I can’t recommend reading The Wise Man’s Fear without reading The Name of the Wind first, because this is one of those cases where what you have is the middle third of a story. What I do recommend if you like fantasy and you haven’t read The Name of the Wind is that you go to however much trouble it takes to get hold of a copy this afternoon, and you start reading it this evening after dinner, because these are extremely good books. What The Wise Man’s Fear does that the first book couldn’t is demonstrate that Rothfuss can sustain this story and make it work. I am confident now that the third volume when it eventually appears will work and will complete the story.
What’s so good about these books isn’t that they are particularly original, it’s how well they’re done. Rothfuss has built a really three dimensional fantasy world, with layers of history. Against that he’s telling the story of one hero, or maybe villain, Kvothe, who is really smart but who screws things up the way really smart people do. There’s a frame story in which Kvothe is telling his story, and then there is the story he tells, in first person and close up. Rothfuss really uses this device to make sure we know things ahead of time and that we both know and do not know other things. Additionally, the whole thing can be seen as a meditation on the nature of storytelling and legend-making. What this is is an extremely immersive story set in a flawlessly constructed world and told extremely well. I don’t want to criticize it and analyse it—I don’t want to step that far away from it. I want to sink down below the surface of it and become completely immersed. If I want more (want more!!!) it isn’t because of narrative tension, it’s the same way I want to run more hot water into the bath because I don’t want to get out yet.
Spoilers for The Wise Man’s Fear below. Go here for my spoiler-free review.
I like the world for having bits on the map where we’re not going to go, and Rothfuss for telling a story of the world that isn’t a group of adventurers going on a quest. I like the little asides—the way people ask “how’s the road to Tinue” for “how are things going” and how there are different cultures and habits and different currencies. Rothfuss really does this well. It also has humour. It’s not funny in the way of most allegedly funny fantasy, which draws on things outside the story to make a silly gag. It’s also not dead serious and humourless the way a lot of fantasy is. It contains humour arising from the characters and situations, so while sometimes it’s tragic, at other times it’s funny, just like real life. This is impressive because it’s rare.
From now on, this post is going to be full of spoilers and speculation. Really, spoilers starting here, no mushy half-measures, I’m talking about the plot here. Go read the book first. It comes out today (March 1st). I promise I will keep paying attention.
I wasn’t expecting The Wise Man’s Fear to spend so much time in the University, when we know from the framestory that Kvothe has so many things to become famous for. The Name of the Wind covers Kvothe’s life up to sixteen, this book covers another year… or two. The confusion is because Kvothe spends some time in Fae, which is three days in the outer world, but some considerable time longer as his body experiences time.
The book begins with Kvothe still at the University, still in an ongoing feud with Ambrose—and I have a theory about Ambrose, which is coming later. He still has no money, he’s still seeing Denna when he isn’t looking for her and not finding her when he is, he’s still singing at the Eolian. Ambrose gets Denna’s ring and Kvothe gets hurt trying to get it back and Ambrose does malfeasance trying to get at him and Kvothe has to make a gram to protect himself. It’s all lovely and it all fits seamlessly onto the end of The Name of the Wind, and just when I started to wonder if we were ever going to get anywhere, Kvothe is tried under the Iron Law for speaking the Name of the Wind against Ambrose at the end of the last book.
We don’t get an account of the trial, because we’ve already had one in the frame story, and Kvothe says everyone knows how he learned Tema overnight and defended himself. But after the trial he has to leave for a while, and suddenly—he’s shipwrecked on the way but he doesn’t bother describing it—he’s in Vintas, at the court of the Maer Alveron, learning a new culture, saving Alveron’s life and helping Alveron court Lady Lackless. Remember Lady Lackless? She’s the one he sang a song about as a little boy, a song his mother stopped him singing because it was mean. Remember his mother was a noblewoman stolen away to become Edema Ruh? Well, Lady Lackless had an older sister stolen away by the Ruh so she hates them. Also, when he first meets her she looks terribly familiar. Is she his long lost aunt? Only time will tell.
Also in Severen is Denna. I don’t like Denna, but I like her better in this book. For one thing, she gets a Bechdel moment when Kvothe overhears her talking to a girl she’s rescued from rape in an alley about the miserable alternatives that exist for women like them. That made her a lot more human. Then I think she’s actually caught up in something magic. She’s knotting Yllish braids into her hair. And the never finding her thing? Kvothe continues to act like an idiot around her, but it helps that other people point this out to him. In Severen, she learns the harp and writes a song that has Lanre as hero, and of course Kvothe offends her by critiquing her history instead of praising her artistry. This is my favourite scene ever with Denna because I can so exactly see myself making this same mistake. Mostly, people want you to tell them their thing is good, and not what’s wrong with it. I really empathise with Kvothe here.
Alveron sends Kvothe on a mission into the vast untracked woods of the Eld to stop some bandits who are preying on tax collectors there. He takes with him an Adem mercenary, two ordinary mercenaries, one male and one female, and a tracker. They squabble their way through the woods for some time until they meet the bandits, who are being led by Cinder, the black-eyed Chandrian. They defeat the bandits by some fighting and a lot of difficult magic, but Cinder disappears.
