In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
Warning: While I wouldn’t really call anything I discuss a big spoiler, absolute purists may want to tread lightly. I discuss some general plot points.
The Wise Man’s Fear has generated a lot of excitement in fantasy circles in recent years. Book Two of The Kingkiller Chronicles, it continues the story of Kvothe, master wizard, musician, and warrior. The framing device for The Kingkiller Chronicles is that Kvothe, the titular kingkiller, has gone into hiding as an unassuming innkeeper in a nowhere town. He has taken the name Kote and spends his time pressing apples for cider and cooking mutton for guests. A chronicler happens upon the inn, recognizes him, and asks to take down his story. Kvothe obliges, and the story starts. It’s an appealing bildungsroman, underdog-against-all-odds type of tale. At the time that Kote/Kvothe is telling his story, he has achieved legendary fame, accomplished a ridiculous amount even by the standards of heroic fantasy, and then retired. When I say “accomplished a ridiculous amount,” maybe I would best make my point by quoting the beginning of his account of his life:
“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.”
Also, here’s a map. I don’t think you’re allowed to write fantasy without a map.
Kvothe was a big problem for me for a very long time because Rothfuss would hammer down the “Kvothe is so cool!” nail relentlessly throughout the entire first book. The strongest criticism against the character is that he’s a definite Mary Sue. He’s an underdog because he’s a poor orphan, but he is anything but poor talent-wise. He breezes past his magic school entrance exams, grows extremely powerful in magecraft, and is a master musician. The problems Kvothe confronts in the first book seem contrived. Oh, he’s really poor? That must really suck when you’re the most powerful young magician in the entire freaking world. After finishing the first book in the series, I did not come back to it for years, as I’d read in a blurb somewhere that he meets Felurian, an ancient sex goddess who either kills men or drives them insane with her vulvic talents. He escapes, because it turns out that he is so naturally good at sex that he impresses a five-thousand-year-old GODDESS OF SEX with his skills. As a virgin. This was a breaking point for me, as Rothfuss seemed to be building a character like you used to build characters when you were sub-10 and playing superheroes: OK, he’s as strong as Hulk, as fast as Flash, also he can breathe underwater and shoot fire from his hands. And he can shoot ice like Subzero, too. The Penny Arcade guys love this series, but even they take Rothfuss to task for this:
With all that being said, the Mary Sueness is improving. In The Wise Man’s Fear, he’s still way too good at everything, but at least he has some believable flaws. His ego is causing serious problems for him, he is struggling in some of his classes, and there are many things he does not know. Even his meeting with the sex goddess Felurian went down differently than the blurb made me think – he didn’t sex her so good that she fell in love with him. He was almost killed but fought with pure will and magic until he achieved victory. He still learns sexomancy from a lust fairy, but the problem was not his talent, it was that he was extremely talented at just about anything he tried. Him besting Felurian is fine, because he did it with unbelievably impressive magic, and being unbelievably impressive at one thing is fine as long as it’s not all the things. His character is easier to swallow in The Wise Man’s Fear because he faces more real struggles and he’s not just the absolute best at everything. Well, not every single thing. The Mary Sue problem still exists, it’s just no longer unforgivable. The thing is though, as an American reader, I can’t help but think of Superman. He is the most famous comic book character in the world for a reason, and one could argue that he’s way too talented – barring exposure to an extremely rare radioactive element, he’s unstoppable. The Kvothe of The Name of the Wind is insufferable, whereas the Kvothe of The Wise Man’s Fear is merely stuck within a Superman complex – over the top, but not story-breaking.
Fuck plot armor. I’m explicitly unkillable!
