‘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.