If it seems like I've been written a lot of glowing reviews lately, then it's because I've had the good fortune to read a lot of really excellent books in the past few months. And also because I've just plain put down a few bad books without bothering to finish them for review. The latter reason seems like a journalistic failing to me, even though I don't in any way fancy myself a journalist; still, it's a bad habit that I'm trying to break. Rest assured that my next review (I'm already pretty certain) will not be so warm.
That said, it seems like 2011 is sort of the Year of the Books We've Been Waiting For, doesn't it? Perhaps most notable is the scheduled release of A Dance with Dragons (Bantam, TBR July 2011), the long-delayed fifth volume of George R.R. Martin's acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire series. Personally, I remain skeptical (I, like many of you, have been hurt too many times to be otherwise), but this time the promised release date is backed up by a statement from the author himself on his website, whereas apparently the other dates were just overly optimistic guesses.
But first, to tide us over with a dark, prosaic dose, comes The Wise Man's Fear, Day Two of the Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss (DAW, 2011). And even if we, the collective fan base, haven't been waiting for it quite as long as we have for Dragons, we've been waiting for no less enthusiasm. As a reflection of that enthusiasm, The Wise Man's Fear debuted at the No. 1 (hardcover fiction) spot on The New York Times Bestseller List.
Which says that the thing was eagerly anticipated. But was it worth the wait?
In a word: Yes.
If you were a fan of The Name of the Wind (DAW, 2007) you won't be disappointed here. (If you weren't, why would you read the sequel?) Rothfuss brings the same haunting, lyrical prose and deft storytelling to The Wise Man's Fear that made us fall in love with the original.
If you haven't read The Name of the Wind, I recommend you do so now. It's okay. I'll wait.
All done yet?
No, that's okay. Take your time.
All right, then.
Now, when I went to go see Mr. Rothfuss speak last week, the author expressed a strong desire to bottle up the spoilers, so please, no talking about the book, thank you. Having had the opportunity to read both this and The Name of the Wind with as little foreknowledge as I think possible, I can definitely see Rothfuss's point. Which leaves us with the question of how I'm supposed to talk about the book without, you know, talking about the bloody book.
Well, first I'll talk about the physical book itself: as with the last book I reviewed, The Wise Man's Fear is a monster, weighing in at just under one thousand pages. And not one page of that -- not one word -- is a disappointment. Not one word is filler. Indeed, one even gets the impression that this author trimmed the thing down of any excess, any fluff or fat, to give us the leanest, meanest fantasy epic he could.
The result is an epic tome that keeps your attention all the way through, with nary a boring moment in the whole thing. Hell, if you're anything like me, you'll read this book even when you should be doing other, more productive things. I bought this book Thursday night and finished it this (Tuesday) afternoon.
Like The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear is a story within a story: that of Kvothe, hero and legend in his own time reduced for unknown reasons to the post of a small-town innkeeper, telling his "true" story and setting the record straight. Here, Kvothe goes on adventures and ...
Wait, I can't tell you that.
No, not that, either.
In the interest of not spoiling the book for you, as it was so graciously not spoiled for me, I'll tell you that Kvothe has adventures. Has the time of his life, even. Learns a thing or two. Grows up a little. I think I'm safe in saying that much.
As our narrator through both novels, Kvothe is obviously the most developed character; his narration makes for an interesting story dynamic as he explains what he experienced in his youth through the lens of a more educated and worldly grown-up. Other characters are seen through his eyes and processed through his (sometimes lack of) understanding. To that end, a few of the supports are fairly fleshed out and interesting, with their own stories to be unraveled, but many other minor cast members come off as a little flat -- there's the loyal friend, the dour mercenary, the kooky teacher, and so on.
That last is a little bit surprising. The Kingkiller Chronicle is happily free of many of those classical tropes that, poorly tended, can make every epic fantasy novel feel like the same epic fantasy novel you just read last week. Other tropes, he turns on their heads (or at least on their sides). Rothfuss even spoke publicly to that effect -- that he didn't want to write the Same Old Story. Still, as I've mentioned above, a few of the old standbys are present and accounted for.
Rothfuss clearly put a lot of thought and effort into shaping Kvothe's story-within-a-story journey, and no secrets are revealed before their time. I won't speak for the status of the major plot points in The Wise Man's Fear except to say that Rothfuss picks up all the threads from The Name of the Wind and carries them deftly. This is one of those few, rare cases where More Of The Same proves to be Exactly What We Need.
(Okay, I'll be honest: one or two subplots within The Wise Man's Fear were resolved perhaps a little hastily or too conveniently for my taste, such that I wonder as to their necessity. Still, they're not a waste of time, since they add to Kvothe's development and are entertaining.)
The storytelling itself is The Kingkiller Chronicle's ultimate strength. Rothfuss has an intricate, delicate, almost poetical form of narration that's easy to get swept into and hard to pull yourself out of. My own words fail me as I try to describe it. Suffice to say, it's some positively powerful prose, the likes of which there is tragically too little on the market right now. I'm eager to see what more wordplay this author has in store for us, both in The Kingkiller Chronicle's conclusion and in the continuance of Rothfuss's career.
I suppose you could say the eloquent narration stems from Kvothe's life as a musician, and at one stretch it's actually a plot point -- but I think it has more to do with Rothfuss's writing style than the development of this character.
With all that said, I would like to suggest something truly dangerous: Kvothe might actually be The Kingkiller Chronicle's weakest link. I don't mean that he's a bad protagonist, or even a bad character. He's not. Not at all. He's as resourceful and resilient, articulate and accessible a hero as you could possibly ask for. But that's also sort of the problem: even in his flaws, he's pretty much perfect. Of course, this is Kvothe's story in his "own" words, so a certain amount of leniency can be granted when Kvothe triumphs over and/or learns from adversity. But I get the feeling that Rothfuss, like many authors (J.K. Rowling and Stieg Larsson come to mind) is a little bit too in love with his own creation. It's a sadistic love, and Kvothe suffers on a Frodo-ian scale, but it gives me pause as I consider how Rothfuss will eventually resolve the Chronicle.
At the end of the day, a few quibbles aside, this is The Kingkiller Chronicle's Empire Strikes Back, a dark, heroic, mightily satisfying second act that was well worth the wait. Though it may be another five years before Kvothe finishes his journey and all our questions will be answered, The Wise Man's Fear leaves me with confidence that our patience will be rewarded.