The strength of The Kingkiller Chronicles lies in its reverence for the art of storytelling. The framing device for the whole book is the protagonist telling a story about himself. Within that story, there are a lot of common, insignificant myths that do a lot to increase the texture and weight of the world. There are stories about religion. Travelers pass the time around campfires in telling each other tales. These range from rumors and gossip passed along on the road to old creation stories. In addition, the main quest of the series is Kvothe’s desire to find a group of seven immortal demons. Most people think these seven, the Chandrian, are just a silly children’s tale, but that’s because these monsters have spent the last few millennia obliterating any trace of themselves from the stories of men. Kvothe’s father begins researching them, and they show up and murder Kvothe’s entire family. Kvothe’s main motivation throughout the books is to gain enough knowledge and power to find and kill the beings who made him an orphan. His search for knowledge explores the beautiful patchwork nature of human storytelling – he manages to find a piece here, a sliver there, but all the stories are slightly different, the names added to or worn away by time, minimized or aggrandized by whichever culture acted as the story’s steward from the time it was created to the time Kvothe found it. Why did the Chandrian work so hard to make these stories so few and far between? It has something to do with the magic system of the book – knowing the true names of these creatures would give Kvothe some measure of power over them.
Pictured: The most powerful weapon in the fight against evil
One of the standout features of The Kingkiller Chronicles is its compelling magic system. Magic systems are important. They define the way mages can influence the world around them, which is a major concern of most fantasy. Rothfuss’ is inventive and intricate. The author includes many detailed, rule-bound systems and schools of magic, but all of these different techniques are children playing with matches compared to the roaring conflagration of Naming. Naming as a form of magic used to be widespread, but now only a handful of extremely talented people can manage it (Kvothe is, of course, among them). Naming consists of being able to intuitively know and call the true name of different things – wind, fire, rock, even blood or bone, even people. If a Namer calls something by its true name, he or she can control it. This is much more powerful than the other forms of magic. A Namer can break a hole through a thick stone wall by speaking to it. He can kill by calling the name of the wind and sucking the breath out of the lungs of his enemy. Naming, the true and accurate use of the perfect word at the perfect moment, is the most powerful form of magic in this world. This, along with the lovingly crafted myths that permeate this narrative, emphasizes the importance and power of writers and writing. The right words can kill an enemy, burn down a forest, or break through a wall. This focus of The Kingkiller Chronicles will appeal deeply to lovers of words and stories.
Wearing one of these is a really, really bad idea in this world.
Ironically, for all of its care and focus on the nature and power of stories, The Wise Man’s Fear has taken a lot of flack for its own storytelling. One of the main complaints is that, although it’s book two of three in The Kingkiller Chronicles, there is yet to be a kingkilling. Many are concerned with the pacing of the story – with only one book left, how will Kvothe kill a king, find his parents’ murderers, and bring the story he’s telling up to the present day? Another major criticism of The Wise Man’s Fear is that it seems like a mass of stitched-together short stories about Kvothe instead of a cohesive novel. Kvothe at school, Kvothe hunting bandits in the forest, Kvothe in the Fae realm, Kvothe with the desert swordsmen, et cetera. I see the point of this complaint, but I don’t care because all of these stitched-together stories are entertaining and well-written. Rothfuss has a gift for vivid, clear, and immediate writing, and he’s very good at describing knuckle-whitening fight scenes. Honestly, as a fantasy writer, if you can describe a duel involving magic, swordplay, or both with energy and deftness, you can be forgiven for a host of other niggling complaints.
In conclusion, the book is flawed but well worth a read. I’m a strong believer in the phrase “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” and just because this novel is not perfection does not mean it’s not enjoyable. Sure, the main character is Mary Sueish. Sure, this book consisted of what felt like a bunch of sidequests. Here’s the thing though – the character is driven and compelling through the sheer force of his skill. The sidequests are engrossing and fun standing by themselves. Also, the pure power of the narrative is a roaring river – hard to resist. I read this book for hours at a time. Finally, the languorous love affair with tales of any and all kinds that Rothfuss builds into the book, along with the idea of writer as Namer and words as power, serves to forge this series into a paean to the strength and gift of human communication and storytelling, which is a worthwhile accomplishment.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.
Image sources: Wiki, Penny-Arcade, and io9