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Book Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Hardcover: 1008 pages
Publisher: DAW Hardcover
Publication Date: March 1, 2011
ISBN-10: 0756404738
ISBN-13: 978-0756404734
Author Website: Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe Kingkiller returns in The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, the second day of Kvothe’s enthralling story of his life and times. Clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, this massive quest fantasy covers a lot of ground but never bogs down in a mire of dull details.

As the story opens, the reader returns to the Waystone Inn, where Kvothe is living a quiet retirement as an innkeeper with the help of the fae named Bast. Chronicler has completed the first day’s labors (click here for a quick, cartoon recap of the first book) recording Kvothe’s story, discovering the truths behind all the lies told about the man called the Arcane. But The Wise Man’s Fear is a new day full of sometimes funny, sometimes painful realities from the mouth of Kvothe himself. In this day of storytelling, fifteen year old polymath Kvothe spends some time at the University and finally, though not completely, getting the upper hand on his nemesis Ambrose. However, it is that very thing which sends him forth from the University in search of a patron. He is led, through the auspices of a friendly noble from the Eolian, to Maer Alveron of Vintas, second richest and most powerful man of that country after the king. Kvothe must perform a variety of services for Maer Alveron, while negotiating the intricacies of the Maer’s court.

While on a mission for the Maer, he encounters Felurian the succubus fae and learns the ways of the warrior Adem. More and more, circumstances and Kvothe’s clever talents turn this member of the despised Edema Ruh into a powerful, moral, and humble hero. Meanwhile, the will they/won’t they romance of Denna and Kvothe continues, further complicated by Kvothe’s encounter with Felurian. The interludes of action at the Waystone Inn, and the broad hints of a world at war outside it become more tangible and the fractious relationship between Bast and Kvothe gets more so. Underlying the entire tale is Kvothe’s continual quest to find the Chandrian, slayers of his parents.

At the risk of sounding unprofessional, I can unequivocally state that The Wise Man’s Fear is one of the best novels I have read, ever. For fans of epic or quest fantasy, there is no time-tested material that Rothfuss does not include. In the scenes at the University, there is a mix of the archive-diving of Terry Goodkind with the boy-from-the-streets derring do of Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy. In the time at the Maer’s court, Kvothe treads carefully around political dangers akin to those of George R. R. Martin (though less complex) mixed with a deep forest quest one might find in a Dungeons and Dragons novel. When Kvothe spends time in the world of the Fae, Rothfuss combines world history building like David Eddings’ with the mythic tone of Patricia McKillip. At the feet of the Adema, Kvothe finds a vastly different culture of warriors that is both like and unlike those integral (or at least often included in) epic fantasies.

The Wise Man’s Fear has all the elements of the great fantasists, but also treads its own ground as well. The Adema, for instance, are a warrior culture that is anything but conservative. In most fantasies, warrior cultures tend to be conservative, both politically and morally. But the Adema are different. There is no monogamy, and sex and nudity can be public or private. There is no single leader, only teacher-guides and a warrior code that guides the actions of all Adema. What Rothfuss has done is mix an ancient Eastern warrior culture of postmodern morality with a language of infinite subtlety, creating a part of his world that is unique in form and function. Yet the Adema culture shares enough traits in common with reader’s cultural knowledge that it is easy to appreciate while at the same time being fascinated by its differences. Even Kvothe, genius that he is, has difficulty navigating a culture he can barely relate to. Kvothe’s warrior education by the Adema is one of the best portions of the novel, both for its traditional young-boy-learns-the-way-of-the-warrior elements and for its theme of cultural differences and their appreciation.

Though the tome is nearly 1,000 pages long, some readers may be disheartened to hear that Rothfuss (and therefore Kvothe, our narrator) glosses over portions of his life story. His time spent traveling from University to Vintas, especially, is given only a few words. Readers can only hope that Rothfuss will return to the glossed over parts of the story in short stories, novellas, or even sequels to the The Kingkiller Chronicle.

Readers who generally avoid sexual content may also be displeased to learn that young Kvothe finally beds a woman in The Wise Man’s Fear. Rothfuss has, however, chosen to go the route of fading-to-black or using euphemism to describe the actual sex act. This may make it more palatable to sensitive readers, though they should also be aware that Kvothe’s cavorting takes up a decent-sized portion of the novel, moving him emotionally from boy-to-man, and it has a resounding and permanent effect on his actions in all that follows. Female readers may take issue with male-centric viewpoint and description of sex (especially in the Felurian encounter) though this may be alleviated slightly by the cultural differences of the Adema, who give women more power (though of a masculine kind).

In light of the superb writing skills of Rothfuss, these issues may never surface for most readers. Rothfuss is able to connect far flung details together seamlessly, never loses track of the plot or characters, and mixes humor with deathly encounters in such a way that the reader cannot help but be fascinated. Take Kvothe’s work in the Artificiery. Significant things happen early in the novel at the “Fishery” that come full circle for Kvothe at its end. By that time, an reader may have only the faintest memory of what happened at the beginning of the novel (after all, nearly 700 pages and many significant events have come between) but Rothfuss doesn’t forget, and the two portions of the novel fit together seamlessly though not without understated yet powerful character and situation changes wrought by what comes between. Kvothe’s self-deprecating humor as well as the sometimes outlandish actions of the fully realized minor characters, keeps the story lighthearted enough for the reader not to feel the dark weight of the matters Kvothe juggles with alacrity.

Though Kvothe is the protagonist and the most complex character, Rothfuss does not let his other characters suffer. From the obstreperous, brusque Dedan, the lonely heart Sim, or the inscrutable Maer Alveron, none of the characters can be called caricatures. They may not be as fully developed as Kvothe, as is expected, but neither are they one-note characters. Dedan, for example, is a mercenary who rubs Kvothe the wrong way, but there is also a forlorn side to the man, as he is quite in love in with another mercenary. This adds a trace element of humor to the narrative as well as making him more than just the hulking mercenary archetype common to such stories. Maer Alveron is an especially well-written character. As a person, Kvothe is wont to make a friend of him, but a man of power can never be friends with anyone, even if he owes that man a debt. The subtle shading of friend yet powerful noble create a tension in the story that gives Maer Alveron more depth while also keeping the reader tense as a bowstring during his scenes.

It is amazing how involved and complex the first person story of The Wise Man’s Fear really is, and 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. It is a novel you won’t want to miss.