The Wise Man's Fear

It's easy to see why Patrick Rothfuss's sumptuous, soft-spoken, understated debut novel, The Name of the Wind, caused a stir upon its appearance in 2007 and went on to become a fantasy bestseller and engender a passel of fans clamoring for the sequel, which arrives now in the form of The Wise Man's Fear.  Not only was it thoughtfully conceived, well-written and cleverly presented, but it also stood out thematically and stylistically from the competition, that crowd of hairy-chested, brawling, gore-splattered, epic-fantasy lager louts more at home on the battlefield and in decadent court chambers than in Rothfuss's chosen fresh-faced University setting.


Rothfuss's narrative setup featured a realtime frametale that first disclosed our hero, Kvothe, as a disillusioned and burnt-out older fellow hiding out from his own fame, with imminent dangers—the Chandrian—menacing from offstage.  Tracked down by a fellow named the Chronicler, he agrees to get his lifestory down on paper, over the course of three days only (each day's oral reminiscenses represented, however improbably, by one massive volume in Rothfuss's trilogy).  It's a potent and iconic situation, suggesting everything from High Noon to Warren Ellis's Red.  (In fact, if you picture Kvothe as Gary Cooper or Bruce Willis, you won't be far off the imagistic mark.)


Kvothe's lifestory emerges leisurely in first-person flashbacks.  After the tragic end of his vagabond childhood, the bulk of the autobiography finds him a brilliant charity student learning magic at the University of the Arcanists, and earning a little money as a musician, on his way to a big destiny.  (Rothfuss's invented system of magic is very scientifically appealing, by the way.  For instance, one of Kvothe's runic inventions is described as "an automatically triggered kinetic opposition device.")


Thus the major portion of the tale conjures up Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy as filtered through Bob Dylan's memoirs of his Greenwich Village days.  Romance, frustration, intellectual stimulation, learning one's chosen lineage, bucking the establishment, perfecting one's artistry, riding the exuberance of youth and the mysteries of living.  It's all very much The Paper Chase recast as a fantasy by someone who rivals the elegant groundedness of Patricia McKillip.  And intermittent returns to the frametale add the piquancy of Kvothe's current fallen condition, also keeping the threat fires stoked.


One curious thing about this first book is how G-rated it is.  Oh, sure, people swear and leer at women's chests, but there's really no sex or adult tsuris.  True, Kvothe is only sixteen.  But still, he's from the streets.  So much for the libertine college life!   Yet although early on in the second book, Kvothe is still maintaining he "knows nothing of kissing," the tenor of his life is about to change.


Carefully omitting spoilers, I'll say that the new book delivers all the same pleasures as the first, with a deepening and extension of its chosen territory and remit and Kvothe's character.  Readers who enjoyed Wind will surely devour this successor.  The initial third of the tale continues Kvothe's studies at the University, as he finds out better who his friends and enemies really are, and broadens his knowledge of magic.  Then he is sent to the city of Severen, on a quasi-political assignment to a nobleman named the Maer Alveron.  Intrigue there helps toughen him up, but it's only some extensive experiences afield—with the supernatural Fae, and with a clan of martial arts experts—that truly wipes the dew from behind his ears.  By the end of this installment, Kvothe, a blooded killer, is well on the way to merging with his retired self.


Rothfuss's series belongs, I think, to the "hard fantasy" tradition promulgated by Michael Swanwick in essays and in such novels of his as The Iron Dragon's Daughter.  A kind of naturalistic other-worldly tale that blends fantastika with keen-eyed examinations of how human systems work, how people earn their money (a big issue for Rothfuss), how communities are organized, how power is distributed.  The ultimate example of this kind of writing is Samuel Delany's Return to Nevèrÿon series, with its rampant sex and semiotic investigation of capitalism's birth.  When you put that opus side-by-side with the ambitious trilogy-to-be by youthful Rothfuss, you'll see that the latter is, like talented teen Kvothe, still striving gamely to learn from the elderly wizards in the faculty lounge, whom he might even yet surprise.



The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.




July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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