A Story Told in Stone: A Review of The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss

There is a simple truth in writing that all great novelists are unintentional poets.  There is a flow to their writing, a subtle rhythm that permeates every word choice and grants the book its own melody.  The rhythm is not as obvious as it is in poetry, where the music is brought to the forefront. Rather, novels must usually be read aloud to hear the cadence across sentences.  The main difference between the poet and the novelist lies in the purpose of those words.  Poetry relishes in the power of the words themselves, turning the very act of writing into a symphony.  Novelists use their language to bring readers deeper into the plot, submerging us into worlds that would no exist if not for words.

Patrick Rothfuss is a poet, and The Wise Man’s Fear is the second part in his epic poem, The Kingkiller Chronicle.  His first novel, The Name of the Wind, introduced readers to Kvothe the Bloodless, sometimes Kvothe the Arcane, and the world he inhabits.  This series is meant to be a trilogy, an autobiography told by a now adult Kvothe over the course of three days.  There is a structure to stories told in trilogy, and Rothfuss, poet that he is, does not adhere to it.  In any trilogy, part two is about failure.  We are supposed to see our characters fail and fall, so that they can achieve victory in part three.  At the end of A Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe has reached his peak.  We see him fail multiple times, but each one is a learning experience, not a true failure.  In fact, the structure is broken before it even starts.

When we first met Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, he is a broken man running a tavern.  We are not sure how he fell from a legendary fighter and sorcerer to his current position, and the character himself only alludes to his fall from grace.  This is day two of Kvothe’s storytelling, and we are fully immersed in his life.  As such, much less occurs in the present-day narrative compared to the first novel.  The characters are engrossed just as much as the readers are, and it is almost jarring when Kvothe pauses his story to attend to matters in the tavern.  In fact, he never leaves the tavern in this novel.  As opposed to the first novel, where our first introduction to the man is in the present day, we now know who he was, and his diminishment is all the more obvious for it.

The plot of The Wise Man’s Fear is both longer and more complex than the preceding novel, although the first episode of Kvothe’s life told is similar to what we have seen before.  As the novel opens, he is a teenager studying at the University, feverishly advancing his studies and consuming information.  His long-running feud with a rival student, a central plot of the first novel, finally hits a breaking point and single-handedly causes the rest of the book’s adventures.  Now that Kvothe is both more comfortable and more powerful, his situation at the university only becomes more intense.  He has friends, a home, things he has not possessed for a long time, things which only raise the stakes and worsen the consequences for his actions.

Kvothe’s feuding boils over when the rival takes a ring from the girl Kvothe loves, and he conspires to steal it back.  The fallout forces both rivals to take time away from the University and, in Kvothe’s case, pushes him towards the opposite end of the world.  On top of everything that he is, Kvothe is also a musician, and finds himself in the patronage of an exorbitantly powerful noble in a distant nation.  This is very different environment to the University.  Studying is replaced by courtly intrigue, and tempers by the game of manners.  During his time there, Kvothe wins the love of a wife for his patron, and is sent on a suicide mission hunting bandits for his rewards.  An apparent death sentence, meant to remove him and his knowledge of the court’s inner working.  However, this is Kvothe the Arcane, and as the novel progresses his power only grows.  The hunting of bandits in the woods reveals itself to be a cautionary tale of what were to happen if a person with Kvothe’s power turned their attention to less than noble purposes.

If that were the entire plot of The Wise Man’s Fear, readers would be satisfied, but that is only the two-thirds mark.  Rothfuss has built an enormous world in his mind and is keen to show us the hidden corners only alluded to in wonder.  As Kvothe grows his power and his knowledge, it difficult to ignore the fact that he also grows more dangerous.  He calls lighting down from the storm and uses a corpse to kill at a distance.  However, by far the most dangerous thing Kvothe learns is how to fight.  His adventure takes him to a truly different civilization.  A civilization where communication is not done through words so much as sign-language and hand gestures.  A people who abhor musicians and whose life completely revolves around a singular philosophy.  From these people, Kvothe both learns combat and to question what is the right path forward.  Not long after leaving with a new name and an ancient sword, he kills nine people and rescues two kidnapped girls.  The killing is easy, methodical, and entirely unaided by magic.

There is one other episode of Kvothe’s life told in The Wise Man’s Fear, which serves to change how we see his world along with the direction of the narrative.  Between hunting bandits and learning the art of combat, Kvothe enters the realm of the fae and becomes the lover of one of their kind.  While there, he finally finds the name of the wind, thought it is lost and found again.  In the fae realm, Kvothe meets a perfect seer.  A creature capable of seeing the future, in all of its many outcomes.  The seer tells him things meant to hurt, all of it true, with the full knowledge of what Kvothe will do in response.  Kvothe becomes a bomb thrown at the future.  The only question is, has the explosion already happened?

It is painfully obvious after reading The Wise Man’s Fear that there is so much more story to be told.  The novel is close to one thousand pages long, and, after finishing, I wish it were longer.  Rothfuss has a clear love for this world, and he makes sure that every word chosen fits into the epic poem of the life of Kvothe the Bloodless.  It has been seven years since the release of this novel, but the story is far from over.  All we can do now is wait, and enjoy the music and poetry of loving language.

The Wise Man’s Fear may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 16 days

Next on the List: Season of Storms, by Andrzej Sapkowski

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