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

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Anyone who has read any of my book reviews in the past is probably well aware of my love for epic fantasy. I love the way the authors painstakingly develop the worlds and cultures their characters inhabit and appreciate deeply the time, energy and imagination that has gone into their labour. However, what I’ve grown to especially appreciate is how, in spite of the book’s length, there never seems to be an extraneous word. Perhaps because I have my own struggles with pithiness and tendencies to ramble, I can’t help but be impressed by an author’s ability to tell a story of such length without resorting to padding the story with extraneous words. As far as I’m concerned the mark of a great Epic Fantasy is coming to the end of an eight hundred plus page novel and be left wanting more. Anything else is merely a long book.

It’s been three years since I published my review of The Name Of The Wind, the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. Based on the fact that my review was of the mass market paper back edition of the book, it’s probably been four years since it was first published. Since then there have been many false alarms regarding its sequel’s publication, including the title being listed in its publisher’s on line catalogue, only to hear it was yet again being mysteriously delayed from hitting the shelves. Finally, in March of this year the false alarms were over and The Wise Man’s Fear, The Kingkiller Chronicles Day Two, published by Penguin Canada, was here for all to read.

To be honest it had been such a long time since I had read the first book many of the specifics regarding the story’s plot had escaped me. I wondered how easy it would be pick up the story again without having at least skimmed its predecessor before starting. Fortunately Rothfuss seems to have anticipated this, because over the course of the opening few chapters he not only manages to reintroduce us to the world and the characters he’d previously established, he also subtly reminds us of sufficient portions of the plot to ensure we know what’s going on.

Once again we start in some unknown present where a man of some infamy, Kvothe — whether he’s a hero or a villain seems to depend on which stories people are telling about him — is continuing the process of telling his life’s story to a scribe who goes by the name Chronicler. Having set himself up as an innkeeper in a small backwater of a hamlet, he’s obviously put that life behind him, but when the opportunity presents itself for him to separate the myth from the facts concerning his life by dictating the details of his life, he decides to take up the challenge. The second book picks up where the first left off with disturbing events happening in the present and young Kvothe continuing his education at the University in the past. This university teaches students what most would refer to as magic, although quite a lot of it appears to our eyes to be a mixture of alchemy, science and wizardry.

While the young Kvothe is a natural in most areas of study, as one of the youngest students ever admitted, he faces some very real obstacles. Primary among them is the fact he has made a powerful enemy of a fellow student who is not only wealthy but influential. It’s because of this animosity that he ends up broadening the scope of his education. He is advised it would be wise to take some time away from the University as the Masters are sick of the bother and embarrassment the squabbles between the two young men have brought upon the institution and would be happier if neither of them were around for a while. With the aid of a friendly member of the nobility he finds himself a position at the court of one of the most powerful men in the country. If he is able to win this man’s favour his future will be a lot less uncertain.

Through his knowledge of the arcane, his ability as a musician and his own inherent wit and intelligence he is not only able to save his new master’s life, but able to secure the bride of his choice. Unfortunately, his initial reward appears at first blush to be punishment as he’s sent off to lead a small band of mercenaries with orders to track down and kill a party of bandits who have been preying on his new master’s tax collectors. While his band are successful in the end, his real adventures, and the beginnings of his legend, commence after the mission is over. First, he is ensnared and escapes a legendary lovely from the land of fairy, with whom no man has managed to survive an encounter and retain their sanity and second, he is accepted into an isolated community of feared warriors and introduced to their secrets.

While there’s no doubt that Patrick Rothfuss is a good storyteller and the story itself is interesting, there were times during the The Wise Man’s Fear I found my attention wandering. I was puzzled as to the reason at first since the book is well written, the characters are interesting and realistically drawn and it’s filled with fascinating details about the world he has created, the arts Kvothe is studying and other minutiae. What I gradually came to realize was that it was a case of losing sight of the forest because of the trees. Like a nineteenth century naturalist writer who would spend pages detailing some item or other with no mind to its relevance to plot or narrative, Rothfuss spends so much time on details the book seems to lose track of its purpose, becoming aimless and rambling in places.

Supposedly, Kvothe is on a quest to track down the mysterious people who slaughtered his parents and the rest of his extended family of travelling players when he was young. The whole idea of attending the University — and everything else he does for that matter — is so he can both prepare himself for this confrontation and find the villains. Yet, while the character occasionally remembers this obsession, it seems like Rothfuss has to remind himself of the story’s central point periodically and force the story back on track. Understandably, his lead character is only seventeen years old and easily distracted. But is there a need for all the side trips in order to stumble across small bits of information or for the amount of elaborate detail each step of the way as the legend of Kvothe is built? While I love epic fantasy, less is still more and Rothfuss needs to learn that lesson.

I’m sure those who have been waiting patiently for The Wise Man’s Fear to be released will be more than contented with the result. After all, it’s still a well told story with some intriguing concepts and ideas covered. However, unless you’re a devil for details, or a closet naturalist, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself skimming pages. If you have any doubts, wait for it to come out in mass market paperback and save yourself the expense and weight of the hardcover edition. It will make a much better companion for a long distance trip in that form.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.