Rothfuss’s Big Fish: Tall Tales and The Wise Man’s Fear

The_Wise_Man's_Fear_(US)

Recently, I reviewed The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss on this blog. It did not take me very long to pick up its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. I was in the perfect mood for escapist fantasy pulp and the thick doorstop of a novel passed quickly. In fact, when I reached the last hundred pages I knew I wouldn’t put the book down until it was over and continued to read late into the night, finally finishing at 1am. I spent the entire next day complaining to Joe what a terrible book it was. Despite all that, escapist fantasy, tall tales, and exaggeration have a place in our lives for a reason – and this book reinforces that well.

I initially thought that there was very little to say about the second book that I hadn’t already said about the first. The story starts with Kvothe at school struggling to learn Naming magic, although he eventually leaves for a term to “chase the wind.” While he is out on his journey of self-discovery he spends time working in a foreign city for a rich man called the Maer, he follows a group of bandits into the forest, he wanders into the fae where he cavorts with a sex fairy (yes really) before escaping, he trains with legendary mercenaries, he rescues a couple kidnapped young girls, and then he returns back home to the University with everything very nearly back to the same place it started, which makes everything feel pointless. It is an enjoyable yarn but feels overblown and self-important.

One of my big complaints about the first book was how stagnant the characters are. In the second book Rothfuss nearly addresses this: Kvothe’s relationships in the Maer’s household and with a couple of the Adem mercenaries evolve over the course of their time together. However, by the end of the book Kvothe is exactly back where he started (less his virginity and with a little more money than before) and these characters are on the other side of a long journey, so it hardly matters.

My second complaint about the first book was that most of the pages are devoted to infodumping details about magic techniques, politics, and in-world folklore. The set up of this book is largely the same: Kvothe travels from place to place and learns in sequence about courtly politics, then about woodcraft and folklore, then about sex (yes really), then about martial arts. Each section is long and most of the exposition is unnecessary, and on top of it all Rothfuss introduces a new flaw in this book: he starts to get preachy. Sections of the exposition now feel like they are intended to convey Rothfuss’s own opinions on sex and relationships (cringe), right behavior (okaayy), or politics and justice (ugh). He even manages to have Kvothe tell two young girls who had just been repeatedly raped that “not all men” are bad, which made me say “**** you, Pat Rothfuss” out loud to my living room in the middle of the night.

The framing story indicates that Kvothe will go through sore trials in the next book: he is in hiding after killing a king and starting a war and is “waiting to die”, although the reader doesn’t know why or how this death is coming. Kvothe seems to be unable to complete the basic magic or fighting techniques that earned him fame in his previous life. His disciple, Bast, however seems to have complete assurance that Kvothe just needs to be pushed in the right way in order to return to his old heroic self. Is it illness, a curse, or just plain old fear and depression that limit Kvothe? Eighteen hundred pages into the series, and the reader still is not any closer to finding out. It seems to me that Kvothe is intentionally leaking stories about himself in order to lure in someone who is hunting him. There are some fans who say that this indicates that Kvothe is an unreliable narrator and this is the trick on which the entire story hinges. However, a surprise ending that hasn’t been adequately built over the course of the story will feel more like a cheap trick. Rothfuss would be in danger of severely disappointing readers with the ending of the trilogy if he does not do more work to better set this up if this is the case.

Sometimes a good story can be its own reward, though – the embellishments and exaggerations part of the charm. I’m reminded of the ending of the 2003 movie Big Fish when Edward’s son, Will, finally comes to peace with his father’s stories. When he was young, the son despised them as lies. It was not until after his father’s death that he realized that the tall tale version of his father’s past actually revealed a passion for life – a passion Will had previously been lacking, but it is implied he will start to learn for himself. Perhaps the ending of The Kingkiller Chronicle will be much the same. Rumors say that the third book may be released in August this year (although fantasy fans know not to hold their breath!) Despite the things I dislike in Rothfuss’s writing, I’m sure I will read The Doors of Stone it when it is released and stay up late in the night to finish the tale.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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