They say you can't argue with success. Well, who's arguing? Someone has to point out that there are at least a dozen fantasy writers more deserving of having a novel debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list than Patrick Rothfuss, so it might as well be me. Rothfuss is good, but he's nowhere near that good. Yet I don't think I've quite seen a writer showered with as much effusive, sycophantic geek love from the SFF community since Robert Jordan himself (though Rothfuss, to his infinite credit, is better than Jordan).
Rothfuss possesses an uncanny ability to cause readers to short-circuit their critical faculties. Listen to the way my colleagues sing hosannas in his name. Over at Grasping for the Wind, John Ottinger breathlessly proclaims that "Rothfuss is, with only two novels to his credit, already a Grand Master of epic fantasy. There simply aren’t enough superlatives in the world to describe how excellent The Wise Man’s Fear is." Wow. Over at Barnes & Noble's blog, Paul Goat Allen shifts his hyperbole drive to warp factor seven: "The saga of Kvothe is a timeless, towering, masterwork. The Kingkiller Chronicle — a projected trilogy — is nothing short of the 21st Century equivalent of The Lord of the Rings and Patrick Rothfuss the next coming of Tolkien." Damn! In a paradoxical review over at Fantasy Literature, Robert Thompson admits that, compared to Rothfuss's debut The Name of the Wind, "little has changed" from that novel's "shallow world-building," "one-dimensional" supporting characters, and that the framing story is "still somewhat tedious." But in the end he offers 4½ stars anyway and declares "there is no doubt in my mind that The Wise Man’s Fear will end up being one of the best fantasy novels of the year." Well, let's just hope no one else figures out the whole "three-dimensional characters," "complex world-building" and "exciting storytelling" thing, so that Pat can hold onto his lead!
I mean no disrespect to my fellow critics, but come on, fellas. If we haven't learned to be cynical of hype yet, it's time we did. Here's the skinny from someone whose deep love of fantasy fiction has, I hope, been made abundantly plain in ten years of online reviewing: The Wise Man's Fear is the meandering, undisciplined story of a meandering, undisciplined young man, by a meandering, undisciplined young writer. In a gloriously ironic example of art mirroring life, the young writer is being made a legend by the indiscriminate praise of people exaggerating his skills and talents, just as his young protagonist is being made a legend by the spreading of stories that exaggerate his actual accomplishments.
This is not to say that Rothfuss is a writer of no accomplishment. As he demonstrated in The Name of the Wind, he is a born writer through and through. His prose is never less than a pleasure to read, and he effortlessly draws readers into his narrative through his attention to the subtler points of character. It's as a storyteller that he's all over the map, literally and figuratively. The Wise Man's Fear, though it improves in many ways upon its predecessor, falls short in others. This sequel is much too episodic, too drawn out, too lacking in narrative focus to provide a wholly satisfying reading experience. It's less a novel than a series of scenes. At 1000 pages (oh dear, another one), it could have taken care of business in half the length. These are not insignificant problems. There's too much shilly-shallying around in epic fantasies these days, with already-thin plot threads stretched out until they're nearly transparent. And to what end, precisely? Simply to set you up for the next book?
The central conceit of The Kingkiller Chronicle, of which this is volume two, is that it reveals the truth behind the legend of Kvothe the Kingkiller, a man said to bear a cloak of shadow and a silver sword, who knew "six words he could whisper in a horse's ear that would make it run a hundred miles. He could turn iron into gold and catch lightning in a quart jar... He knew a song that would open any lock, and he could stave in a strong oak door with just one hand..." He could probably open a stubborn jam jar, too. Presumably, somewhere along his whole career of being awesome, he gets around to killing a king.
The Wise Man's Fear left me wondering exactly when Kvothe is going to live up to his rep. We are now two very long novels into his life story, and he hasn't graduated school yet. Cue another of my frustrations with bloated fantasy series: the interminable postponement of any sort of dramatic payoff for all that reading you're asked to do. At least George R.R. Martin — the figure to whom everyone else, perhaps unfairly, is inevitably compared — punctuates his sprawling epic with plenty of narrative peaks. You never know when utter chaos will erupt and claim the lives of your favorite characters without warning. Rothfuss's story is notably lacking in anything like suspense or dramatic tension. In The Wise Man's Fear, Kvothe can be accurately described as a young man who travels here, does some stuff, travels there, does some other stuff, and travels a third place, where he does yet more stuff. Some of it is interesting. Some of it is downright tedious. At no point does the book get your pulse racing. At no point are you at the edge of your seat, flipping pages in breathless anticipation of what is to come. If Martin is a roller coaster, Rothfuss is the little train that chugs around the park.
