The Wise Man’s Fear: Kvothe is given free rein

fantasy book reviews Patrick Rothfuss The KingKiller Chronicle 2. The Wise Man's Fear audiobookThe Wise Man's Fear Patrick Rothfuss book reviewThe Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

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.

~Ryan Skardal

After reading a couple of hundred pages and skimming much of the rest of this 1000 page tome, I’m going to send it back to the library unfinished. Here’s the deal: I enjoyed the first book, The Name of the Wind, quite a bit, but there were a few things that were starting to bug me by the end, and I was dismayed to discover that everything that bugged me in the first book is still being rehashed in the second.

The book seems to be recycling the same storylines as the first book in the series: Kvothe’s money problems, issues with tuition, fights with Ambrose and Master Hemme, fruitless chasing after Denna, seeking the Chandrian. Been there, done that. Those weren’t my favorite parts of the first book, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend more time reading about these same things happening over and over again with no resolution and not a whole lot of forward movement. Especially when it’s 1000 pages long.

Kvothe, the main character, is a total Gary Stu — brilliant, extraordinary musician, better than all his fellow students at magic, attractive, etc. — but he has one major failing: he’s hot-headed and doesn’t know when to keep his smartass mouth shut, defer to teachers, or let go of an issue and play nicely with others. This irritates me So.Much. He carries on this insanely self-destructive feud with another student that practically ruins his life and almost results in him dying several times, and he just can’t back off and let it die. It makes me want to slap him upside the head.

I might come back and try this again, if I hear that the third book is amazingly wonderful. Maybe.

~Tadiana Jones

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. The highly contradictory reviews of this book here at Fantasy Literature make me all the more interested in reading The Wise Man’s Fear. I want to reread the first book first, though, and when I’ll have time to sit down and read two such long books back to back is a mystery.

    Nice review, Ryan — thanks.

  2. Ryan — I think your analysis of weaknesses of this book is new, and very thoughtful. Thank you.

  3. Ryan, I listened to the audio, too, but I doubled the narration speed, or else I might not have made it through. (Changing the speed on a good player does not alter the sound of the voice). The book was way too long.

  4. Ryan, absolutely love it when I read critical reviews backed up with solid rationale. The self-indulgence I see in Rothfuss’s interviews (check youtube) seems to translate to his fiction, as well. Keep those well-thought reviews rolling!

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