Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Creating an epic fantasy protagonist is like answering job-interview questions: the trick is to create flaws that are not-so-secretly strengths, adding quirks and idiosyncrasies that make one's hero more impressive rather than less. Patrick Rothfuss has passed a Google-level interview with his trilogy's hero Kvothe, a young hothead with a list of accomplishments and abilities as long as his arm but also a carefully calibrated set of disadvantages (very young, redheaded, from the Gypsy-esque traveling folk of this continent, poor, orphaned) that serve primarily to make him even more impressive to the reader.

Rothfuss introduced Kvothe in The Name of the Wind four years ago, which immediately grabbed him a large and appreciative audience -- and no wonder, since it was a compellingly readable coming-of-age story with an iconic first-person narrator and a frame story that dribbled hints of things to come (both triumphs and tragedies) in the way that prophecy-loving fantasy readers immediately jumped on. Name was also a big book, full of exciting scenes, and secondary-world fantasy readers seem to still value size over everything -- size of book, size of protagonist's ego and abilities, size of scale, size of anything that can be measured. So Rothfuss had an almost immediate fanbase, which, as always, wanted to know how quickly they could expect the next book.

It took longer than expected, but The Wise Man's Fear hit stores last month with an even larger thump than Name did. (The new book is just shy of a thousand pages, and those pages have substantial numbers of words on them -- again, size is a huge bonus in this market.) And it's very much the same kind of book as Name was -- a little bit of frame story, in which an older Kvothe is seen, reduced to sad and unlikely circumstances, telling the tale of his much younger days, and in which Rothfuss throws out as many as a dozen dark hints a page as narrative anchors for the stuff he'll write later or, perhaps, leave as hints if he doesn't manage to get to them; and then a whole lot of "when I was young" stuff. In the main text, Kvothe only ages about a year -- he's still in his mid-teens, and one begins to wonder if this series will burst beyond its promised trilogy (as so many others have), or if that last book will appear in twenty years as a 10,000-page e-only monster. In keeping with Rothfuss's teasing narrative strategy, most of the events the reader is anticipating happen later in Fear than expected -- if they happen at all. (See elsewhere on the Internet for the blow-by-blow details of those; like most popular secondary-world fantasy, there are now multiples of words written about this series than there are in the books themselves.)

Rothfuss has an admirable control of scene and tension for a guy only on his second novel; this is a very big book with an overgrown "and" structure ("first this happened, and then this happened, and then..."), but it feels structured and moves at a controlled pace at all times. It is huge, though, meaning that all readers will not view all parts of it as equally necessary, and some sophisticated readers may begin to wonder if Rothfuss is just going to keep tossing out hints and not bothering to follow up on them. The frame story is more intrusive in this volume as well, and more obviously counterpointing Kvothe's stories about his youth. (Though there's still no evidence at all that Rothfuss wants us to doubt a word Kvothe says; he's a deeply reliable narrator, as usual in this genre.)

In the end, this series -- Rothfuss has grandly titled it "The Kingkiller Chronicles," based on yet another exploit of Kvothe's that we have gotten only the faintest reports of so far -- is a strong entry in the traditional Tolkeinesque secondary-world fantasy genre, but doesn't transcend that genre. Kvothe is an engaging narrator -- I almost wrote "endlessly engaging," but that might be too much of a temptation to the already-given-to-great-length Rothfuss -- and his story is one of the better epic fantasies that you could find. But it doesn't push the genre in ways that Steven Erikson or George R.R. Martin do; it just settles into the middle of the territory to tell the story it has.

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