The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Reviewed by Pili Pili
I have a game a play with myself that I call the ‘Certainty Game’. I invent an iteration of trade off scenarios involving uncertainty and certainty and see where the break-even line is. For instance: if I could live to be 75 for sure today, would I accept that? Probably not. 100? No doubt. In this case, the iteration continues until I land somewhere around the early 90s. Anyway, when I ask myself ‘would I accept Rothfuss’ gift for prose in exchange for never being able to develop my own superior style?’ I don’t even have to play the game. It is assuredly, ‘yes’. (And I am a confident whelp, so that is real praise.) There are only a handful of author’s for whom I would accept that. J.R.R. Tolkien and Wallace Stegner come to mind, possibly G.R.R. Martin.
Onto the review: the book’s greatest attribute is undoubtedly the prose. Rothfuss is an outstanding writer. Outstanding. He could turn a trip to CVS because you ran out of milk into a captivating story. Like a page-turning, barn-busting, must-read hexalogy. His talent for writing is so obvious from the first pages of the book (and the predecessor, the Name of the Wind).
Alas, my gushing praise for the book stops there. You see, I struggle with his misuse of his own gift. It gnaws at me, perniciously, as I read. I should just be thankful. But all I can think of is Phil Collins choosing pop music over the masterpieces wrought from his rhythmic genius on early Genesis albums. I know the world craves/needs pop music. And I know that the world craves/needs a beautifully-written, teenaged-boy’s wet dream – which is precisely what Rothfuss delivers.
For alongside his talent for prose, he is equally adept at another skill vital to his book: recycling our culture’s most beloved storytelling tropes gimmicks.
**yes, there are spoilers below**
First, let me set the stage. Yes, the protagonist, Kvothe, is an orphan — a real up-by-my-bootstraps scrapper. Everything he’s even gotten he’s had to work for (well, not really; more on that later). But wait, that’s not all. He is also from a race/class of people called the Edema Ruh who are known principally for being itinerant and mistrusted. Poor lil guy. Not feeling smitten with sympathy toward him just yet? What if I told you his family was murdered before his own eyes as a youngster forcing him from pittance to destitution?
Now, indulge me as I catalog some of the tropes and gimmicks Rothfuss employs (some of this refers back to the first book, the Name of the Wind):
(1) Test of Wits: Engaging in intellectual gauntlets with the professors is routine for Kvothe. Reliably, this reveals his natural brilliance, in spite of not having had a formal education when younger.
(2) Prank wars!: The protagonist, Kvothe, spars with his schoolyard arch-nemesis, Ambrose, and comes away victorious most of the time. Now it wouldn’t be half as satisfying unless you realize that Ambrose is the triple-collared polo mallet who had every advantage growing up in life.
(3) Girls are for crushing: Kvothe has crushes all over the place. This is a substantive gripe (unlike most of the others, which are largely endearing!). Rothfuss introduces women almost exclusively as potential for romantic interest. I can’t think of a single female character of note that wasn’t at one or many points valued for physical/romantic traits.
(4) Nerds need more sex: Kvothe is in a cohort whose academic interests are belittled in fine self-hating form by the teacher who jokes about the student’s sexual inadequecy. The teacher, Elodin, tells another student, Uresh, to go have sex instead of learning about mathematics. Pretty silly, huh?
(5) Innate gifts: Kvothe is brimming with talent. In this important regard, Kvothe didn’t work for everything he’s got. He is special. And I mean really special. He is witty, profoundly intelligent, and overachieves at every turn (in spite his modest beginnings as Edema Ruh). What youngster doesn’t lose themselves imagining that they are in fact more special than those around them?
(6) Saving the girl (substantive gripe #2): He tries to save this one girl, Denna, who clearly needs rescuing. She is physically abused and Kvothe thinks he can make it right. Anecdote time! When I was around 14 or 15 I’d catch myself hoping the school would catch fire so I could save some good-looking girl (the specific girl was irrelevant and based directly on proximity to my seat, inversely on , and then on an error term for that’s day’s unobservables). Naturally, upon being saved, she’d be indebted to me and fawn over me like a nymph with dangling grapes. Reading A Wise Man’s Fear brings back this lovely/humiliating memory every handful of chapters.
(7) Win a princess’s heart through romantic gestures: Little screams teenage boy like the idea that effort and merit can give you a shot at any girl you want (wow, my friends and I would have been so much more successful if this were true). Plus, it doesn’t get much more Grimm’s than a secret courtship of a princess.
Wait, I lied, it can be more Grimm.
(8) Going on a fool’s errand and succeeding: Kvothe is sent on an impossible mission by a king. He successfully tracks down some bandits and adds to his fame.
