Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear

Before I begin, I have to offer a quick apology to my gentle readers (and a more sincere apology to my angry readers, because I'm much more afraid of them) for my absence last week.  The book I'm about to review was responsible for two or three days, and doing things that didn't involve books, horrors, accounted for the rest.

Now, back to our regular programming: The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss's sequel to his bestselling first novel, The Name of the Wind, and the second entry in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy.

I'll start by admitting I've been waiting for this book, more or less patiently, for a couple of years now; when it was supposed to be released last spring, I went to Borders in a fever of excitement and left a cursing, shambling, disappointed shell of an Editor.  Despite what publishers and Amazon reviewers may have you believe, decent non-crap fantasy novels are released as rarely as a unicorn is seen outside the pages of a crappy fantasy novel; it was a sad, sad day for the Indiscriminate Reader.  Now, though, I'm actually quite pleased about the delay for one reason: the space between books one and two, and the opportunity I had to get unexcited again, left me much more prepared to comment dispassionately on The Wise Man's Fear*.

The final verdict: I'm on the fence.

Let's back up.  In The Name of the Wind, readers were introduced to Kvothe, the young son of a group of traveling musicians and players whose culture and lifestyle were clearly borrowed liberally from the gypsies.  Traveling with them for a while is a magician of sorts, who fascinates Kvothe with tales of the University, where science, history, languages, and magic are all taught in equal proportion.  Kvothe's father, as the story begins, is at work on a song about a group of mythological bad guys called the Chandrian; very soon after the story begins, the Chandrian prove themselves less than mythological by showing up and slaughtering Kvothe's family.  He survives, and he sets out for the nearest major city with the intent of getting himself to the University as soon as he can to satisfy his thirst for knowledge about the still-mysterious, albeit no longer legendary, Chandrian.

Without giving away too many spoilers, it's safe to say that Kvothe spends most of The Name of the Wind at the University: he meets a young woman whose provenance is meant to be fascinatingly mysterious, he makes friends, he makes enemies, and he studies.  There's a bit of action, certainly, so don't get the impression that there isn't; and it's a fun book, no doubt about it.  It's just that . . . well, we'll get to the just that in a moment.

The Wise Man's Fear is framed in the same way as the first book.  In both, the narrator is Kvothe himself, telling his story from the lofty and world-weary vantage point of a man a little under thirty.  Kvothe is, at this chronological point in his tale, presumed dead, and he's running a village inn under an assumed name; he tells his story to a scribe who tracks him down and discovers his true identity.  Here's a brief excerpt from his story, an excerpt which also appears on the book jacket:

My name is Kvothe.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings.  I burned down the town of Trebon.  I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life.  I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in.  I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day.  I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

Discerning readers may detect a faint note of arrogance in the above.  That theme is carried all the way through both books; Patrick Rothfuss clearly thinks Kvothe is just about the coolest, and Kvothe agrees with him.  What's hard to put your finger on is how much of this is meant to be tongue in cheek.  While I've already seen Kvothe do some of these things in the first two books (I won't say which, I promise), so far, he's a college student.  Harry Potter goes to Oxford, just a little bit, although I'll admit before even finishing the sentence that that's a little too harsh.  I get that reputation is a big theme in these books; Kvothe purposely spreads rumors about himself, and more rumors are eagerly spread by others.  I can see where Rothfuss might be going with this, but the message is just a little too muddled to compensate for the disconnect between the overblown narrative frame, in which Kvothe is the most famous man in the world, and the text so far, in which he's a college student.  A smart, bad-ass college student, no doubt, but a teenager all the same.

It's even harder to know how much Rothfuss identifies with Kvothe, or rather, how much of the books are wish fulfillment.

And that's the just that I referred to above.  All fiction is wish fulfillment to some extent: escape from reality, identification with someone whose life is more exciting than one's own, the opportunity to mentally travel somewhere one otherwise could not.  But there's a fine line between an author constructing a main character and a world he finds interesting, in order to fulfill the wishes of the readers, and an author projecting his own desires so strongly onto a character that the story begins to feel unrealistic.  In a previous post, I talked about characters who are smarter than their creators, and the issues that arise in such literature.  The corresponding problem that arises in fantasy is caused by characters so outside the norm that they become disproportionate to their world.

The greatest fantasy offender in this regard (and in fact in almost every other way, but that's a story for another day) was Robert Jordan, God rest 'im.  Rand, one of the protagonists of the Wheel of Time series, suffers badly from awesomeness overload.  He's the most powerful magic-user around - for those of you who may be familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, which is overall the best reference material to consult when reading Jordan anyway, Rand's a level-20 mage in a magic missile-using world - but that's not enough.  No, he is also so attractive to nubile, busty young women that three of them, each hotter and more libidinous than the last, fight over him, cry over him, and eventually agree to share him.  As I recall, Rand just shrugged and went with it.  He felt a little bad about screwing around with all of them, but you know, he wasn't going to choose or anything, so their solution worked for him.  The way it was written made me uncomfortable, and not because of the subject matter; I was uncomfortable because I felt like I'd just been given a peek I deeply didn't want into Robert Jordan's personal fantasy life.

Kvothe isn't quite this unbalanced, and I'm not saying that Rothfuss is as prone as Jordan to put his own fantasies straight onto the page.  But Kvothe, as a character, is just a little too awesome in ways that feel to me like Rothfuss's idea of how awesome he would like to be, and the often-realistic way in which Rothfuss gives Kvothe the typical problems of a teenager just isn't enough for counterbalance.  One romantic fumble doesn't erase fifty pages of a sixteen-year-old displaying sophisticated social analysis, technical know-how, and overall badassery.  Kvothe is a bit on the smarter-than-his-creator side, too; he's supposed to be a genius, and yet there are moments when information is presented and the reader is able to put it together well before the character.  That's no fun for anyone, and it weakens the suspension of disbelief that's more important in fantasy than in any other genre.

But beyond any of this, I had one issue with The Wise Man's Fear that I just couldn't get past.  I get that fairy tales, of which this book is a conscious echo, have stylistic elements one might not find in most fiction.  Rhyming dialogue, for example.  And if the rhyming dialogue in the book had been confined to those scenes in which Kvothe interacts with fairy folk, I'd have kind of dug it - but it pops up in several random places in the book, as if Rothfuss just couldn't resist rhyming whenever good rhymes occurred to him.  It was distracting.  It was irritating and overused.  The book's losing a whole half star because of it.

I should end this review with some positive notes, however, since the book overall was entertaining and competently written (and I mean this as high praise, given the competition).  The Kingkiller Chronicle isn't a Tolkien redux.  It's not sword and sorcery, despite the presence of both swords and sorcery.  There's no gratuitous creepy sex, which has been such a recurring theme in the last decade or two of fantasy that it's going to get its own post one of these days - and huge props to Rothfuss for that.

And my highest praise for this book: as I said above, much of the background material is clearly pulled from fairy tales and folk stories.  The way Rothfuss handles this is refreshing in two important ways.  One: he has obviously gone directly to the sources for his inspiration, rather than depending on muddled interpretations of folklore as already presented in other fantasy novelists' stories; two: only someone who truly understands, loves, and delights in the tone of proper fairy tales would be able to imitate them so successfully.

The Wise Man's Fear, minus the rhyming penalty, ends up with three and three quarters stars within the fantasy genre.  I recommend Rothfuss's books wholeheartedly to anyone who loves fantasy but is tired of reading about dragons.

* Should the author of these books stumble upon this review, be it noted: I am in no way encouraging a further delay in the release of book three.

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