18 April 2014

The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear
by Patrick Rothfuss

This sequel to Name of the Wind returns us to the stories of Kvothe. The main narrative starts with Kvothe  studying at the University, barely able to scrape by financially and dealing with continued enmity from a rich student. He is encouraged to take a break and travels to another country to help a nobleman court his preferred bride. Events take a turn for the strange as Kvothe encounters a magical character from folklore and spends some time outside of the world. Further travel sees him tested by folk from a completely different culture to his own. Each event adds to the reputation and legend of Kvothe, which we have snippets of from the framing narrative, which also moves forward. The framing narrative is Kvothe, living incognito as an innkeeper, telling his own story to a chronicler who has tracked him down. They are joined by Bast, Kvothe's magical and mysterious friend.

This review gets a bit spoilery, just so you know.

This was a very long book, it had many pages and small print, but I got through it fairly quickly. Kvothe tells the story of his own life well, not surprising for someone raised as a musician and travelling performer. I didn't always agree with Kvothe's decisions or actions, but I always understood why he was doing what he did. There are references to the previous book, but not a lot and they information is dropped in fairly naturally. It had been a while since I read Name of the Wind, so a lot of the details weren't clear in my mind. Kvothe's story doesn't have quite the change in status and fortune as the last book did, but there are much stranger changes. Kvothe's life at the University involves Kvothe having friends for the first time, and a feeling that seems like home, even if Kvothe doesn't think of it that way. The magic learned at the university is a mixture of scholarship, engineering, science and medical training. I did love the descriptions of the University's huge and idiosyncratic library, or anywhere in this world that is where I would like to visit.

The book explores more of the world Rothfuss has created. Kvothe visit a country that is similar to the one where the University is, except that they are a lot more suspicious of magic. This shared culture and language is commented on a little, but the main change is that for the first time in his life Kvothe is living among the upper classes, as one of them. The real change comes when Kvothe takes an unexpected trip to the little-known mountain land of Adem, after learning some of their language and customs from a mercenary he travels with. Adem is entirely different to the countries Kvothe has previously travelled through, and Rothfuss has created a different kind of society, culture, language and even understanding of biology. It was interesting to see it through Kvothe's eyes, as he learns more.

There was one section that initially made me roll my eyes, when Kvothe runs off with a legendary sex-fairy. It did seem as though Kvothe's ability to overcome her wiles was a function of his status as Protagonist, he must've used a lot of plot points. However, as what I initially took to be a brief diversion went into more detail about the mystical other realm, and the events that took place there became more plot-relevant, I found myself enjoying it, and seeing that it did fit with the big -but so far vague- reputation Kvothe has later in his life.

Another slight niggle I had about worldbuilding comes from Kvothe's time in a very foreign culture that doesn't believe in fathers. Which is to say that they do not believe sex = babies and therefore have no concept or understanding of "man-mothers", which are known in other lands. Now, it's not unheard of for societies to believe that babymaking is something that women are able to do by themselves. This is found in various ancient cultures, so I got why the author wanted to use the idea. It was funny for a girl to point out to Kvothe how unconvincing his arguments for fathers were. However what is never mentioned, let alone explained, is how a culture with no sex taboo (which makes sense as they don't believe in conception) and no contraceptives actually operates. There's no suggestion that the women are pregnant a lot, and one has had sex loads without pregnancy, and I found that omission odd and unconvincing. I can understand the problems with trying to write modern sexual mores in a culture without reliable and easily accessible contraceptives, but it felt as though the author had just shrugged and decided not to cover that. Which I found bit odd, I was waiting for the explanation, especially as this section came after he'd managed to convince me about the validity and personality of the sex-fairy.

I liked the way that stories are using within the narrative. Of course the bulk of the story is Kvothe telling his own life to the Chronicler. There is also a story around that telling, as macabre creatures invade the life of a sleepy, rural community - who have no idea a legendary hero is in their midst, even when Kvothe tries to confess his true identity to a farm lad. Also there's Bast, now revealed to be from the other realm, he is able to comment on Kvothe's time there and add an extra dimension that that part of the tale. There are many stories within Kvothe's story, those told by travellers, some of which foreshadow what is come (the sex-fairy for example) and some which I suspect foreshadow later events in the series. Kvothe himself actively uses stories to boost his reputation, something that is less necessary after he does some truly incredible things. I also really liked that Kvothe entirely skips over a major part of his story because he finds it dull. The chronicler pulls him up on this, apparently his trial is amajot part of his legend and well renowned. Kvothe points out that in that case enough people know it, and from his point of view it was tedious. That subversion of the chronicler's expectations is great.

The Wise Man's Fear is a good book, with a great use of viewpoint and story. The writing is good and the characterisation is great. The plot is engaging, some unlikely events and their consequences are mixed with routine aspects of life in different settings and situations. The pace wasn't always fast, but that worked well, allowing the reader to settle down and get a bit comfortable in the less dramatic parts of Kvothe's life. The world is full of the ordinary and mysterious. The issues I raised above are small in the scheme of things and did not spoil my enjoyment of a fascinating read.

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