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The excellent parts outweight the bad
on 18 March 2011
Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, Kvothe the Kingkiller. He is a legend but the real man is an enigma. A man named Chronicler is trying to find out the truth behind the legend by convincing Kvothe to tell him his life story, a task so long it will take three days to complete.
On the second day, Kvothe relates more of his time at the Commonwealth University, his ongoing feud with another student named Ambrose and his increasingly proficient studies in various areas. He also tells of his time spent in Vintas, serving a nobleman seeking to woo a lady, and learning the arts of combat in far Ademre. But how much of Kvothe's story is truth and how much is his own fabrication?
The Wise Man's Fear is the sequel to The Name of the Wind and the second in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. Since the trilogy was originally one extremely long novel split into three parts, The Wise Man's Fear has little preamble and not much of the climax. It starts, we follow the story for a time, and then it ends with little resolved. For a novel that is 1,000 pages long in hardcover, that should be a fairly damning comment.
Rothfuss's saving grace is his immense writing skill. He could make the telephone directory sound warm and interesting, and whilst the book is extremely long most of the chapters are short and snappy. The narrative is divided into two distinct sections, basically Kvothe in the University and Kvothe out in the world, and these sections are themselves fairly episodic. Whilst Kvothe's hunt for information about the Chandrian, the mysterious creatures that killed his family, provides a narrative spine of sorts, sometimes dozens of chapters pass without this plot element being as much as mentioned.
As a result The Wise Man's Fear feels less like a novel and more like a collection of tightly linked short stories (a feeling added to by the fact that one episode in the novel, The Road to Levinshir, was previously published as a separate short story almost a decade ago). This dichotomy - a very episodic book presented as a single novel - creates problems for pacing and consistency, with some of the episodes and stories being fascinating and others being tedious, whilst several more interesting-sounding incidents (like Kvothe standing trial for a misdemeanour) are skipped over in a couple of paragraphs. The Name of the Wind suffered from this as well, such as the incongruous and dull draccus incident towards the end of the book, but due to its much greater length The Wise Man's Fear is even more prone to it. Kvothe's dalliance with a famous Fae temptress goes on for far too long and winds up feeling a bit like the porn version of Tom Bombadil, whilst Kvothe's training montage with the Klingon Aiel Dothraki Vikings of the far north-east is just plain dull. Those who found Kvothe insufferable and Gary Stu-esque in the first novel will likely plain hate him here, as he picks up a ton more skills (including unarmed and armed combat, more magical skills and several more languages) with ease.
But Rothfuss does seem to be more overtly pulling the wool over the reader's eyes here. Kvothe reports on his badass fighting skills but then in a 'present' incident is unable to effectively defend himself from attack. Is this because he overrated his combat abilities, or because he's rusty, or because he deliberately holds back? The reader is invited to decide. Anomalies in Kvothe's story are also pointed out by Chronicler, and Kvothe admits to occasionally sprucing up his story. He's not exactly an unreliable narrator on the scale of Severian in The Book of the New Sun, but Rothfuss is at least letting the reader know that Kvothe himself might not be the best person to tell his tale, but he's all we've got to go on.
Elsewhere, plot elements are carefully alluded to rather than being spelt out, such as the motivations and identity of Denna's mysterious employer, or the relationship between Kvothe and a minor character that Kvothe himself is totally oblivious to. There is an impressive degree of subtlety running through this brick-thick tome that will no doubt raise questions and discussions that will keep fantasy forums busy until the final volume is released.
Rothfuss's powers of prose and characterisation remain highly impressive. The writing is rich and atmospheric, setting the scene perfectly, and Rothfuss has a keen eye for detail, humour and warmth (though in this book slightly more undercut by bitterness and cynicism), but those hoping for the story to explode into life, become bigger and more epic, will be disappointed. In a way Rothfuss is writing an anti-epic fantasy, with the focus narrowly on one character and the ordinary events that have been inflated out of all proportion. This forces the reader to keep downplaying expectations, since Rothfuss isn't playing the same game as a lot of other epic fantasy authors.
The Wise Man's Fear (****) is a difficult book to review, as it's well-written, sometimes compulsively page-turning and features some extremely well-played and subtle storytelling. On other, briefer, occasions it's tediously dull, cloying and prone to attacks of purple prose (particularly in the frisky fairy section). The book is also monstrously overlong and could have been split into two or three more focused, shorter books without too much of a problem. But Rothfuss is too good a writer to let the book's many issues sink it, and the book ends with the reader left wanting to know what happens next, which is the key thing. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.