On their way home they run into Felurian, who has been mentioned sufficiently before this that we know who she is—a kind of lorelei who seduces men and kills them with sex or drives them mad with love. Kvothe follows her into the Fae, but manages to get away—partly by cleverness and partly by magic, by speaking the name of the wind and perhaps her name as well. The cleverness consists of telling her he can’t complete his song about her without something to compare her to—he’s using her vanity to keep the story hostage. “His own best trick” he calls this when Chronicler tries it on him. She makes him a cloak of shadow, and he has an encounter with an evil tree that is malign and can see the future, the Chtaeh. This scares Bast.
The most interesting thing that happens with Felurian is their conversation about the moon. Back with the mercenaries, we heard a story about a boy who fell in love with the moon and stole her name, so that she has to spend some time with him every month. From Felurian we learn that this was something done long ago so that the moon moves between the mortal and fae worlds—when it’s full in one it’s dark in the other, it moves between. This is fascinating and the kind of thing you can do in fantasy and people so seldom do. In talking about this, Felurian talks about people making things, and sitting on the walls of Murella—Murella was one of the cities in Skarpi’s story of Lanre. So this connects to the Chandrian.
Coming back into the real world after three days, or however much time, Kvothe goes to Adem with Tempi, the Adem mercenary, who has been teaching him his hand-flutter language and his secret martial art. In Adem, Kvothe learns to fight, has sex with beautiful women, and is called a barbarian. He’s far and away the worst student there, but he comes up to the bare standard of competence, which puts him above everyone else. He gets given a two thousand year old sword called Sisera, or Caesura. He also hears the true names of the Chandrian.
This is almost too much, though I like the time in Adem a great deal. Kvothe is already a world-class singer, songwriter, and musician, he’s astonishingly good at magic and memorisation, and all this is plausibly grounded in how he grew up. Now he’s learned sex from Felurian and fighting from the Adem, and he really is ridiculously good. However, this is balanced by the real-time frame story. There’s more real time frame story here than in the first book, and things happen in it, and it appears that Kvothe has lost it all—he doesn’t sing, he’s lost his magic, and when he’s attacked by a couple of soldier-bandits he doesn’t fight either. Has he lost his skill or does he know Bast set them on him? I can’t tell. Rothfuss knows he’s writing about a hero who is just too wonderful, and I think he’s balancing that by simultaneously showing him older and without it all.
On the way back from Adem, he falls in with a troup of people who are impersonating Ruh. He rescues two girls they have kidnapped and raped, and kills them all. Back in Severen, Meluan Lady Lackless shows him her box without lid or locks, and Alveren talks to him about the Amyr. Then he reveals his Ruh origins when confessing to what he did to the false troupers, and she insists he leave. Alveren gives him a writ paying his tuition at the University, but nothing more.
He goes back to the University to find he’s almost rich—his tuition paid, the “bloodless” arrowcatch he invented selling well and earning him royalties, his friends are all well, and he manages to get back on terms with Denna by saving her life by calling the wind into her lungs when she’s dying of asthma in Tarbean. But she won’t be one of many. He stops telling for the night while he’s ahead, and who can blame him.
In the frame story several things happen. Bast sets the soldiers on and we have the attack. He tells the smith’s apprentice that he’s Kvothe to get him to stay and listen instead of signing up, but he isn’t believed. A number of people come in and make wills. Kvothe makes an apple pie. He asks Bast how he would open the locked chest, and Bast can’t do it—and then we learn at the end that Kvothe can’t do it either. Kvothe has killed a king. He has an Ademic sword that is not Caesura, and Caesura is known as “poet killer”.
On what I take to be the main plot, concerning the Chandrian, we are a little further forward. He knows their names and signs. He has learned a bit about the Amyr. He knows something about how this happened before the faen world was a separate place. He saw Cinder, and knows what the Chtaeh said. And we know that the matter of the Chandrian has not been resolved, so I have hopes that it will be resolved in realtime in the third volume. We’ve been told and told and told that Kvothe is waiting to die, like a cut flower. Bast is clearly trying to wake him up and make him what he was, and this is so much about the power of stories and legend that I think there will be resolution, and I am looking forward to seeing it.
One of my favourite bits of this volume was the bit where Kvothe makes Chronicler into a story, with his paper sword and his secrets, and the locals having lunch take it up and start telling it. It shows that power.
And in conclusion to this spoiler-soaked post, some total off the wall speculation, not in this book, here’s my theory about Ambrose and what’s going on with the whole shape of the story of what has happened, as opposed to the Chandrian story which we now know isn’t resolved inside the frame.
You know Kvothe is famous for killing a king and causing all the chaos in the world? What do you bet the king is in fact Ambrose? We keep hearing that his father is Baron Jakis, twelfth in line to the throne of Vint, and while Kvothe was in Severen the Regent to Vint died. It wouldn’t take much Kind Hearts and Coronets to put Ambrose on the throne, and I can absolutely see Kvothe killing him over something Denna does (we know she has something to do with it) and it would fit the whole shape of the story and be very satisfying.
I could be completely wrong, and I won’t mind at all if I am, because it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, and this is a journey I am enjoying very very much.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.