The Wise Man’s Fear

It’seasy to see why Patrick Rothfuss’s sumptuous, soft-spoken, understated debutnovel, The Name of the Wind, caused a stir upon its appearance in 2007and went on to become a fantasy bestseller and engender a passel of fansclamoring for the sequel, which arrives now in the form of The Wise Man’sFear.  Not only was it thoughtfullyconceived, well-written and cleverly presented, but it also stood outthematically and stylistically from the competition, that crowd of hairy-chested,brawling, gore-splattered, epic-fantasy lager louts more at home on thebattlefield and in decadent court chambers than in Rothfuss’s chosenfresh-faced University setting.

Rothfuss’snarrative setup featured a realtime frametale that first disclosed our hero,Kvothe, as a disillusioned and burnt-out older fellow hiding out from his ownfame, with imminent dangers—the Chandrian—menacing from offstage.  Tracked down by a fellow named theChronicler, he agrees to get his lifestory down on paper, over the course ofthree 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 HighNoon to Warren Ellis’s Red. (In fact, if you picture Kvothe as Gary Cooper or Bruce Willis, youwon’t be far off the imagistic mark.)

Kvothe’slifestory emerges leisurely in first-person flashbacks.  After the tragic end of his vagabondchildhood, the bulk of the autobiography finds him a brilliant charity studentlearning magic at the University of the Arcanists, and earning a little moneyas 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 ofKvothe’s runic inventions is described as “an automatically triggeredkinetic opposition device.”)

Thusthe major portion of the tale conjures up Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxyas filtered through Bob Dylan’s memoirs of his Greenwich Village days.  Romance, frustration, intellectualstimulation, learning one’s chosen lineage, bucking the establishment,perfecting one’s artistry, riding the exuberance of youth and the mysteries ofliving.  It’s all very much The Paper Chaserecast as a fantasy by someone who rivals the elegant groundedness of PatriciaMcKillip.  And intermittent returns tothe frametale add the piquancy of Kvothe’s current fallen condition, alsokeeping the threat fires stoked.

Onecurious thing about this first book is how G-rated it is.  Oh, sure, people swear and leer at women’schests, 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 tenorof his life is about to change.

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

Rothfuss’sseries belongs, I think, to the “hard fantasy” tradition promulgatedby Michael Swanwick in essays and in such novels of his as The Iron Dragon’sDaughter.  A kind of naturalisticother-worldly tale that blends fantastika with keen-eyed examinations of how humansystems work, how people earn their money (a big issue for Rothfuss), howcommunities are organized, how power is distributed.  The ultimate example of this kind of writingis Samuel Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series, with its rampant sex andsemiotic investigation of capitalism’s birth. When you put that opus side-by-side with the ambitious trilogy-to-be byyouthful 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.

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