Brief Commentary–The Wise Man’s Fear

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

I enjoy a good epic fantasy as much as the next nerd, and so I enjoyed the first novel in this series–and Rothfuss’s first novel overall–The Name of the Wind. I enjoyed how he utilized the classic “quest” motif as an individualized trope, wherein our hero, Kvothe, doesn’t go out to save the world, but to make sense of himself, to learn, to find self-improvement, and to uncover the truth behind the unsettling mystery of what happened to his parents, and why. It was refreshing to see the classic epic remade into a bildungsroman, and to see notions of education, and friendship, and relationships between fact and mystery, knowledge and myth (and the necessity of all) played out in a well-realized fantasy world. Yet, for all the good, I found myself regularly frustrated at how lucky and clever and always-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time Kvothe was, and this kept me from absolutely loving the first of these “Kingkiller Chronicles.” Yet here, in this second novel, I began to see that Rothfuss has a larger purpose for showing Kvothe in such a way–a purpose I can’t wait to see reach its conclusion in the forthcoming third and final volume of the series.

Importantly, the frame narrative becomes much richer here in this second novel, and the ambiguous love and evil we saw in Bast at the very end of the previous book continues to develop in even stranger and more fascinating ways. We see that Kvothe’s greatness is challenged by his current ineptness, his existence as a sad, pitiful, washed-up nothing; that is moving and sad, and points to a deeper question: is Kvothe’s story real? After all, in a novel about story telling, in which a story is being told in which stories are told–often false stories–we’re left wondering about the real, true connection between the frame narrative and the main narrative. Perhaps, I couldn’t help but think several times in the reading, perhaps Kvothe is not some great hero, perhaps he is only a regular, everyday person who found himself doing heroic things in spite of how normal and everyday he is. Perhaps the story he is telling to Chronicler is his accepting the stories told about him, using these embellishments, presenting them as truths, so as to make sense of his own life. And perhaps, in the third book, Rothfuss will tell us the truth, and we’ll see if the real man, the real hero, is actually Kvothe–or maybe just plain old everyday, regular, boring, quotidian Kote the innkeeper.

Rothfuss thus continues the strong from the previous book, and deepens the moral and narrative complexity, and in so doing overcomes my only real reservation of the first book. And as he expands the sweeping adventure here, he creates some really wonderful and memorable scenes and characters and events, and Kvothe’s contact with new cultures and peoples provides extra depth and enjoyment to the overall world of the novel. I am left with almost now reservations here, but with some mighty huge frustrations.

The things that cause those frustrations just aren’t frustrating, they are agonizingly bad. I’m no prude, but turning Kvothe into a Lothario and spending ~70 pages of the novel with him shagging the equivalent to Aphrodite, and following that with multiple passages of sex with exotically Stoic beauties from the other side of the mountains and commentary on the silly prudishness of Kvothe’s own culture is, well, silly. Okay, Patrick Rothfuss likes sex. Fine. But I can’t get over the feeling that this is the author’s attempt at getting “real-world deep” and making comments about problems he sees in Western attitudes about sex, gender roles, etc. I have no problems with him doing that, but as performed here it feels unnecessary, ham-fisted, and often contrived. While Rothfuss thankfully avoids the pitfalls of the George R.R. Martin school of bad fantasy novel sex-writing, the use of sex here still feels like a distraction, something in there just to titillate, or to make some grand political gesture, or to sex it up just to boost sales–and not like it has anything to do with the central narrative or themes. Further, all this makes the achingly gorgeous, sad, tragic, and as-of-yet chaste longing between Kvothe and Denna seem, well, somehow less vital and real when held in juxtaposition with Kvothe-as-Don-Juan.

Another annoyance is the continuing reference to Kvothe’s youth. Understandably, the first novel needed to have him as a boy and then a young teen to do the work Rothfuss wanted to do there. And as such, there’s no getting around the youth in this, the sequel. But nevertheless, there’s something pretty silly about reading all the epic adventures of our hero, and then being beat over the head with pronouncements of amazement that HE’S ONLY 16 ISN’T THAT INCREDIBLE!?!?!! I sometimes wondered if Rothfuss felt he needed some in with the lucrative young adult market, and felt that such continuous declarations of age were necessary. The actions and adventures and maturity displayed here by Kvothe could easily be those of someone in his early 20s, and that’s the age I kept imagining him to be. But being regularly informed about Kvothe’s infrequent need to shave makes it seem as if Rothfuss really wants Kvothe to be Harry Potter (and, to be clear, this book shows real indebtedness to the Harry Potter series).

But despite some frustrations, I was enchanted and absorbed by this book. After the first novel in the series, I was ready to be further entertained, but what I’ve uncovered after reading The Wise Man’s Fear is not merely entertainment, but a staggeringly good and incredibly intelligent bit of epic fantasy, that repurposes and reinvents many of the classic tropes to real and profound effect.

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