Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Patrick Rothfuss - The Wise Man's Fear
The Wise Man's Fear is the second day of Kvothe's story, the second part of what the marketing blurbs refer to as "the story of a hero told in his own voice." Rothfuss's trilogy is a legend's life revealed to be ordinary and an ordinary man revealed to be extraordinary. The combination of the epic and the mundane is the novel's greatest strength (excluding, for the moment, the prose), but it's also the source of its flaws.
The Wise Man's Fear is much like a standard RPG. The novel has an overarching plot. When Kvothe was a child, the Chandrian slaughtered his family, and he's out for revenge. But as every player of Grand Theft Auto, Dragon Age, and Oblivion knows, it's never as simple as walking up to the evil doers and punching their leader in the face. To tell you the truth, describing The Wise Man's Fear as a book about the Chandrian is as inaccurate as saying that The Lord of the Rings is the story of a volcano. The Chandrian do, certainly, play a role, but that role is to be a motivation from the distant past and a goal in the distant future. The Chandrian do not once appear in the novel, and the number of revelations about them can be counted by the fingers not on either hand. If The Kingkiller Chronicles is the story of a man's struggle with the Chandrian, then a reader of this novel would probably be right to assume this is the second or third of a dozen book epic.
This is the story of a man's life, with the Chandrian as only a single aspect, and that autobiographical structure leads to that one aspect feeling diminished beyond repair. In an epic, it's fine for characters to fixate on a single goal. Hell, it's practically the foundation of the form. In real life, though, people are more complex, more undecided and inconsistent, than that. Kvothe is a multifaceted character. He has too many sides of his personality, too many likes and dislikes, hopes and fears and dreams, to be summed up in a sentence or two. And yet he drops everything, time after time, at the slightest mention of the Chandrian. This would be fine in a work of a smaller scale, or at least of a smaller focus. Here, though, when Kvothe disregards everything for the slightest reference of the Chandrian at page five hundred, the reader has not seen a Chandrian for over a thousand pages and has no prospect of seeing one, or even of one bearing a particularly large role in the plot, for about that long. The formless nature of the novel makes for a book that does not start with the Chandrian, and does not end with the Chandrian, but expects us to quake at the merest hint of the Chandrian in the middle.
In the same way that a summary of the book's plot that starts and ends with the word Chandrian written in magical blue fire would barely scratch the surface of the novel's plot, the above barely scratches the surface of the novel's pacing problems. This is a book that, like every self respecting RPG, devolves and deviates into a myriad of side quests that, in turn, spawn other side quests. That's all fine, except that the side quests themselves are in no way shape or form paced. They begin and end at whim, and the events within don't so much build to a climax as meander to and fro until they get distracted and run off to do something else.
A respectably novel sized chunk of the book's middle is devoted to Kvothe's hunting bandits. Kvothe and a team of mercenaries get to the bandits' general location and begin their search in a methodical fashion. Rothfuss does not go for an abrupt kind of pacing; they do not find the bandits right away. He also does not attempt to push the confrontation to the last minute; the characters do not find the bandits in the last square inch of the chosen search area. Instead, the characters search while Rothfuss explores sub plot after sub plot. Then, at around the point when the reader has forgotten entirely about the bandits, they're simply stumbled across.
This is not an isolated incident but rather the pattern of development for every one of the book's plotlines, large and small. One of the sub plots that abound during the hunt for the bandits is the growing tension between the members of the group, as expressed in the stories that they tell to each other at night. A situation is set up: the members cannot work together and are increasingly relying on Kvothe to pull them together. This situation is then ignored while we go look at some other shiny plot tangent. Then a solution pops up: Kvothe purposely tells an ambiguous story to get them to stop bugging him. The problem does not resurface.
Providing you are the statistically impossible reader who is reading this blog but has not already read at least three dozen glowing reviews of The Wise Man's Fear, you are likely concluding right now that this is a mess of a book best avoided. Well, as the reader who has read three dozen reviews that got to the point quicker than this one could tell you, you wouldn't be quite right there. The Wise Man's Fear is bloated and aimless. Perhaps even a mess. But it is a mess brilliantly told.
Patrick Rothfuss is not a poet. The language in this book will not make you want to weep. He is not an architect. This book's structure is not sound. He is not a philosopher. You will not rethink your life after reading this. But Patrick Rothfuss is a storyteller, and he is such a powerful storyteller that you will forget every single one of the faults I have just elaborated on for so many words while reading and be unable to tear your eyes from the page.
The University that Rothfuss writes about for so much of the beginning may not be a section of the book with a hook in its opening and a climax in its closing. It may meander and linger. But the students that Kvothe jokes with feel like your friends, as well. The music that he hears sounds in your ears. The feel of a Lute string under his fingers is felt by you, you can feel the grooves in the wood when he feels a barrel, you can feel the elation of his victories and the sorrow of his defeats, you can feel the clink of coins in your pocket and the lonely sound of a night's silence. When Kvothe sings a song, it does not feel like a Wisconsinite putting pen to paper, jumping back a millennia or so, and pretending to be a bard. When Kvothe tells a story, every image leaps to our mind like we're as surrounded by his tale as he is. When Kvothe is furious, the reader's heart pounds along with his. Every moment of The Wise Man's Fear is felt, not read about, and each page feels unforgettable.
The Wise Man's Fear is too flawed to be masterful and too masterful to be flawed. Rothfuss is a charging stallion oblivious to the best paths or the most efficient routes, but he's too powerful to be stopped before he reaches his destination. The Wise Man's Fear could be more polished and more effective, yes – and I hope that one day Rothfuss writes a novel constructed well enough to be a match for his storytelling skill – but it is a powerful read nonetheless, and Rothfuss is as gifted as he's so often claimed to be.