The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss was one of the most critically acclaimed fantasy debuts of our time. Though widely recognized as a book that would impact the future of fantasy literature, The Name of the Wind has also received some critique. The book is a character study that focuses deeply on the dilemmas the young and gifted orphan Kvothe met on his life’s journey, and thus there was no need for action and suspense to thrive on. However, many felt that a book without all that excitement didn’t suffice.
Needless to say, I am a fan of The Name of the Wind, so when its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear, the second novel in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, came out on March 1, I had to read it. This book is everything its predecessor was. While it has new flaws as well as new greatness, those that loved The Name of the Wind will love The Wise Man’s Fear, and those that hated it will also hate this sequel.
Kvothe’s story continued
The Wise Man’s Fear follows closely after the events of The Name of the Wind. For those unfamiliar with the story, we follow the life of Kvothe, whose traveling troupe is brutally murdered and who makes his own way, from a youth as a musician through years as a poor street boy, to the university of Arcane arts, where he becomes the youngest student ever admitted. There is also a story within the story, as an older Kvothe relates his life story to Chronicler, a scribe who wishes to publish it.
The Wise Man’s Fear has all the elements of its predecessor: it focuses on the dilemmas and the coming of age of a young boy in a new world, trying to make a name for himself; it has the same amazingly conceived and creative magic systems that feel more like science than magic; and there is still that poetic writing style that makes you feel Rothfuss has weighed every word he wrote and is singing us a song rather than telling us a story.
Breaking the laws of fantasy
However, as Kvothe’s life progresses there are new elements introduced to the story. There are the additions of political intrigue and sexuality —those familiar with my reviews will know that I generally dislike sexual content in fantasy, but the way Rothfuss has written it is perfect. He uses it as a legitimate story element rather than just dirty details to sell his story; the sexual content of The Wise Man’s Fear is both poetic and philosophical. Most importantly, though, in addition to these changes, in The Wise Man’s Fear Rothfuss crosses the boundaries of traditional fantasy, showing us an unfamiliar world that isn’t bound to earth’s laws of physics.
Let me explain that further. While I love epic fantasy that builds new worlds, all of these worlds have one thing in common: they center around the laws we know from our own world. No matter how strange and magical any epic world is, it still turns around a sun, having day and night, earthly weather and natural laws, and the author always strives to explain any differences to us. Personally, I have been yearning for a work of fantasy that breaks with this norm, where things are truly unfamiliar, not because of explainable laws, but because their creators said it was so.
A philosophical fairy tale
While the main story of The Wise Man’s Fear still takes place in one of these familiar worlds, part of it moves into new territory. We are given a world that doesn’t spin, where one doesn’t travel from north to south and east to west, but from day to night and warm to cold; a world where shadows can be picked like fruits and rays of starlight can be caught if one believes they can. This part of Rothfuss’s story, especially, reads like a philosophical fairy tale, sung to us by a master musician.
There are new flaws as well. A story built around the dilemmas of its main character is bound to change as the character changes. While not much happens story-wise, these dilemmas are designed to keep us intrigued, and that is done rather well. However, the dilemmas of a young boy struggling to make a living while his rivals try to set the world against him are much more interesting than those of a teenage boy trying to lead a gang of grumpy weathered mercenaries. I daresay these hundred pages of grumpy old men and failing Kvothe were even boring.
That stings, especially when, as opposed to these hundred pages of slow boringness, a shipwrecking, piracy and bandits on the road are all told in no more than half a page. I understand that Rothfuss needed to make choices in what parts of the story he would tell, and he has done this skillfully, but I don’t agree with all the choices he has made.
Why should you read this book?
All that being said, The Wise Man’s Fear is still one of the best books I have ever read. With everything it is, and everything it isn’t, I can still not escape giving it five stars. In my judgment, it is not as good as The Name of the Wind, but I would still call it a very worthy sequel, and I look forward to reading the last volume in this trilogy.
If you are a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to read both this book and its predecessor. I truly believe these books will change the genre and have already begun to lay the foundation for a host of deeper and more philosophical literary fantasy books. Rothfuss shows us a glimpse of the future of fantasy, and I love what I see.