Book Review: “The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss

Read The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

A few years back, I read and fell utterly in love with a book called The Shadow of The Wind. I recommended it to a friend. “This one is special,” I promised him. He raced out at once … and bought a book called The Name of the Wind. Different author, vastly different genre, similar title. All the same, an easy mistake to make.

A days later, he called to thank me for recommending such an amazing read. “Special indeed,” he agreed. “Damn special.” When we began to compare notes, we discovered the mistake. The book he read wasn’t set in gaslit Barcelona, and didn’t feature a sinister police officer or the Graveyard of Forgotten Books. The one I read didn’t involve a fantasy world, a stunning woman who appears and disappears like the wind, or a University of arcane knowledge that makes Hogwarts seem like a mundane kindergarten.

So we both raced off to the bookstore, and we each found another book that found its way to the top of the favorites list. Amazingly, both have remained at the top of that list despite a few years of reflection and even a reread or two. To this day, it seems amazing to me that two absolutely brilliant books with such similar titles could be released at around the same time, and both feature such lovely, aching prose (with sentences and even whole passages that absolutely demand to be read aloud) and such utterly unforgettable characters. But there you go. These books are special. Both of them.

Quality aside, the books could not be more different. The Name of the Wind is a fantasy with all the imagination that makes the genre so rich. And in a market where the shelves are overflowing with doorstop-sized tomes offered tin-eared echoes of the mighty J. R. R. Tolkien, Patrick Rothfuss has created something that feels comfortably familiar at times, and startlingly original at others. More, he has, without question, the best ear for prose since, well, Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, or Patricia A. McKillip.

Rothfuss creates characters, and a world around them, every bit as complex and believable as those crafted by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but without the relentless darkness. That’s not to say that Rothfuss’s work is all sweetness and light. Far from it. But he balances that darkness with joy. The latter makes the book shine with a beauty that the best fantasy strives for, and makes the former all the more poignant. In fact, that balance is a key part of the book’s success. Some of the very best, loveliest, and most wounding fiction comes from an author who crafts characters that you can’t help but love, and gives them true happiness—for a moment—and then snatches it away. Or who gives his characters exactly what they want the most, but in the worst possible way. Joy and heartbreak, blended. It worked for Dickens, it works for Joss Whedon and J. K. Rowling. It certainly works for Patrick Rothfuss. (In fact, Rothfuss’s fans seem to have the same level of passion of Rowling’s and Whedon’s.) It’s a brilliant, beautiful book that comes awfully (emphasis on the awe) close to doing all that fantasy can at its best. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

The sequel to The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear, was released a few years later than promised, but it was worth the wait. The new volume picks up right where the last one ended. The central character, Kvothe, has been narrating the truth about his life—already a legend—to a scholarly young man known as Chronicler. Kvothe promised that the telling would take three days. The first volume was day one; the new one is the second day. The final volume, day three, should be released within our lifetimes, if all goes well. There’s apparently a sequel trilogy coming after that. I have no idea when, but I feel utterly safe in saying that whenever it arrives, it will, like The Wise Man’s Fear, be worth the wait.

Of course, that strength is also the book’s shortcoming. It’s not so much a book as a chapter. (A hell of a long one, but still.) The Wise Man’s Fear doesn’t really have a beginning—that was offered in The Name of the Wind. It doesn’t really have an end. Kvothe stops narrating when the day ends. He happens to be in a happy place then, but we have enough foreshadowing to know that it’s not going to last. The Kvothe who’s narrating the story isn’t the same man who’s living it. Something has happened, a wound, and the next book will tell us what, and how he came to be where he is now, a shadow of his old self, living in hiding, even his name left behind.

I reread the first book before diving straight in to the new one. It’s one of the very few books I’ve read in the last decade or two that I feel is honestly worth a second, and perhaps even third read—yes, it’s that good. And looking back, I have a hard time remembering where the first one ended and the second one became. They blend together seamlessly. The first book doesn’t so much end as stop, pausing for a rest before the next one begins. The second volume does the same. That can be especially frustrating when the next book is a year or three away. But like I said, it’s worth the wait. And please, don’t bother waiting until all are released. In most cases, I’d agree without hesitation. That’s the right thing to do. In this case, you’re only denying yourself the pleasure of a very special read. And the anticipation? That’s a small price to pay.

The books, both of them, are rather episodic. That’s not truly a complaint—the underlying storyline is subtle at times but always present—ad the character arc is always moving. That’s the real reason that we’re along for the ride, after all. If I have one other complaint, it’s this: some key segments seem to be missing. At least two sequences are skipped over—the narrator insists they’re not a part of the main story. When one of those glossed over instances in a very critical court trial that can cost our hero his life, and the other is a sea voyage that involves, among other adventures, a shipwreck and a pirate attack, well, I beg to differ. I ache to read those scenes. And while the episodes that we skip ahead to reach are breathtaking, I miss the chapters we don’t see. All the same, when a book nears 400,000 words and still leaves you wanting more … well, it’s done its job, wouldn’t you say?

The story is fascinating, as is the world of its setting. The is magic aplenty—well designed and believable—with daring adventure and romance. The pace is fast—I had a hard time putting both volumes down, even when I reread the first. Kvothe is an engaging lead character. Sure, he may seem a little too perfect at times. Even his flaws, of which he has many—not the least of which include his temper and his arrogance (he is all too aware of his own cleverness)—are, in a strange way, perfect. But then, Kvothe is narrating his own story, and he has established himself as a gifted, if occasional, liar who is not above deliberately crafting his own mythology. So we never really get a feel for how reliable a narrator he is, and that subtle ambiguity only adds to the complexity of his character arc. Speaking of which, his arc follows one as old as storytelling itself—Kvothe grows through the hero stages of orphan, wander, warrior, and, ultimately, martyr. But in Rothfuss’s skilled hands, it never feels clichéd or formulaic. Somehow, it always feels fresh, new, and surprising.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy in my day. Some where brilliant, some almost embarrassingly bad. There were many, many that I liked, and dozens that I adored. But loved? That’s a shorter list. Tolkien’s books, certainly, and the Narnia series. John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, of course. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. The Harry Potter books, maybe. It’s early yet—it takes a little time to know that you’ll return to a book more than once. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that Patrick Rothfuss’s books are going to remain on that very special, treasured, rarest shelf. These are special. They are.

Please be sure to let me know what you think.

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