Justin's Reviews > The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
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Dec 31, 13

bookshelves: fiction, fantasy
Read from June 17 to July 31, 2011

** spoiler alert ** I don’t understand how you do it, Patrick Rothfuss. I can’t stop reading your ridiculous books.

The Kingkiller Chronicle books are getting a fair amount of buzz, and well they should. They are epic fantasy in the classic vein: young boy with roughshod background turns out to be The Hero, and goes on a Hero’s Journey in preparation for a much-foreshadowed confrontation with evil forces. It’s time-tested comfort food for fantasy readers. Moreover, Rothfuss is a fantastic author. As I mentioned in my review for The Name of the Wind, he can turn a phrase like few others can. He writes characters and scenes so well that I didn’t particularly care that Kvothe is an obnoxious, smug little Mary Sue with unearthly good luck, or that The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t have any recognizable climactic action or, for that matter, any story structure at all. I was too busy turning pages to find out what happened next. Well, that’s not entirely true; I did care. A lot. But I was ravenously turning pages anyway. Seriously, I have no idea what to think about this one.

Again, this book doesn’t really have a cohesive story to summarize, being largely an extension of the first book: Kvothe the innkeeper sitting with the Chronicler and relating the continuing adventures of Young Kvothe. The best way to synopsize this book is to consider it a road novel. After a meandering introduction of Kvothe continuing to be the best at everything while at the University in Imre, his quest to find out more about the Chandrian and avenge his family’s murders leads him away from his new home and out across the known boundaries of the world. Now, in theory, this is the perfect next step for developing Kvothe’s character and moving the story along. It works in practice, for the most part. Most of Kvothe’s adventures are compelling, even if they usually result in him growing more as a legendary badass than as a fully developed character. But each fun, well-written part is balanced out by something completely ludicrous. I honestly felt disoriented after finishing this one, trying to decide if I loved it or loathed it.

When Kvothe first leaves the University, he ends up in the court of a foreign ruler (known colloquially as the Maer), tasked with navigating the intrigues of the local nobility and getting into the Maer’s good graces. He does this by foiling a long-game assassination attempt due to his exceptional powers of observation, and by playing Cyrano de Bergerac to woo the ruler’s lady love for him, which is naturally a cakewalk due to him being the Best Musician Ever. This would all be just fine (especially considering the hints throughout the book concerning just who the Maer’s lover is), if one could forget for the barest moment that Kvothe is sixteen years old. One star.

Kvothe then ends up on an expedition in the wild as the leader of a mercenary band. Since, you know, if I were a powerful noble, I would definitely put a sixteen-year-old in charge of a mercenary band. This part, however, is the strongest section of the book. Kvothe’s struggle to maintain his position amidst battle-hardened sellswords is actually interesting and believable, and the conclusion of their mission (which is the closest thing to a climax that this book has, even though it’s a little past the halfway mark) is tense and has interesting implications for the larger story. Five stars!

Then, there’s Felurian. The Felurian part. I just... I don’t even... I mean...

Okay, the Felurian part. So, this is foreshadowed since the blurb on the first book: "I spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life." Apparently, Felurian is a faerie spirit that is essentially an avatar of sexual desire. Capricious and seductive, she lures men into her domain for no reason other than her own desire and relatively innocent curiosity, but the awesome sexiness of her otherworldly sexitude is too much for a mortal man. Those who don’t suffer a massive coronary from the vigor of her faerie sex are left broken husks, spending the rest of their short lives pining for her after her curiosity and lust are sated. Kvothe, the sixteen-year-old virgin, stumbles into Felurian, and of course, she can't help but sex him up. But Kvothe the sixteen-year-old virgin has sexy sexitude powers of his own! He is so naturally gifted at the sexing that Felurian, the faerie spirit of lust, can’t get enough of his sexy sex. There’s still the problem of escaping her domain, but Kvothe manages that by once again being the Best Musician Ever. But Felurian decides that she won’t let her boy-pet back into the mortal world if he’s not the Best Sex Machine Ever, in addition to everything else, so she spends forty pages teaching him the secret faerie arts of sex wizardry. Seriously. Literally thousands of techniques are apparently imparted, with mysteriously sexy names like “Ivy Climbs the Love Tower” and “Rhino Fondles the Pomegranate,” or whatever. I mean... really? Zero stars, plus an additional penalty for squandering what could have been a fantastic goddamned story opportunity.

