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Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss

May 31, 2012 4 comments

Well, after an unexpectedly long delay, aggravated by my need to spend several months in weight training to be able to handle another brick of a book, here we go with Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss. The story is easy to capture. As if we have not already spent long enough in the University of Magical Lore, we start off and end there. In the extended middle section, Kvothe finds it expedient to disappear from the public’s view, so he goes off to a relatively distant land where he saves the life of a powerful man, pretends he’s playing the lead in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, leads a fractious team of mercenaries in pursuit of bandits, spends a year or so with a succubus fairy, and learns to fight (which may prove useful). As if that’s not enough, he murders nine people in cold blood and generally does enough to enhance his reputation as Kvothe the Arcane, a person of myth whose truth is woven out of fantasy.

 

There are two basic changes from the first book (ignoring the increase in length from 672 to 994 pages). The first is that the language, while remaining of high quality, has lost some of the poetry-as-prose feel that gave the first volume such a distinctive edge. This is slightly more functional with the author preferring to get the job done with more economy of style. The second is a significant increase in the complexity of the plot. You can see the basics of the story as a tale of revenge. Having watched his parents murdered and then, to some extent, recovered from the trauma, Kvothe has been on the trail of those responsible. In a way, everything that has happened to him in these two volumes has been a kind of preparation for what is likely to be a reckoning in the third and final volume (whenever that appears). Since Kvothe has been overcome by fatalism and is waiting to die, we may be tempted to assume he’s not exactly brimming with confidence. But, if we revert to my earlier thoughts about his status as an unreliable narrator, this could be a ploy to bring the Chandrian to him.

Patrick Rothfuss doing his impression of Ian Anderson just before he plays the flute

 

There are notable developments and continuing absences. As a character, we’re allowed to see Kvothe slowly losing some of his underlying naiveté, particularly in his dealings with women, and generally coming to a better understanding of how the world works. If I wanted to be dismissive, I could call this an extended coming-of-age story, but the increasing darkness of the story militates against this. In a way, the trauma he suffered as a child taints his world view. He could have become hypervigilant, trembling in fright at the thought of more supernatural violence directed his way. Instead, he becomes a magician and, despite the arrogance of youth, finally begins to understand what the learning process is all about. There are, however, some significant absences. Although we briefly catch sight of one of the Chandrian, there’s no direct progress in tracking them. His efforts to gather information indirectly do lead to a more general mystery that historical records relating to the Amyr seem to have been tampered with. Presumably we will get an explanation of why so many records should have been purged or changed in the concluding volume. Then there’s the continuing mystery of why this trilogy should be called The Kingkiller Chronicle. Under the conventional rules of fantasy, our hero joins the court and meets the King. In due course, for noble or other reasons, the killing follows. Except most of the action in this series to date has been firmly rooted in the university, its staff and students. So perhaps Ambrose will be promoted to King in the final volume. At this point, he’s the only one who obviously deserves to be killed.

 

The one bright spark is the meeting with the Cthaeh. This seems to be changing the nature of the plot from simple revenge to a more general meditation on determinism. In part, this would explain Kvothe’s current passivity. Although it’s inherently a choice to do as little as possible, the fact of few choices makes it less likely there will he bad outcomes. Yes, the world around him does appear to be in a declining state but he may not be the cause of this effect. In this, I suspect Auri’s role will become highly significant. It follows from where she lives and where another door can be found.

 