(9) Sex unattached from feelings: Kvothe travels to a faraway land where people have sex often and simply for pleasure (no strings attached, baby! Shout out to my boys N*SYNC). Rothfuss even appeals to the inner tween’s sense that it is silly to think of it any other way. The woman mocks Kvothe’s ‘barbarian ways’ of viewing love sentimentally.
(10) Spoofy premises: Kvothe eats nuts laced with an agent to temporarily remove one’s social filters. Hilarity ensues. Ambrose did this to him (part of the prank wars!) before he went to ‘defend his tuition’. He, of course, made lewd comments to a girl that were supposed to be okay because he was under the influence of inhibition-repressing drugs. Favorably, it reminds me of Liar, Liar, and unfavorably of What Women Want with Mel Gibson (how and why did I see that?!)
(11) Creating instantly familiar characters: Take Elodin – the schoolteacher that is eccentric, doesn’t get along with the other faculty, but who is the one who ultimately has the most to teach. Hi Mr. Miyagi or Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society or Lisa Simpson’s substitute voiced by Dustin Hoffman. I believe we’ve met.
(12) Orphaning the lead: I wrote about this, but it has been used. A lot. Harry Potter and Vin come to mind from recent memory, but there is a long list of orphan protagonists as orphans. Hey, it is a lot easier to craft from a blank slate than introduce family dynamics. Furthermore…
(13) Whodunnits!?: Easy way to attract attention to a story is to introduce some mystery, like trying to find out who was using voodoo against Kvothe. Was it Ambrose? Nah. Was it Devi? I guess not. Omg, it was Ambrose! but not how you’d expect.
(14) Sting operations: Gotta set one up and see if it goes to plan. Using a beautiful woman as bait – that’s just gravy. Kvothe & Co. do this to lure Ambrose away from his room (did I mention his schoolyard nemesis mistreats women, so you know he really is the bad guy). Kvothe uses the diversion to burn down Ambrose’s room, while seemingly innocent. Enjoy the arson, sucka.
(15) Unlawful Detention: Always nice to see how the lead escapes from the unjust authorities who have detained them. The Imre folks took Kvothe away and he learned some language and got himself out of it or something. +5 to reputation.
(16) Currying favor with a lord because they are…drum roll… being poisoned: That’s right, the Maer was poisoned and Kvothe got into his good graces by exposing who did it. From Kvothe’s point of view, it was pretty lucky he did. How else could an orphaned Edema Ruh, raised on the tough streets of Tarbean, who barely got into university, and then happened to get kicked out at the same moment a random benefactor offered to send him to one of the most powerful men in the territory as an assistant, /takebreath, supposed to improve his lot?
(17) Sleuthing: Another sure-fire way to get the heart racing is a clandestine tracking of another character. Will he get discovered? Won’t he? What’ll they do?! What’ll they think!? Kvothe follows Denna to find her talking about whoring – more gravy.
(18) Bar fights. Can’t go wrong with a good bar fight. The best bar fight I can remember was in the old western Shane, but I know there are plenty of others.
(19) Training montages to round out with time Kvothe is learning the ‘Lethani’ philosophy. K, go watch the Montage song in South Park. I’ll wait.
(20) Initiation rites with another culture involving bodily harm. In form, Kvothe aces the test and is remembered fondly by the Adem. Isn’t there some movie about a white man joining a village in eastern Africa and learning basketball about this very thing?
deep breath Phew, that was a lot of tropes and gimmicks. Oftentimes, the devices he uses come across as opportunistic, for pulp intrigue and easy ways to build sympathy for his lead. I admit that I enjoyed the passages. I think in moderation all of these devices have their places, though I feel this style would be better suited to a television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer which aired on the WB in the 90s. Of course, now that I have gone to the trouble to list them, I plan to add some of them into my own stories. Again, I fully admit their appeal and guiltily lapped it up as I read.
Enough of the devices, what of the characters?
Kvothe? I’ve still not been won over by him. His arrogant humility does not endear him to me and neither does his homicidal tribalism. And I get it – he was dealt a bad hand and yet somehow perseveres.
It rattled me when Kvothe slayed all those Edema Ruh impersonators. They did some bad stuff (some committing rape), but not enough to warrant a blanket massacre. Kvothe killing all of them was too much for me to stomach. I know he is supposed to be a flawed hero, but this went well above anything else he’d done. It also trivialized all the Ambrose gags from earlier in the book. It made the book’s constitution sag. By that I mean that when I buy into a world I get a sense of what can and can’t happen. Not just in the world, but a form of author/reader contract. When I read A Song of Ice and Fire, I know terrible things can happen, which means at the same time I don’t wanna be reading whole quarters of a book about petty pranks being played. Martin’s books overall constitution supersedes that. Rothfuss’ doesn’t. Which is fine, but I felt a breach of etiquette when he had Kvothe murder all those people.
