By the time I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, it had been out for four years, garnered a critical mass of critical acclaim, and been followed up by a sequel both half again as late as expected and half again as long as its predecessor. The Wise Man’s Fear1 picks up almost exactly where the first book in the series left off. By way of summary: Kvothe, an extraordinarily intelligent and precocious gypsy child is orphaned by the brutal attack of a præternatural group called the Chandrian. His eventual enrollment in a university of engineering and magic lead him on a number of adventures both profitable (in many ways) and detrimental on his way to investigating and avenging the death of his parents. When we last left him, he had inadvertently called the True Name of the wind, which is the purest and most real form of magic2.
If you have not read my review of The Name of the Wind, I would suggest doing so in order to understand why, immediately after finishing it, I read The Wise Man’s Fear, and why I felt so compelled and excited to do so. Though the second installment in the series came out a full four years after the first, and this in turn bodes poorly for the timetable of the third and final entry, I could not help but see what Rothfuss had in store for young Kvothe, whom I had, despite my general cynicism, come to care deeply about as a character. Rather than summarize the plot, which is large and intricate, I’ll instead cover some of the major themes, either narrative or responsive.
Kvothe hit puberty?
When dealing with adolescent protagonists as they grow (see: Harry Potter, Bella Swan), authors are left with the difficult task of narrating their eventual entry into the sexual world—either by praxis or imagination—in a way that is both convincing to readers (who, we must bear in mind, are generally familiar with at least one of the two forms) and not damaging to the general tone of the story, if such a danger is even applicable. Thus far, the story of Kvothe has been largely appropriate for all ages, short of its implied violence. Though there were women (all of them superbly attractive and attracted to Kvothe, natch), our young protagonist’s approach has been one of either disinterest or gentlemanly courtesy. Rothfuss must have been faced with the difficult problem of acclimating Kvothe, now 16, to the looming problem of his genitals; either because the author could think of no subtle way to do it or just because he likes narrating sex, Kvothe finds himself trapped in Fae (i.e., the land of the Fairies) with an ancient magical sexbot named Felurian, who teaches him the entire Fairy Kama Sutra of sex techniques, and is enraptured by Kvothe the Virgin’s innate sexual talent. Yes, this is ridiculous as it sounds. Over to Daniel Hemmens:
Felurian is that staple of fantasy novels, the deadly naked sex monster. She’s the most beautiful, most alluring, most sexually attractive woman you’ll ever see, and she will totally kill you with sex.
Felurian is the sirens, and Artemis and pretty much every other sex-death-nudity chick from mythology or fiction rolled into one. Kvothe catches her, bones her, breaks free of her sex-death-nudity mind control, completely whips her ass in a straight fight, then bones her again, then plays music that makes her think he’s awesome, then writes half a song about her that is so awesome that she agrees to let him go so that he can finish it, then disses her sexual prowess, which prompts her to get really insecure and tell him what an amazing lover he is, then they have sex some more, then she sews him a magic cloak, while he goes away and talks to a prophetic tree which turns out to be evil.
Then they have sex some more, then he comes back to the real world and is all “bros, I totally did it with Felurian” and everybody is all like “no way, you’d be mad or dead” and he’s like “no I totally did it with Felurian” and then the hot barmaid from earlier is all like “no he’s definitely telling the truth because I am a woman and I can see that he has got totally sexed up since we last met, because I tried to sex him and it freaked him out, but now it looks like he wouldn’t be freaked out and also he would be totally awesome at sexing.” Then Kvothe does sex with the hot barmaid and he is totally awesome at it, and he explains how doing sex with the hot barmaid is totally as good as doing sex with Felurian, because women are like music and sometimes you want to listen to a beautiful symphony and sometimes you just want a nice simple jig, and by the way this definitely isn’t sexist, and if you think it is then you know nothing about music or love or him.
This last line, apart from being switched from the first to the third person, is a direct quote from the book.
Faced with the notion of introducing Kvothe as Lover (even Kvothe as Legendary Lover), we really have two options: one is to admit Kvothe into the bed of some barmaid or peasant girl, where he stumbles and fumbles his way through the account, only to improve quickly and dramatically with practice. This would be in accordance with Kvothe’s story so far.
The other would be to have Kvothe learn, automagically, everything about sex and the fairer sex from the magical sex goddess. This would, although less in keeping with the tone so far, be an easy deus ex machina for Rothfuss to skirt the issue3 and have his protagonist emerge from the other side suitably versed in the carnal arts.
