At one point in The Wise Man’s Fear, the second novel in Patrick Rothfuss’s THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE, Kvothe is advised to play tok (a board game) in order to produce a beautiful and interesting game rather than just playing to win. Rothfuss appears to have adopted a similar maxim when it comes to writing. The Wise Man’s Fear invites readers to sink into the text in order to revel in the aesthetic moment rather than marching toward resolution. It’s a bold approach, and it allows Rothfuss to attempt something richer than “just” a page-turner with swords and magic.
Adolescent Kvothe is still at the university when The Wise Man’s Fear begins, a setting that Rothfuss confidently manipulates to highlight Kvothe’s strengths. Put briefly, Kvothe is a precocious underdog. Though these strengths were already showcased in The Name of the Wind, Rothfuss invests as much as he can into every moment of the story. So Kvothe’s rivalry with filthy rich Ambrose Jackis, his attempts to keep one step ahead of his creditors, and his skill at playing the lute are all given (at least) one more moment in the spotlight. At times, this rehash is comfortably familiar, and I particularly enjoyed spending time with Wilem, Kvothe’s dryly humorous friend, and Devi, who lends Kvothe money at exorbitant rates of interest and who remains an engaging rival for Rothfuss’s hero. However, after fifty chapters of reveling in the past, I was relieved to learn that The Wise Man’s Fear is actually about Kvothe’s semester abroad.
When Kvothe leaves the university, his story takes on an episodic structure that recalls Homer’s Odyssey. Though he does not outwit a Cyclops during his adventures, Kvothe does meet a fairy version of Calypso. Fantasy readers will likely find the premise of every episode promising — Kvothe studies swordplay with the Aiel, Kvothe joins a band of mercenaries, Kvothe saves damsels in distress. Each episode offers at least one nice touch, such as the use of rings to signify status in the Maer’s court. However, they offer none of the richness that Rothfuss seems to be aiming for. Their supporting casts, for example, are flat and forgettable compared to Master Elodin and the other members of the university. Kvothe has little stake in these episodes, which decreases the urgency of the narrative. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the anticipation that should accompany each premise will be followed by disappointment, and this pattern is repeated over nearly a thousand pages.
At first, I was prepared to accept Elodin’s assessment of Kvothe: he has “the feck of twenty men.” After all, Kvothe was only annoyingly smug in The Name of the Wind, but he is unbearable in The Wise Man’s Fear. Kvothe is proud of his story to the point of arrogance, and it makes him a lazy storyteller. In fairness to Kvothe, he is presumably winging it as he goes. However, I was surprised that Rothfuss was willing to give Kvothe so much control over his narrative. Bast and Chronicler both seem like useful devices for controlling Kvothe, but they never do. Instead, Kvothe is given free rein in The Wise Man’s Fear, and his story suffers for it.
Rothfuss’s refusal to rush the action of his narrative is arguably what distinguishes THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLE from many other fantasy series. He is able to characterize his hero through elaborate pranks, and he disguises pages and pages of exposition as amiable banter. However, some readers may find themselves realizing that dozens of pages of amiable banter are really just thinly disguised exposition. Ultimately, The Wise Man’s Fear aims high, but it remains an indulgent novel that seems to have been caringly, but not carefully, written.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of The Wise Man’s Fear. It was skillfully read by Nick Podehl, whose voice seemed a perfect fit for Kvothe’s university days. Having said that, I found that he couldn’t carry the weight of Kvothe’s exile. Podehl fearlessly uses a wide range of accents from our world, a strategy that may take some readers out of the novel. Having grown up in a rural area, I was annoyed by the folksy accent Podehl adopted for the townsfolk in the frame story. Readers from the United Kingdom or Eastern Europe (regions that Podehl often draws upon for his accents) may have a similar experience. It should be noted that Brilliance Audio’s production of The Wise Man’s Fear is over forty hours long, and I often found myself wishing I could “skip ahead” by skimming over a written text.