Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

So today I finished The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, the middle book in the Kingkiller chronicle. This makes me sad, because Mr Rothfuss seems to have taken a leaf out of George R R Martin’s (very long, impeccably written but unfeasibly complicated) book and decided to wait a couple of years before publishing The Doors of Stone, the final volume in the trilogy.

I’m a sucker for epic fantasy tales which run over many books. I blame my father, who introduced me to Tolkien at an impressionable age – The Lord of the Rings set the bar pretty high, but from there I progressed through David Eddings (the Belgariad and more), Mervyn Peake (Gormenghast, obv), Robert Jordan (the ongoing Wheel of Time epic), Robin Hobb (the Farseer, Liveship and Soldier Son trilogies), Janny Wurts (the also ongoing Wars of Light and Shadow), J V Jones (the Sword of Shadows books), Greg Keyes (the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series), Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy) – like most of these authors, I could go on. And on. And on and on and on.

Some of these series are better than others, of course, but they all grabbed and held my attention through more than one volume, often into three, four or more. Some of them did lose their way a little – I will admit that I haven’t read the latest few Wheel of Time books (I believe there are more than a hundred now*), and I almost didn’t finish The Born Queen, the last in Greg Keyes’ KoT&B cycle. However, I do love to be immersed in a well-crafted and complex world with characters I know, and all these series (and many others) have done that to a greater or a lesser extent.

Some, however, stand out. Tolkien, of course (the daddy), and Peake, for his Gothic grotesques, and I was obsessed by Janny Wurts’ lush description and tortured characterisations for a long time. Joe Abercrombie’s casual, graphic but somehow sympathetic violence left me breathless, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen took me in a whole different direction, into a messy, complicated world where conventions are overturned and central characters are bumped off with alarming regularity.

Most recently, however, I’ve been living in Westeros, with Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister and the rest of George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire cast (and I don’t just mean on television, either) (although that too, obviously. Mmm, Jon Snow…). Then, when I finished A Dance With Dragons and arrived at the terrible realisation that I have to wait AT LEAST TWO YEARS for the next book in the sequence, I picked up The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss’ sequel to The Name of the Wind and the middle book of the Kingkiller chronicle.

And oh my word, I’m bereft all over again. Kvothe, the unreliable, anti-heroic, proud, self-deprecating and precocious narrator of his own story, is at different times infuriating, pompous, naïve and prickly, but at all times he is aware of his own deeply flawed nature, and Rothfuss’ writing is supremely sympathetic – even when I want to slap Kvothe and tell him to get over himself, I also want to go out drinking with him and persuade him to write a song for me.

The story is told in the first person – the conceit is that Kvothe, trouper, student, arcanist and general trouble-maker, is now retired to a village in the middle of nowhere and has assumed the simple anonymity of an innkeeper named Kote. However, he is persuaded to relate his tale to a Chronicler of stories, setting down a true version of events as a counterpoint to the wildly embroidered and exaggerated tales of his exploits that circulate around him. As with any first-person narrative, this gives us a privileged view of Kvothe’s retrospective motives and uncertainties, but there are also third-person interludes during which we meet the Chronicler and some locals, as well as Bast, Kvothe’s student/companion and (evidently, apparently) a mysterious creature of the Fae. During these interludes there are fights, arguments and all manner of hints and clues, but (as yet) no firm information about how Kvothe became Kote – and as everyone knows, names are important things.

The huge cast of supporting characters is equally well-drawn – in fact, one of my (small) criticisms of the books is that characters are created in minute detail, the reader gets to know them, and then they disappear as Kvothe moves on. Rothfuss’ world is becoming increasingly complex as the books progress, and Kvothe’s passage through it is at once disruptive, infuriating and nail-biting – we cheer him on as he makes mistakes and wrong-headed decisions, gets trapped in seemingly impossible situations and offends the wrong people YET AGAIN.

A bit of internet research has revealed a wide and active fan community, constantly engaged in speculation, deconstruction and discussion of the books’ massive complexity and Rothfuss’ confusing, maddening, intriguing hints and plotline machinations. I’m avoiding those discussions here because they are available elsewhere if you want them, and because spoilers are unpleasant things if you’re not expecting them.

The third and final book, The Doors of Stone, is due – when? Sometime, maybe; apparently it’s written, but Rothfuss likes to take his time with the editing process. I appreciate that, but please – not four years, like the gap between The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. In the meantime I’m in limbo, missing Kvothe, wondering what he’s up to and how his life unravelled badly enough to deposit him in the obscurity of a countryside inn – and for him to be apparently content in (or resigned to) that state of affairs.

The best books leave one like this – missing the characters like old and dear friends, looking forward to their next visit, half-wanting to live in their world. However long Rothfuss takes over The Doors of Stone, I’m certain it’ll be worth the wait.

*Not really. The fourteenth and (we are assured) final book is due out next year.

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