Review of The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
The Wise Man's Fear
by Patrick Rothfuss
Oh dear God I want to kill Kvothe.
I don’t want him to die. I want to kill him.
I would like to excise him from this book. Could I possibly get a Kvothe-less version of The Wise Man’s Fear? Is that a thing? Would that work? It would hopefully be better than this.
I’m twitching, a little, because of course, back in my review of The Name of the Wind, I praised Kvothe:
It's easy to like Kvothe. I won't say it's inevitable, since I can also see some people disliking him. But he already scores points because he's not insufferably badass. There are only so many Magnificent Bastard masculine heroes I can take before I need a good dose of farmboy naivety. Kvothe falls somewhere in the middle, a happy medium between crazy-capable and powerless. He's clever--something he mentions several times--but far from infallible. He makes plenty of mistakes. He has an insatiable love for learning--something with which I can personally identify--and is totally clueless about women--again, something to which I can relate.
Now, this was fine in book 1. The problem is that by book 2, Kvothe begins to drift firmly towards that land of insufferable badassery that condemns him to Mary Sueness.
I appreciated that in the first book, Patrick Rothfuss set up a frame story that promised a tale of Kvothe’s daring exploits that could only end badly—namely, with Kvothe a failed and broken innkeeper in some piddly village during dark times. Sure, there are all these legends about Kvothe’s amazing powers, his ability to communicate with the Fae, his musical prowess … but that’s all they were, legends, exaggerations. Kvothe goes on and on in both books about how he intentionally started most of these rumours. So the appeal, then, of Kvothe’s narrative was getting to hear the actual story, the one where Kvothe more often than not fell flat on his face.
Trouble is, in The Wise Man’s Fear, those legends seem closer to reality than hyperbole. I think this Hulktastic review makes the point best:
KVOTHE IS BEST LUTE PLAYER, IS BEST SONG WRITER, IS BEST WEAPON-MAKER, IS BEST FIGHTER, IS BEST ACTOR, IS BEST INVESTIGATOR, IS BEST KILLER, IS BEST GIRL RESCUER, IS BEST MAGICIAN, IS BEST IS BEST IS BEST IS BEST! EVEN FAERIE ENCHANTRESS LOVE KVOTHE BECAUSE KVOTHE IS BEST FIRST-TIME LOVER IN ENTIRE HISTORY OF MADE-UP WORLD! HULK FROTH AT MOUTH WHEN THINKING ABOUT PERFECTION OF ALWAYS CLEVER KVOTHE!
Could not have put it better myself. Thanks, Hulk!
So we’ve gone from Kvothe being a screwed up street orphan who gets into the university, gets himself banned from the archives, and is barely getting by … to Kvothe being super-amazing at everything. Not that he would brag about it, mind you. It’s almost as if Rothfuss took all the various fantasy protagonists rattling around his head and amalgamated them into one super-protagonist. It would have been interesting to have a story about the best lute player, another story about the best fighter, etc. That’s how the fantasy genre tends to work—and the best writers can hold more than one of these characters in their heads at once and create a compelling ensemble cast, where the protagonists’ strengths complement one another. Rather than going that route, however, Rothfuss seems to be determined to make Kvothe fill the role of an entire ensemble cast, and this is a mistake. Not only does it make Kvothe annoying, but it devalues the other characters. At best they become less interesting; at worst they become one-dimensional.
Some reviewers have commented about this problem in relation to the women characters. It’s a valid criticism, but I would argue that it’s equally applicable to the men as well—both male and female supporting characters are poorly drawn here. They exist only in relation to how they can help or hinder Kvothe. Even when they are at their most interesting (such as Sim’s revelation that he can read Eld Vintic), it’s only so that they can somehow help Kvothe become more awesome. In other words, the other characters in this story aren’t people—they are props to help Kvothe be the best Kvothe ever.
You could chalk this up to the frame story and an unreliable narrator, but it happens within the outer story as well. Bast is literally a manipulative bastard Fae who is trying to force Kvothe to wake up and be awesome again. He has no other purpose.
The Wise Man’s Fear is actually about 17 novels in one—OK, maybe not 17, but definitely at least 7—nested like Russian dolls one inside the other. Kvothe leaves the university to go travelling, goes searching for bandits, gets distracted by the Fae … just when you think that the current story is going to end and we’ll return to the next story up the chain, a new story starts! And it’s fun and interesting and fascinating the first two or three times it happens, but then it just feels old.
It’s really a shame, too, because Rothfuss is just so damn good at creating settings and distinct aspects of cultures. For example, in Vintas the nobility exchange rings of different metals to signify different relationships. In Ademre, people speak sparingly and modify their speech with hand gestures. These kinds of touches, and Rothfuss’ willingness to explore them in great detail, are brilliant. This is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I’m looking for in a fantasy novel, and Rothfuss once again demonstrates he is a strong new voice in this respect.
The epic, quasi-medieval fantasy subgenre has taken a few knocks in the past decade or so. It’s difficult to write good stories that don’t feel all that derivative. And there are certain aspects of the subgenre and its conventions that can be problematic as well. Rothfuss largely manages to avoid these pitfalls to produce a splendid and refreshing fantasy story. Despite my utter and unapologetic change of mind about Kvothe, I still managed to enjoy reading this story. I can’t help it: there’s something about the way Rothfuss tells the story that picks me up and takes me on a journey, which is exactly what I want.
If you did not like The Name of the Wind but had hoped to pick up The Wise Man’s Fear anyway, then this book is not going to change your mind. In many respects the story is every bit as good, if not better, than the first book. Rothfuss gives himself a little more freedom to roam the vast world he has created. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way he slips the reins off Kvothe’s characterization, and our clever-but-fallible orphan protagonist from the first book transforms into an annoyingly modest Mary Sue. And the taste this leaves in my mouth is all the more bitter for knowing that this probably one of the best epic fantasy works of this decade.