My final thoughts revolve around an increasing thematic repetitiveness. Let’s assume for a moment that the way in which you do magic in this world is by achieving a kind of mental state in which the two parts of the mind grow closer together. For these purposes, we can dispense with clever Freudian notions of the trinity, id, ego and super-ego, and merely focus on the idea of mental life as depending on the conscious and unconscious. If I asked you which individual muscles you use to move your body, you could not begin to tell me. But if you decided to stand up, the conscious decision would be executed by all those unknown muscles. It’s the body moving in response to your generalised wishes. So when it comes to magic, you need to learn which muscles to move to achieve the desired magical effects. A baby learns how to walk, i.e. forges the autonomic link between mind and body. Similarly, a magician has to learn which mental processes affect the world around him or her. This is not something that can be taught. That’s why Elodin appears frustrating in not simply “telling” his students what to do. People with ability have to learn how to do it when no-one can actually tell them what “it” is. Describing it as a naming process is as meaningless as saying you have to have a heightened form of awareness in which you see beyond superficial reality, capture the ideas about what your senses detect, and develop means of interacting with the newly perceived reality to change its state in some practical way. So a baby may learn to crawl across a flat surface, but will require completely different sets of perceptual and autonomic controls to walk down a flight of steps without falling.

 

So Kvothe has to begin developing the strength of his Alar, while trying to wake his sleeping mind, while naming things, while understanding the nature of danger with Felurian, while expressing the Lethani as a Ketan and entering the Spinning Leaf. All these are separately described, but they are inevitably the same mental process using different words and in different contexts. Hence, it’s repetitive.

 

Frankly, I think Patrick Rothfus is demonstrating a significant ego to the detriment of his ability to deliver a simple story in the most elegant possible way. Someone somewhere in the publishing house should have taken an axe to large chunks of this text and cut it down to something more manageable. Alternatively, it should have been sold as two separate volumes. This is a ludicrous length, bedevilled by thematic repetitions and burdened by the emotional struggles of a callow youth. That said, I did read Wise Man’s Fear to the end. In other words there’s just enough about the language used and the development of the plot to keep me interested but, for me, the gloss has rubbed off this young author’s reputation and he’s going to drop into obscurity if he continues to churn out overwritten content like this. Nevertheless, this book was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

 

For my review of the first volume, see: The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss.

 

For the record, Wise Man’s Fear won the 2012 Legend Award for Best Novel.

 

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss

There’s a hoary old cliché about football (the Beckham style — Victoria if you prefer your games spicy) that it’s a game of two halves.  Anyway, this game began with me reading a brick by a new author who’s being touted as the next big thing to hit publishing. So, here it is, folks: The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss (Daw, April, 2007). Frankly, I don’t usually even try to pick up books this big. The risks of damaging a wrist tendon are significant. Nevertheless, I laid this on my lap and opened it, finding a mere 672 pages. Daunted, I began reading, expecting it to be torture peine fort et dure so that I could rescue myself by replacing it on the shelf (it being more sturdy than I).

So the first half of the game is the plot. Imagine taking every boarding school component from Charles Dickens to Enid Blyton to J.K. Rowling. We’re going to start our boy off in the “school” as a penniless orphan, but make him very bright. He’s quickly going to fall foul of a rich kid and start a feud. The staff will be ambivalent about him but, when he shows ability, quickly progress him through the ranks. Think Hogwarts because this “University” teaches magical skills to those who show promise. And why Dickens? Well, our boy is going to start off happy up to the age of eleven and then fall on hard times which, like Oliver Twist, forces him on to the streets as a beggar. I could go on but I think you’ll have the message by now.

And, to make it worse, the character development lacks any real credibility. Let’s start with a quote from Abenthy, the arcanist who begins to teach him basic skills, “He will leave his mark on the world as one of the best. . . [at] whatever he chooses.” So this boy is already outstanding and will only get better. Next, let’s accept the reality of the trauma caused by the death of his parents. As an aside, the reason for his survival is “obscure”. He is at the mercy of ruthless killers who are intent of removing everyone who had heard the song about Lanre and who could literally kill him in the time taken to speak one word. No matter who or what is coming, his death should be inevitable. There are better ways of managing a scene both to show the young hero the reality of what he is going to be up against when he seeks revenge and to treat readers as having intelligence.

Naturally, as a survivor, he goes first into a fugue and then a feral state, living wild and with no real application of will or intelligence. But, mere survival goes on too long and his transformation back to bright kid is so instantaneous, you wonder why he was ever so depressed in the first place. Worse, when he gets to the University, he excels using skills taught to him by Abenthy when he was a happy camper even though they have lain completely unused ever since, but he fails to exploit his musical and acting abilities to earn some money which makes him look breathtakingly stupid all over again. My first conclusion is that this behaviour is dictated by the misplaced desire to pad out the text (which is too long already).

