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.


  1. I didn't read your review from top to bottom, just a few of the paragraphs here and there because I am currently working on reading this book and don't want any spoilers. Regardless, I read your last paragraph and so far I completely agree with your analyses here. It's an oddly balanced work so far. Some of the scenes seem to go on and on forever and others seem to come and go far too quickly. I don't know if that makes sense - but that odd balance seems to ring true throughout the portion of the book I've read so far - not just on plot, but other aspects as well.

    I hope what I said makes some kind of sense....

  2. Interesting review, and not what I expected based on other reviews. I still have the original book gathering dust and haven't gotten around to buying this one yet.

    I guess it's a shame that writers are almost forced into writing these multi-book epics before they've really mastered their craft.

  3. @Sarah: That does make sense, and I get what you mean, even if the balance, in the end, did not work for me. I should make it clear that I really did enjoy myself while reading the book. It read quickly, and I was enthralled, because every page seemed about to deliver revelations. But those never came (or never came in the right places), and, when I finished it, and when the spell dissipated, I realized I was far less enamored with it than I thought.

    @Anton: I would disagree about them being forced into it, as Rothfuss is clearly passionate about this story, even if I do wish he'd written something more manageable first and learned a bit about structure and pacing.

  4. I understand where you're coming from, but must say that I personally disagree, or see it in a different way.

    We are reading Kvothe's life story (as you say, this is a story), what is and isn't important to him. That's why some aspects might seem like they are dragged out, while others, such as the "eventful" sea voyage are handled in a few sentences. I think that he could easily go with the "best paths or the most efficient routes", but purposely chooses not to. Imo, that path that he takes makes for a much better *story*. As well, these books have a ridiculous number of hidden clues and easter eggs and the route that Rothfuss takes gives us the chance to figure a LOT of things out if we are willing to take the time and make the effort.

    For example, Cinder was the Bandit leader, so at least one of the Chandrian definitely did appear. Bredon is clearly not what he seems. It's almost guaranteed that he's Denna's patron and he could be a Chandrian as well. Lots of mysteries around Denna. Is she Chandrian? One of their Agents? The, or an aspect of, the moon? A lot of people enjoy the Maer story, but it is even better if/when you figure out that Meluan Lackless is his aunt. The Adem are probably split off from the same group as the Ruh, and there are lots of interesting things that show up in their story. The way that they live their life probably developed as a way to counter the influence of the Cthaeh. Kvothe's activities do a lot to foreshadow his becoming an Amyr, and he even has his own Angel (Auri) who has given him a candle, coin and key just like Taborlin the Great and mentioned or hinted at the similarities/parallels between him and the Amyr more than once.

    Those are but a few of the hidden things and possibilities off the top of my head. These two books are like the TV show Lost, one can spend years reflecting on them and seeking to decipher the clues hidden in the texts, especially the poems and the languages.

    I'd argue that this novel was brilliantly constructed. It just wasn't constructed in a traditional manner. Imo, the more that you understand it then the less of a "mess" it is. A lot of people don't have the time or energy or interest to analyze it thoroughly. And that's cool, everyone has their own preferences and I'm not at all trying to judge people who might look at these books in a different way. But I truly believe that another way is present, and that it's not fair to judge it based on a reader's expectations that it will be conventional going in. I celebrate these books because they are original and defy (at least some) expectations.

  5. It's true that this is Kvothe's life story, and I've heard Rothfuss say in many an interview that this should be viewed more like a biography (which is, obviously, inherently unstructured) than as an intentionally paced novel. And you know what? I find that silly. This isn't a biography. Yes, this is a story about someone's life, but so is (almost) all (good) fiction. That's not an excuse to ignore one of the main aspects of novel writing, namely pace. People don't read biographies for enjoyment of the story. They read them *because they're true.* This story is not true, so playing the biography card is rather meaningless.

    As to the clues, I would never deny that the level of depth they exhibit is highly, highly impressive. I picked up almost none of them on my read through, I'll admit, but found the Westeros threads discussing the novel very interesting (though I don't post on Westeros nearly as much as I used to, I still do lurk). That being said, something like that is, to me, more gravy on top of a novel than an actual element.

    This is, of course, just a matter of how different people enjoy their books, but, for me, deep internal mysteries have to have a greater significance than just being mysteries to be truly powerful. Rothfuss's clues are interesting, yes, but they're interesting in a jigsaw puzzle sense, not an eternally memorable work of art sense, much as a huge amount of work obviously went into layering the novel so many times with revelations. Rereading the book once the series I'm complete, I'm sure, would be a very interesting experience, and is something I may do, just to see the depth of the foreshadowing. You're obviously correct that the novel was intentionally constructed, but I'd still argue that it wasn't successfully constructed.

    About Cinder, you're right, he did appear, and I did notice that. That's an out and out factual error on my part, so I apologize for that. But I don't think it invalidates my point. Yes, he appeared - and maybe someone else did in a disguise, and so forth - but he didn't *do anything.* The mega, mystical, world ending villainous threat is still just shadows on a wall, even if one of those shadows briefly gains dimension before flirting innocuously away.

    I do just want to say that these are just my feelings, and I certainly don't mean to demean your enjoyment of the novel. I'm just arguing my opinion, in case any of this comes off as more forceful than I intended (as I've been known to, accidentally, be), and your points were quite well argued.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Nathaniel Katz

  6. I loved reading both these books and will buy the third, but I agree with most of what Nathaniel said.
    For me, in the 2nd book, there was virtually no plot progression. There was a random encounter with one of the Chandrian, nothing Kvothe ever did to find out more about them or track them down. Denna again comes and goes and their relationship goes nowhere. Magically Kvothe summons the name of the wind a few more times but nothing else happens.
    At first I thought the author made the cardinal error or mistaking 'stuff happening' for plot, however I now think this book was essential for the series going forward.
    Kvothe became a man. He transformed from a smart arse little boy into a young man who had experienced love, battle, hardships etc and been tempered by the process. Plus there was a little trick where he aged a few extra years while in the fae realm.
    All in all I was disappointed with the lack of plot progression but again I think the transformation was essential.