Here’s the thing: I could see how this would actually be a cool moment in the book. For all of Kvothe’s skill at everything he touches, Rothfuss has taken pains to depict him as woefully inept when it comes to romance. This could have been made a central point as to why his encounter with Felurian went as it did, especially considering that he manages, just for a brief moment, to master the art of Naming while in her domain. Something could have been made about the state of mind that sexual bliss encourages, especially to those that don’t already have preconceived notions about what it is, and this huge chunk of aimless titillation could have had a point. Instead, Kvothe lounges around naked and marvels at how he can’t remember how many times he’s grabbed Felurian’s breasts, or how much honeyed bread he’s eaten. Deep, man.

Anyway, that steaming ladleful of stupid is balanced out by one of the most intriguing scenes in either of the Kingkiller books: Kvothe’s encounter with a malicious faerie deity that calls into question everything he’s ever done from that point on, and implies that he may be doomed no matter what he does. My imagination is still reeling after reading it. After he escapes from Felurian, he ends up in the homeland of the stoic Adem mercenaries, and spends some time learning their ways. It’s a solid bit of world-building that honestly could have used its own novel-length exploration, but it really is a joy to read. Eight stars, and a demand for a side-project book about the Adem!

And then you once again remember that Kvothe is sixteen frigging years old, and accomplished more in a couple of months than any of the Adem did in years. That knowledge is stuck firm in your mind as you read about his encounter with a group of bandits that had kidnapped some farm girls and subjected them to days of rape and humiliation. By this point, it’s a forgone conclusion that Kvothe will save the day, but the revelation of him being the Best Consoler of Rape Victims Ever is just a bit too much to take. One of the girls had retreated inward after her brutal ordeal, and Kvothe manages to bring her around again just by being awesome. Okay, that’s easy enough to accept, I guess. But near the end of this vignette, the apex of this girl’s anger, shame, and helplessness is expressed thusly: “I hate men!” To which Kvothe deftly responds, “I’m a man too. We’re not all like that.” I’m not sure whether to be aghast at the author’s indelicate, crass handling of such a poignant and potentially provocative scenario, or appalled at how Kvothe is apparently still considered the most smooth-talking ladies' man ever to rescue a damsel after such a clumsy, boorish response. Either way, I have no earthly idea what this whole section is even doing in the book in the first place, as it doesn’t add a single bloody thing to the story. Negative fifty stars, and I want Patrick Rothfuss’s lunch money.

Sigh. I just don’t know. The thing is, there is justification for these problems right there in the text, because once again, Rothfuss is fundamentally a good writer. We have a classic case of an unreliable narrator, expounding on a theme of history and mythology being largely indistinguishable. We have a story framework that revolves around a broken, defeated man, who may have been marked for tragedy from the outset and who is obviously consumed by regret at the folly of his youthful arrogance, as the ritually repeated prologues and epilogues make clear (by the way, after the fourth time you read one of those florid passages, they start to become irritating). Both point to glimpses of a larger theme, and a purpose to everything that doesn’t currently make sense. Both also make me feel as if I’m being an apologist for a thousand pages of masturbatory author wish-fulfillment.

I can’t get around the fact that I really liked reading this book, and though I was frequently outraged, I was never bored. I would definitely recommend this to fantasy readers, and it decidedly belongs in the “must-read” pantheon for the genre. As for myself, though, I can’t decide between giving it a completely non-scientific five stars for being fun, smart, and readable despite its flaws, or an angry one star for the brazen, sustained assaults on my suspension of disbelief. You’re all duly warned, I guess, so I’ll split the difference with three stars.

This must be how Twilight fans with any remaining sense of shame feel.
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