But we could conjure a different explanation for this total lack of credibility. Perhaps the narrator is unreliable (see Wayne C Booth The Rhetoric of Fiction for the theory and “The History of a Self-Tormentor” in Little Dorrit for an example). The structure of the book allows for this. We start off with our hero as an innkeeper. A “news hound” tracks him down and asks for his story which he then proceeds to tell. It’s a narrative within a narrative with breaks for food and interruptions as drinking (and other) company joins them in the inn. Since the hero is telling his own story, he could have a motive for presenting a less than honest appraisal of himself and his background that is not yet apparent to us. Although why he should want us readers to think him so stupid is currently beyond me. Alternatively, as his companion Bast says, if people around him think him a hero, that’s how he acts. The natural corollary is that he’ll tell his story as a loser if that’s how he now thinks of himself. In his own words, he’s telling the story of his “triumphs and follies” with the emphasis on the latter. So the form is the story he tells is not consciously driven, but simply comes out in the least flattering way. Hmmm, I’m not really convincing myself here!

So, if your primary motivation for reading a chunky novel is to find an engaging narrative, forget it. This is unoriginal, annoyingly unconvincing and full of plot whose only purpose is probably to produce this “epic” length.

Half time — after a quick shower and a pep talk from the manager we come back out on to the field with the writing.

The writing?

What can I say? This is a first novel, but it’s one of the best written books I’ve read so far this year! Add in the fact that it’s high fantasy which is very easy to get wrong, and it becomes all the more impressive a debut. Even seasoned professionals can go hyperbolic and ruin the atmosphere of a fantasy with overwritten prose. But this author manages to avoid the standard pitfalls and has produced a beautifully mannered style, peppered with interesting flashes of intelligence and wit. The leitmotif running through the book is silence. An individual may fall into silence, there may be a companionable silence between friends, there is silence as a portent of threat, and so on.

It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

or

Thus it was that three students made their slightly erratic way back to the University. See them as they go, weaving only slightly. It is quiet, and when the belling tower strikes the late hour, it doesn’t break the silence so much as it underpins it. The crickets, too, respect the silence. Their calls are like careful stitches in its fabric, almost too small to be seen.

or

. . .the innocent silence that had gathered like a clear pool around the three men was beginning to darken into a silence of a different kind.

Anchoring the tone of the book in silence is a clever metaphorical ploy. Words spoken break the silence. Words written do not. What is it, then, that fills the silence that threatens to envelop every one of us? Physically, we can be lonely if no-one speaks to us. We can be alienated if we are ignored or people say the wrong things (by our standards), or secretive if we are not forthcoming. Internally, our past is the narrative that informs our future if we hear what it’s trying to tell us. And therein lies the rub because we need to be listening to ourselves. What? We need to be talking to ourselves and listening. Oy veh! Surely, silence is us taking a break from all those painful emotions that are messing up our lives. But the silence is also an invitation to start a conversation. Or as a metaphor, silence is the warp to the weft of sound, and the resulting crossweave is what fills our lives and gives it shape. So it is, then, that the hero of this book uses words to say how he has lived his life, or not, because what he does not say is just as important as what he does say. Indeed, sometimes his silences are more informative than what he claims as truth.

So does this combination of two halves make this a good book?

Well, not really. The plot is so deeply flawed that I don’t think the author can recover the situation by pretty writing. But the overall effect is to encourage me to want to read more. This is his first published book. We can forgive him (if not his editor) for turning in a beginner’s book. As he develops, he can only get better (at least, we can hope so). The next book in the series is due out in the new year and I’ve already asked my bookseller to lay in a copy for me as and when the publisher releases it into the wild. I’m also trying to channel Charles Atlas to learn how to build up my muscles so that I can pick it up safely when it arrives.

For my review of the next in the series, see Wise Man’s Fear.

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