March 2011

An epic tale continues

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It’s been four years since Patrick Rothfuss splashed onto the fantasy scene with his first novel, The Name of the Wind. The debut was a successful one—Rothfuss garnered ample praise from peers and publications alike as a notable new voice in the high fantasy genre. As a result, anticipation for the second book of The Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy has been keen.

In The Wise Man’s Fear, Kvothe—musician, magician, thief and more—continues to tell the story of his quest to learn more about a group of beings known as the Chandrian (or the Seven) who slaughtered his family when he was still a child. With his second book, Rothfuss proves that his initial success was no fluke. Though in itself longer than many trilogies, The Wise Man’s Fear carries the reader along just as swiftly as its predecessor.

As one expects from a sequel, Kvothe’s world gets bigger in The Wise Man’s Fear. In addition to the University that so dominated the action in the latter half of The Name of the Wind, the flame-haired protagonist travels to the distant country of Vintas, treks through the expansive Forest of Eld, spends time in the homeland of the Adem mercenaries and survives an excursion into the realm (and arms) of the Fae.

The wider tableau of The Wise Man’s Fear brings some much-needed geographical “epic expanse” to the series that the first book lacked. Nonetheless, this is still an extremely personal epic. This is a tale told primarily by its main character, and the “tale within a tale” approach is more than just a convenient framing device. Unlike some of those seminal works of unreliable narrators and “tale within a tale” tales (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or James’ Turn of the Screw, for example)—where one can easily forget there is a fictive narrator relating events—the Kvothe of the present is constantly reasserting his presence as he tells of his past. The result is an epic fantasy that feels more intimate than grand or sweeping. This juxtaposition is but one way in which Rothfuss confounds the expectations of a reader used to traditional fantasy fare.

Though he doesn’t manhandle the cherished clichés of heroic fantasy with quite the ruthlessness of Glenn Cook or George R.R. Martin, Rothfuss doesn’t coddle them, either. Kvothe loses more than he wins, and even his victories are often tainted by the specter of a greater loss merely postponed. At times, it’s frustrating—after all, it could be argued that fantasy readers, more than most, like an occasional clear-cut win. Nonetheless, as a result and to his credit, Rothfuss achieves that most difficult of feats for any fiction writer—the reader seldom can predict what comes next. Despite its templated trappings, the story of Kvothe Kingkiller is not your typical fantasy epic.

By the end of The Wise Man’s Fear, there are plenty of questions unanswered and foreshadowed events untold. So many, in fact, that I would not be at all surprised if this trilogy doesn’t wind up a tetralogy by the time Kvothe’s tale concludes. Too often, such page inflation is a sign of authorial dawdling, editorial flaccidity or even publisher profit-juicing. But given the command Rothfuss has demonstrated thus far—and the sheer expanse of world yet unexplored—readers won’t mind if the story of Kvothe goes a book or two beyond its initial target.


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