Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man’s Fear

In 2007, a new fantasy novel appeared by a first-time author named Patrick Rothfuss. That novel, titled The Name of the Wind, became very popular, earning impressive sales and even more impressive reviews for Mr. Rothfuss. The Name of the Wind was billed as the first volume in a trilogy called The Kingkiller Chronicle, and Mr. Rothfuss promised that the next two books would be published in one-year intervals. However, a funny thing happened on the way to Book Two, The Wise Man’s Fear: Mr. Rothfuss apparently had a lot more work to do on it than he had originally bargained for, so much so that Book II failed to appear in 2008. It also failed to appear in 2009, and failed again to appear in 2010. However, that streak of years has finally ended, and Book II of The Kingkiller Chronicle finally showed up in bookstores just last month. Of course, when any long-awaited book or movie or CD or video game or just about anything else finally makes its appearance, the question on everyone’s mind is: Was the wait worth it?

I can only say this: absolutely.

Of course, in all honesty I must point out that my personal wait for The Wise Man’s Fear was not terribly vexing, as I only read The Name of the Wind at the end of last year, so I’m not one who has been waiting for this book for four years. I only had to endure four months of waiting. Thus, perhaps I’m not the best person to assess if the book was worth a four-year wait. But I suspect that those who were would agree that it was worth the wait, and more.

In The Name of the Wind, we met a man named Kvothe, who runs a pretty typical fantasy-novel inn where our innkeeper is busy enough serving up drinks and bowls of stew to the local farmers who make up his clientele. Kvothe turns out to have lived quite the life, however, and most of the book is told by Kvothe himself, first-person, as he narrates his own life to a scribe we only know as “the Chronicler”. Kvothe was a member of a roving troupe of musicians and actors, until his entire troupe – including his parents – is murdered by an evil force known as the “Chandrian”. Kvothe found himself a beggar child in a huge city, then a student at the University, then again a musician on the side; he also found himself in love with a woman named Denna whose own past is somewhat hazy. Kvothe tells his story to the Chronicler, even as we learn that dark things are astir in the “present day” of the books – which means that Rothfuss is telling us two stories.

The Wise Man’s Fear picks up almost exactly where The Name of the Wind left off. Kvothe is still telling his story to Chronicler, going back to his days at the University. Along the way, more and more things happen: Kvothe continues his feud with another student; he finds himself in a serious debt crisis with a medieval loan shark; he journeys to a distant city where he tries to ingratiate himself with a local Lord who is unaware that he is being poisoned; he takes command of a group of mercenaries looking for a group of bandits; he has a tryst with a Fae woman; he goes to the land of a people who study martial arts in a way not unlike Shaolin monks of our world. And that’s not all that happens in the very long scope of this novel. So much happens to Kvothe in this story that at one point, when Kvothe undertakes a long voyage aboard a ship, Rothfuss uses a chapter of a single page to describe the voyage, basically saying, “Well, some stuff happened, including a shipwreck and pirate attacks, but none of that’s important so we’ll just skip it.” I have to admire the pluck of a writer who is willing to try that…and I have to envy the skill of a writer who can get away with it.

The Wise Man’s Fear is a highly engrossing read, even with its tremendous length (my advance copy, trade-paperback sized, checked in at over 1100 pages). There’s so much story here that when I would flip back in the book to refresh my memory of something, I’d find that the thing I was trying to remember in some cases had happened more than 500 pages before. Luckily, the story is very clearly told, never bogging down in a morass of detail despite a huge cast of characters and a wide array of settings.

As I note, Rothfuss is really telling two stories here: Kvothe’s coming-of-age story, and the story of Kvothe’s latter-day life, as his assistant encourages him to tell his story in hopes that he remembers the things he is capable of doing. I can only presume that in the final volume of this trilogy, the latter-day – or present-day – story will become the important one, as we learn just why it is so important for Bast, Kvothe’s assistant, to see his master remember who he is and what he is capable of. I can also only presume that other mysteries will be illuminated, such as who the Chandrian are, what the details are of Kvothe’s parentage, and just why his parents were murdered, along with various mysteries surrounding a good many of the people Kvothe comes to know and figure prominently in his story. Rothfuss seems to have scattered various clues throughout the first two books as to how these questions will shake themselves out, and I look forward to the answers. Hopefully in less than four years!

(TOR Books, 2011)

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