Cartoon from Rothfuss' Blog
I finally finished The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss nearly a month after getting it in the mail. Granted, the book is almost 1,000 pages long, but I’m generally a little quicker. Part of my pokey-ness was deliberate. Books like this one are meant to be savored. When an author like Patrick Rothfuss, or George R.R. Martin, or David Anthony Durham, or even Jacqueline Carey (who is actually a pretty quick writer in comparison) puts years of time and effort into a thing, when they have perhaps agonized over every word or turn of phrase in an effort to get things right not just for their characters but for their readers, you don’t read the finished product in one sitting. That’s like going to a gourmet restaurant and shoveling the food into your face hole with your bare hands. After you’ve asked for ketchup.
Even though I only read The Name of the Wind last fall, and I hadn’t waited nearly as long as most of Rothfuss’ fans, I wanted to absorb this novel. And so I did.
I have enjoyed both of Rothfuss’ books, but felt nagged with the question of where they were going. In chatting with a former student, in fact the person who convinced me to pick up The Name of the Wind in the first place, she mentioned an article where Rothfuss discusses his work as an autobiography as opposed to a plot driven adventure. This is the life of Kvothe. And like real lives, not everything is tidy or answerable. Not every small thing has massive import. After considering the idea of the autobiography, I feel much more comfortable with the meandering nature of Kvothe’s narrative.
Name of the Wind cover art by Marc Simonetti
And speaking of Kvothe, we are once again confronted with two of him in The Wise Man’s Fear: young Kvothe of the University, and the older Kvothe who tells his story. To me, this is a bittersweet narrative frame. While young Kvothe has a lot of problems, older Kvothe is a subdued shell of his younger self. Rothfuss reminds us periodically with Interludes that the two Kvothes are not the same and that something dreadful lies between the then and the now. There are inklings throughout, but this mystery is still unresolved at the end of The Wise Man’s Fear. In the “real time” of the two novels, only two days have passed as older Kvothe tells his story to Chronicler. In the narrative of Kvothe’s life, it has been roughly ten years. Kvothe leaves the University in this installment, and makes his way into the wider world.
Kvothe’s world is rich and well developed. Rothfuss certainly has a gift for description. I can feel the gritty tar roofs of Tarbean or the soft darkness of the shaed when I read. The male characters are very real in my mind. Younger Kvothe is one of few main characters who has a personality that transcends “protagonist.” I like him because he makes mistakes. I like him because we have older Kvothe to balance him against when he does get too stereotypically heroic. I also grew very fond of Tempi, who appears in the latter half of the narrative. We meet him as a bizarre and stoic Ademic mercenary but as we learn more about him and Ademic culture, he becomes quite likable. Kvothe ends up spending a good chunk of time in Adem, where all outside of Adem are considered barbarians, and it is in this passage that Rothfuss’ world building skills really shine.
I specified male above because one of Rothfuss’ weaknesses are his female characters. Women tend to be deified in Rothfuss’ work. They’re ideals instead of characters, perhaps with the exception of Devi, the archanist money lender. Fela is beautiful, Mola is beautiful and a gifted physician, Auri is all trembling innocence, Denna is the very ideal of perfection in all she does, Vashet is the beautiful but deadly mentor, Penthe is the beautiful but deadly student, and Felurian… well, Felurian is quite literally the most beautiful woman who ever lived. And Kvothe loses his V card to her. My husband might high five him if he were real.
Kvothe painting by Kim Kincaid
I would like for Rothfuss to flesh out his female characters to make them more than… well, flesh. These aren’t sexist portrayals by any means – simply very uniform. I would like the women to act as more than catalysts for the men and to be more than a pretty face first. Even warriors like Vashet and Penthe were described in terms of beauty first and abilities second. The only female characters not primarily described in terms of beauty were our antagonists, such as Carceret or Meluan.
The only other major issue I had with The Wise Man’s Fear was that of pacing. Rothfuss spends hundreds of pages with the minutiae of University life, or gallivanting in Vintas with Denna, or endless days on the road hunting bandits followed by endless twilights of mind blowing sex with Felurian, but will gloss over a catastrophic shipwreck in one chapter. While I appreciate Rothfuss’ attention to detail and his consummate skill as a world builder, there is much that could have been edited out. I did find myself growing bored at times, especially with Kvothe’s time in Vintas and with Felurian. At the beginning of The Name of the Wind, older Kvothe claims he can tell his life’s story in three days. The pacing of these books is very slow and I wonder if Rothfuss will keep to that, or if Kvothe’s story will spill into a fourth and fifth book. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. I would hate to see Rothfuss rush the third book.
That being said, even my occasional boredom with Rothfuss’ work is mostly pleasant. I enjoyed my month with The Wise Man’s Fear and was sad to put it down. I look forward to the next installment, whenever it comes out, and plan on taking my time with that one as well. Kvothe is compelling and these novels have so far made for a very interesting character study. I love a good character study – character often holds up a narrative when plot fails (as it does more often than I like). I just hope Kvothe finds someone other than Denna to fall for in book three…