he’s hit by a bus, we’re not left hanging.

      • Ya know, I was thinking about the movie thing myself, and while I generally like movies, I don’t think I’d like this series to be one. I think part of what I really like about this series is specifically in the way Rothfuss writes it. I like the narration aspect, and the details we get from Kvothe as he’s reminiscing. I think in movie format, we’d either miss the beauty in those details, or they’d have him narrate over the movie about them, and I think that’d ruin it.

        In your ever continuing efforts to figure out what it is I like in a book, make a note that I think I like to feel like I’m being told a story, and not necessarily just reading a story.

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