Also, his money woes became tedious. I’m tired of him always finding just enough to barely scrape by. I’m never worried about him since he always finds what he needs. I also don’t want to hear any more accounting – how many ha’pennies he’s got and how many talents he has, etc. *On a tangent: how does his scheme with the bursar work? Apparently, for any tuition over 10 talents Kvothe gets half and the bursar pockets the rest. But that implies that tuition is always 10 talents if the bursar can get away with a scam like that, which of course negates the point of the test. Isn’t there some auditing function that sees whether Kvothe has paid his full amount? If the bursar gives him [Tuition – 10] / 2, then isn’t he responsible for the remaining money if it isn’t in the account. And if he is working all on his own without any oversight why only make the deal with Kvothe? Okay, tangent done.*
Denna? She is unbearable for the most part – a girl who just can’t make good decisions for herself and keeps telling herself that things are as they should be. She is flighty and self-centered. I’m trying to think of her redeeming qualities. Being pitiable doesn’t cut it.
Sim and Will are pretty good – Sim especially. I really liked when Kvothe defended him for seeming weak, but really he was just a good person and shouldn’t be overlooked or looked down upon (funny how those opposite actions are both applicable). I thought that was quite a good trait. I root for Sim.
Bast is intriguing. Him being of the fae and knowing things about it certainly draws me into the story. Plus, when does he meet Kvothe and why was he in league with those ruffians?
Felurian the faerie-succubus? Meh.
Tempi? Decent, I liked that he was some chump with his people as it turned out.
Devi? She has potential, but her flirting tendencies with Kvothe ruin it as they are redundant with the other women.
For a while I thought I was growing tired of Kvothe’s time at the university. Unfortunately, when he left it got worse. Him going on the inverse-Robin Hood quest I didn’t like. And it only got weirder. Him learning Capoeira from Tempi and then being trapped by Felurian and then getting with several women in a row? Help. Me…
Going forward? Kvothe’s only had two minor encounters with the Chandrian — the true villains — since his parents were murdered. Now Rothfuss is expected to tie up that loose end in one book? And furthermore, they’re not even the biggest problem, Ctaethe is? That is setting up a lot of plot to cover in the final volume. I’m in fact quite disappointed with the Chandrian. We know next to nothing about them which leaves the bandit encounter tasting funny. Why was a Chandrian running a group of bandits in the forest? I know they are mysterious and destroy records of themselves, but banditry is pretty banal for such powerful and baleful creatures. Also, I’ve read around 2000 pages and would prefer to have more to go on regarding their story. Rothfuss could have spent all those Adem pages with something substantive on the Chandrian.
It is good… so far. He effortlessly drifts between long expositions of single days and rolling past months in a breath. However, I am quite concerned that the following constraints can’t be met
(1) The series is kept to three books (of reasonable length. They are already pushing it)
(2) The pacing doesn’t fly wildly out of hand
(3) The book’s culmination is satisfying
Kvothe is still like 17 years old in his story. The innkeeper if at least a good bit older. But the story Kvothe has told Chronicler has hardly caught up with the tales we hear about him in the present day. That is cause for concern.
Rothfuss should turn his attention to writing for a television program. Both his novels have already read with a periodic cadence. And for a long time, it was anchored to the university (and is again at the end) which lends it the stability required for television. Add in all the storytelling gimmicks I outlined above and you’ve got yourself one quality television program. The other advantage of him doing it is that it’d be done really well because of his writing prowess. Sure, he can’t resist the occasional double simile – as if he can’t possibly fit in his whole cache in the course of 1000+ pages and couldn’t bear to leave any out. (“He moved like clockwork, like a wagon rolling down the road in well-worn ruts”; “my chest working like a bellows, straining like a horse run to lather.”) I’m sure he could come up with a different plot entirely and do another fantasy series wonderfully, too. I’ll quietly advocate for high fantasy, rather than the young adult market he’s hit on the head with this series. I am a firm believer that every story can be retold if done well. The young adult market for fantasy isn’t going anywhere and Rothfuss delivers an excellent work into that tradition. I mean really excellent.
I’ll conclude by reiterating that I judge the author more critically than others because of his potential – kind of like admonishing Simone Biles for only getting a bronze on the balance beam. Rothfuss’ writing elegance sets a high bar in my mind as the reader. Add to it the legions of fans and I again redouble my critical eye. But in reality, my hat is off to him. I can’t wait for the next book. I will finish his trilogy, and recommend this for most people.