I'm being kind of a downer here, so I might as well mention the book's qualities. Despite the fact that Kvothe is, to put it plainly, not so interesting a young man (give me Locke Lamora any old day), Rothfuss still manages to make him appealing, and I followed his exploits with, for the most part, pleasure. He certainly does get around. Ostensibly, his driving agenda is to learn what he can about the Chandrian, the mythical beings who slaughtered his parents as well as the entire troupe of traveling performers with whom he grew up. But Kvothe doesn't seem especially single-minded in his pursuit, as heroes in revenge stories usually are. It is simply one more thing on his to-do list. As a young man in his mid-teens, it's understandable that Kvothe would still be maturing and developing, honing his personality on the whetstone of life experience, as it were. But it's a stretch to believe that a guy who, early in the book, cannot manage to control his temper, leading to a nearly violent falling-out with a money-lender who's little better than a common criminal, would, only a few months later, have such unshakable sangfroid and self-possession that he effortlessly bluffs his way into the good graces of the autocratic ruler of a neighboring country. Not just into the man's good graces, but actually becoming his second most-trusted confidante!
I think that Rothfuss means for these inconsistencies in Kvothe's personal journey to be deliberate, and indicative of some deep paradox within the young man. Fine, I'll bite. But it does force you to endure some wildly uneven storytelling and shifts in tone all throughout the book, especially in its protracted second half.
For the first half, The Wise Man's Fear depicts Kvothe's ongoing exploits at the University, where he continues his musical career and education as an arcanist despite crippling poverty, having alienated half his instructors, and earning an implacable personal enemy in the wealthy Ambrose. Kvothe pursues his erratic, not-quite-a-love-affair with the free-spirited Denna, who's something of a freelance courtesan and who represents the unattainable in every young man's life, I suppose. We learn that for all Kvothe's achievements, the goal of true love will be forever beyond his grasp. Rothfuss builds upon the supporting characters of Kvothe's classmates, too, making these chapters altogether pleasurable reading (even if Rothfuss is nowhere near as deft with the chummy banter and hijinks as, say, Scott Lynch).
Everything gets more problematic in the second half. Upon the advice of his friends, Kvothe takes a term off, and travels far to the east, where adventure, or something like it, catches up to him. In desperate need of a wealthy patron, he gains the trust of the Maer Alveron, ruler of the neighboring country Vintas, after stumbling upon an assassination plot. The Maer then sends Kvothe off in charge of a band of mercenaries, to root out a gang of bandits waylaying his tax collectors. This takes, oh, 150 pages or so. Then, while wrapping up that episode, Kvothe finds himself enraptured by the fae seductress Felurian, and spends a great deal of time in fae country, most of it getting laid. Here he gets his shadow cloak, in a sequence that is suitably atmospheric. Upon his return, he takes a detour even further east, accompanying Tempi, a mercenary of the Adem race who is facing serious trouble at home for teaching Kvothe their secret fighting skills while off hunting the bandits. To spare his friend further punishment, Kvothe is granted the privilege of being formally taught in the Adem ways. These include a typically ineffable form of Zen philosophy they call the Lethani. We are treated to master-and-student scenes of training straight out of classic martial arts cinema, except that these go on, and on, and on, and...
I hate to convey how monotonous I found most of the novel at this point. Reading The Wise Man's Fear is like playing one of those 100-hour-long Playstation role playing games where you are detoured into so many side quests, you lose your focus on the main goal. If there'd been, at the very least, a bit more action, some occasional thrills along the way, some sense of wonder and derring-do amidst all the unrequited romance and endless lesson-learning, then even if this book's journey didn't end up anywhere but back home, at least the trip itself would've been more fun. As it is, Rothfuss just adds insult to injury, hinting that the best stuff in the story was shuffled off into the deleted-scenes section. Upon arriving in the east, Kvothe mentions briefly that there were "complications" during his trip, involving "a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck," and that he was "robbed, drowned, and left penniless... However, as these events have little to do with the heart of the story, I must pass them over in favor of more important things...but at no point in my journey was I ever bored."
Wish I could say the same, Kvothe. Next time, I hope your creator shows a little wisdom, and considers that the non-boring parts of your story shouldn't be the ones to fear.