As Hemmens notes, however, the solution Rothfuss chooses is—bafflingly—to have Kvothe the young bumbler, Kvothe the romantic idiot, be so innately brilliant at sex that he wooes a centuries-old sex goddess, and still automagically increase his practical knowledge of physical intimacy by manifold. It’s a wild turn toward ridiculous wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the salt to this nasty, gangrenous wound is Kvothe’s time in Ademre, the warrior-culture village where uniformly attractive women have sex as casually as you or I might blow our noses4.
This sudden preoccupation with sex commandeers the latter half of the book, even though it seems to serve no purpose; indeed, it fails even to seem prurient or lurid, instead lending a sense of ridicule or burlesque to the book, as though listening to an inadvertently-knowledgeable child talk about how he is going to marry his first-grade crush and pee inside of her.
Whatever happened to the Chandrian?
While Kvothe is spending all his time in bed with every attractive woman in sight (except, notably, his long-time squeeze Denna), he is very obviously not doing what we all expected him to do, which is to continue his obsession with the group of demigods that killed his parents. The Name of the Wind saw Kvothe’s efforts stymied by the censored selection of books available to him in the University5; because The Wise Man’s Fear sees him, after 300 pages or so, sent temporarily away from the University to “chase the wind” for a bit, it’s not unreasonable to readers to hope that the story will take our young heroes to exotic locales where he will begin to unravel the mysteries of the evil Chandrian—a search which, we can only assume, will come to a head in the third book.
But there’s almost nothing about the Chandrian to be found in The Wise Man’s Fear. Yes, Kvothe encountered one of their number leading a clutch of bandits; yes, he gets a juicy tidbit about them from the Maer (Mayor?) of Vint, for whom he is a servant for a long period of time. But our expectations—that we would know more about the Chandrian on page 900 than we did on page 1—are unfounded.
By the end of the book, we’ve established that Kvothe
- Is good at sex (and likes it)
- Learns how to fight from an Adem mercenary6
- Is still in the Friend Zone with his crush, Denna.
- Is getting better at True Names, even though he still only uses them during extreme duress.
But that’s it. Kvothe just increases his powers and talents incrementally, as though we’re watching Rothfuss level up a World of Warcraft character.
Oh, I get it… Kvothe isn’t so great after all…
Though I noticed the trend during the first book, I saved its mention for this review because the notion really becomes apparent during The Wise Man’s Fear; namely, the initial impression we are given of Kvothe—a legend in his own time, rivaling Taborlin the Great—seems less and less truthful as he tells his story. Some bits of rumor or dispelled outright as Kvothe tells the corresponding true story behind some ridiculous bit of fiction; other times, it’s simply implied that a distant reference is being countered by a suspiciously similar and reasonably less fantastical one. What’s more, the “current” Kvothe (who is relating his story to The Chronicler) has been designed by Rothfuss to be a dejected, largely powerless schmuck who doesn’t at all resemble the fiery-spirited Kvothe of the story.
In other words, the initial disparity that Rothfuss creates, which causes readers to desire to understand why the Kvothe legend and the real Kvothe seem so different, may not simply be due to an RPG-like progression of skills and power as we might assume; it might, in fact, be an unfortunate misunderstanding all along, and that Kvothe the Narrator is still a schmuck who simply happens to have a good memory and is pretty good at sympathetic magic. That would—ha ha!—be a clever deconstruction of fantasy tropes and our linear expectations of power and character, although it would certainly make for a disappointing story. All of this remains to be seen, of course, and despite what seems like a number of deep faults with the second installment in the series, I find myself anxiously awaiting the conclusion.
- For reference: The sea in storm, A night with no moon, and
and the anger of a gentle man; these may or may not refer to incidents within this particular installment, although it seems clear that the second item refers to Kvothe’s time in the Fae.[↩]
- The other kind, sympathy, exists as a sort of bridge between traditional fantasy thaumaturgy and science or engineering; you’ll have to read it to understand.[↩]
- Bonus points: Kvothe, in a discussion of the reproductive system, announces to his debate partner, and by extension his readers, that he has so far avoided a gaggle of little Kvothes by chewing a convenient male prophylactic for the last six months. This single line made me involuntarily roll my eyes; the first and only incident of the series so far.[↩]
- In what might be a theme, the center of learning and wisdom takes great pains to limit the transfer of knowledge…[↩]
- For more about how ridiculous this segment is, see Daniel Hemmens review, cited above.[↩]