The Kingkiller Chronicles: Book II
I have a confession. I began reading this in January on my Kindle and simply couldn’t get through it. When I felt it was time for a second bash at it, I borrowed a hard copy from the library, so that I could keep track of exactly where I was in the book. This time I sailed through much more easily. In general, The Wise Man’s Fear has the same strengths and appeal as The Name of the Wind, the first book in the series. If you enjoyed that then you should certainly carry on and read this, even though there are weaknesses in the narrative’s pace and structure in this instalment. I still can’t help but admire Rothfuss’s achievement in creating such a rich and lovingly-detailed world, with storytelling and music at its heart.
I have heard what poets write about women. They rhyme and rhapsodize and lie.
I have watched sailors on the shore stare mutely at the slow-rolling swell of the
sea. I have watched old soldiers with hearts like leather grow teary-eyed at their
king’s colors stretched against the wind. Listen to me: these men know nothing of love.
You will not find it in the words of poets or the longing eyes of sailors. If you want
to know of love, look to a trouper’s hands as he makes his music. A trouper knows.
We rejoin Kvothe on the second day of Chronicler’s visit for another instalment of his story, and this novel covers little more than a year of his life (I’m not sure he’s even eighteen yet). Still at the University, Kvothe continues with his studies, always hoping to find some scrap of information that will bring him closer to the Chandrian, the ancient beings who destroyed his family in the first book. Yet he still has the time to pursue his unwise feud with the wealthy and unscrupulous Ambrose Jakis. Indeed, the feud has now developed to such levels that it takes housebreaking, arson and malfeasance in its stride. Furthermore, with Kvothe’s trial for public disorder hanging over him (the result of his calling the wind at the end of the first book), it seems sensible to disappear for a time to let the scandal die down.
His path takes him to the city of Severen, where he has a letter of introduction to the Maer Alveron, a phenomenally rich and powerful nobleman who grows to appreciate Kvothe’s various accomplishments. But his greatest gift to Kvothe is an inadvertent one: in the experiences which grow out of his orders that Kvothe should accompany a group of mercenaries who are tracking down bandits on the high-road. Not only does this assignment give Kvothe the chance to push his arcanist’s powers to the limit, it also allows him to step into new worlds: metaphorically, in the case of his contact with the reclusive, highly-trained Adem mercenaries; but literally in his unexpected confrontation with the most desirable creature of the faerie realm: the fae Felurian.
Although Kvothe’s brilliance could easily make him rather irritating, he remains (for me) a very engaging character. His best quality is probably his powerful curiosity about other cultures, which allows us as readers to learn more about the various societies and traditions in Rothfuss’s world. The different groups are not original in themselves, as their types stick fairly faithfully to the conventions of high fantasy and occasionally there are echoes of particular societies in other works – to take one of the more obvious, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between Rothfuss’s Adem mercenaries and Robert Jordan’s Aiel. However, each one is given individuality by its particular quirks and customs. The Adem consider it shameful to play or listen to music in public, considering it a form of seduction. In Severen, you request a meeting by sending a ring – iron, silver or gold depending on your own rank and that of the person you want to see, throwing up a lot of tricky social calculation.
And, binding all these different societies together is a rich tapestry of tales and poems, which ties in to the series’s central theme of storytelling, and shows how facts can be twisted and transformed until they throw the long shadows of legend. I suspect we’ll find out by the end that many of the stories we’ve heard in the first two books have some crucial truths at their heart. I also rather enjoy the fact that there are lots of loose threads – threads that don’t point to the author’s carelessness, but instead suggest a casual confidence. He wants to tease you a little by letting you know these stories are there, without any promise that you’ll actually find out more about them. Who is Auri, for example? Why is she as she is? And what is Elodin’s background? How does he know so much about other cultures, down to Adem hand-language? Will we ever find out who Denna or her patron really are? Why does Kvothe forbid music in the story’s ‘present’?
Rothfuss is good at writing with his tongue tucked slightly into his cheek and, for the first half of the book, he manages to perfectly combine the stuff of traditional fantasy with a zesty modern spirit. As a result, everything storms along with the force of a juggernaut. There are moments where the bantering and horseplay falls a little flat – where a very visual piece of humour, which would work well on film, feels awkward put into words – but, generally speaking, Rothfuss’s healthily irreverent sense of humour is right on target. As in the first book, his characters sometimes seem to be disconcertingly aware that they are in a certain kind of story, and are keen to act accordingly. For example, as Kvothe stows some dried apple away in the secret compartment of his lute case, he observes: ‘There was nothing special about the dried apple, but in my opinion if you have a secret compartment in your lute case and don’t use it to hide things, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with you’. A sentiment I think we can all share.
So why, you might ask, did I drop out first time round? Well, first of all, I felt that the section with Felurian was entirely too long and, to be perfectly frank, it grew dull. It didn’t have enough dramatic development to warrant the endless sex scenes, and Kvothe’s effusive admiration of her ample charms became tedious. I can cope with a sex scene or two – I’m a big girl – but the idea of an insatiable fae sex-goddess being impressed by the efforts of a virginal sixteen-year-old smacked a little too much of teenage-boy-wish-fulfilment (sorry chaps). More to the point, it tripped up a plot which until this point had been bowling along quite merrily. Even after Kvothe disentangled himself from Felurian and returned to the mortal world, I felt that the point of the plot had been altered. It was no longer a pacy adventure novel focused on Kvothe’s studies and his desire to find out more about the Chandrian. The Chandrian had become little more than an excuse for Kvothe to visit new places, impress the inhabitants and casually add some more arcane knowledge to his portfolio (this was the case with both Felurian and the Adem, though I admit his methods were somewhat different in the two cases).
I’m going to veer into spoiler territory here, so please don’t read on if you haven’t read the book. For those who have, what do you think is going on with Bast? Is he in league with the two soldiers who attacked the inn? If so, why? In the hope of forcing Kvothe to remember who he really is and to take up his sword again? Or does he want to find out how strong Kvothe is? And is his interest that of a concerned friend or a cautious enemy? I would like to think that Bast is the loyal companion he’s appeared to be all the way through the books so far, but just at the moment I’m just not sure – which is presumably just the way Rothfuss likes it. We still haven’t learned an awful lot about Bast and I hope we get to see a little more of his story in the third book.
The key thing we’re left with, at the close of this instalment, is uncertainty. Despite Kvothe’s legendary past, his present is dangerously close to being mundane. He can no longer defend himself against a mere pair of enemies (or he chooses not to) and his failure seems to extend to the mysterious chest in his room, which will no longer open to him (if it ever has). This is a hero who, despite his braggadocio in his university days, is beginning to doubt his own abilities. Hopefully the final book will show us, once and for all, that he can become a man worthy of the legends told about him; but, once again, I wouldn’t put it past Rothfuss to give us a quite atypical form of ending.
This is definitely one of the more assured and entertaining fantasy series out there, despite my slight issues with this volume, and I’m looking forward to the third and final book where, as I said, I hope that at least some of my questions will be answered. In the meantime, I leave you with a rather amusing article, courtesy of Tor.com, which goes to show I’m not the only one who felt that Kvothe’s time with Felurian was excessive. You can read it here.