Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review: Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear

I am quite comfortable calling The Kingkiller Chronicle a masterwork of fantasy, and it’s not even finished yet. After reading the second book in this trilogy, I do think it will be canonized alongside The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Lord of the Rings series. The series starter The Name of the Wind knocked me over, but The Wise Man’s Fear blew me away. Just when I think Patrick Rothfuss can’t possibly come up with anything more inventive, he does. I think he would object to being called him a wizard, so I’ll stick to his terminology: alchemist and sympathist. He takes words and turns them into a whole world. 

Like his protagonist Kvothe, Rothfuss is a consummate showman and storyteller. His imagery catches the imagination. Two of my favorite symbols from this book happen to be trees: a tree whose roots are strewn with dead butterflies (killed because they offended a malevolent spirit’s sensibilities) and a tree with falling leaves that cut like knives. Naming is essential to Kvothe’s quest, so it only makes sense that the same goes for the novel’s characters: Elxa Dal, Elodin, Meluan Lacklass, Felurian, Vashet.

Oh my gosh, the worldbuilding. Kvothe ventures outside of the University and its environs, so the world opens up. The Adem people, who live in their land of Ademre, have their own religion, system of fighting, mythology, matriarchal culture, and language. I am endlessly fascinated by language acquisition, and the idea that facial expressions are considered vulgar in this culture is mind-blowing. Most communication is augmented by hand signals that signify emotions (“gentle reproach”), not words. It’s essentially a poetic language rather than a prose language. Of course, it follows that they have their own sense of humor, insults, jokes, and didactic stories. Their religion (the Lethani) and fighting system (the Ketan) draw from eastern religions, but still manage to be wholly original. Equally interesting is the system of currying political favor with different metal rings, seen in the court of Severen. The Vintas people are also extremely suspicious of magic, and I loved how Rothfuss instituted this prejudice as a systematic societal belief.

Rothfuss is a true thinker and observer of the world, and it is his knowledge of human nature that allows him to spin out fairy tales that read real. I love the Edema Ruh, a nomadic storytelling population that are discriminated against (much like our Gypsies). Poetry and philosophy sneak into the cracks of the folklore and songs. The magic system called sympathy, based on chemistry and physics, is as captivating as ever. There’s a depth and breadth to the knowledge in this trilogy, so I always felt like I was learning something as I read.

The plot is constantly moving, since no one delights more in imperiling his characters than Patrick Rothfuss. This tendency is great for the reader, as each new dilemma is an opportunity. Kvothe’s journey and wants are constantly sidetracked, but his diversions are just as interesting as the main plot, thanks to the strength of primary, secondary, and tertiary characters. (Each person has a want and an agenda!) Rothfuss is a really talented writer with a firm grasp of story, so even a poor student scrambling to make tuition is interesting. Peril! Stakes! Interdependency! Nothing wasted!

In between all of these plot threads, Kvothe grows up. His maturation seems authentic, as his epiphanies are triggered by his experiences. Kvothe is a fairly typical young man outside of his intellect, and as such, things get a little sexy. However, it’s not gratuitous or exploitive. Rothfuss is actually a pretty feminist writer, as far as fantasy goes. Kvothe has fully-formed female friends, women who are his equals and betters. They are smart and capable with different temperaments and secret desires. More than a few aren’t afraid to take matters into their own hands, but others would prefer not to. In other words, they’re human. The issues of domestic violence, sexual shaming, and human trafficking are also brought up and handled in sensitive ways.

The Wise Man’s Fear is a story within a story that contains stories nested inside, and Rothfuss tempers all of these moving parts with a wicked sense of humor and play. A lyrical strain mingles with the humor, and I found lots of ideas to puzzle over, like the statement that laughter and tears both originate in the belly. The best part is that this book goes AGAINST sequel logic. Things get better for Kvothe, even though the reader knows they’re going to get worse. He is a genuine tragic hero in that the majority of his problems and triumphs spring from his tragic flaw: his intellectual curiosity and his resulting arrogance. This combination makes Kvothe a striving protagonist with just enough swagger, someone to root for and someone who’s endlessly entertaining. There are tons of unresolved things to keep me wondering until the conclusion, and I simply can’t wait.

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