Read: 24 October, 2015
Fair warning: This review contains a lot of spoilers. I’ve been trying to white-out spoilers from my reviews, but there were just too many here, and it was hard to get my thoughts down without constantly spoiling something. So I’m just going to go ahead and put a spoiler warning on the whole thing.
Wise Man’s Fear takes place on the second day of Kvothe’s narration to Chronicler, in which he continues to talk about his days at the University and covers his travels to Vintas and Ademre.
I’m really loving this series. It’s well-written, it’s interesting, and the pacing has kept me in its grip for over 2,000 pages so far. I love the meta-story of how myths are formed, and the banter between characters is usually a lot of fun (it does sometimes get a little over the top, especially with Devi and Denna, but it mostly works).
Many have pointed out that the women in the series tend to be either invisible or too perfect, and I think there is something to that. We can explain some of it away by the fact that Kvothe spends a lot of his time at the University, where women don’t often get to study, but those were choices the author made (both in putting so much of the story there and in making the University like that in the first place). Then there are characters like Auri, who feel a bit like male fantasies of “strong female characters” rather than characters of substance.
Still, I think it’s a much smaller problem than many critics make it seem, and we do have to keep in mind that we are getting the story through the interpretations of a teenage boy.
There were, however, some details that started to get pretty painful – particularly around the final 1/3 of the book. When I was a teenager, I had several nerdy male friends (the kind who got together for D&D-style roleplay sessions, drew comics, and wrote fanfiction). Much of the final 1/3 of Wise Man’s Fear reminded me of their stories, and not in a particularly good way.
It starts when Kvothe meets Felurian, who is basically a Sex Goddess who inflicts death by snu snu. I think you can see where this is going. If Kvothe simply bested her with his cunning and got his magical gift, it’s be fine. Better if she weren’t the Snu Snu Fairy, but whatever. Those aren’t exactly uncommon in myths, so it would at least fit in with that aspect of the story. Unfortunately, Kvothe then decides to spend many more pages with her (one reviewer totalled Felurian’s story at around 60 pages), during which he learns to be The Best At Sex (because it wasn’t enough for him to be The Best At Music, The Best At Artificing, and The Best At Learning). That’s pages upon pages of Kvothe just sitting around learning sex moves named like the swordplay manoeuvres from The Wheel of Time.
But it doesn’t end there. Kvothe leaves Felurian only to draw the attention of a tavern waitress known for rejecting patrons’ advances, and spends several days with her in marathon snu snu.
When that is finally over, Kvothe heads off to become The Best At Fighting. A bit much, but I did really enjoy learning about the Ademre culture, and the Sword Tree was really cool. Unfortunately, Kvothe The Sexer was still in full swing, so he had to spent a fair amount of his time around the Adem having sex with his teacher (!!) and the character who is presented as basically the best fighter the Adem village has to offer (!!!). He might as well have bed Shehyn just to complete his collection!
Aside from how juvenile this all was, it was frustrating to finally see a matriarchal Amazon society only for every major character of appropriate age who was not set up as an antagonist become Kvothe’s sexual partner.
I’ve always liked Denna as a character. I know a lot of people don’t (to quote a few reviews: She’s “shittily written”, a “cardboard cutout”, a “bitch”, “bland”… you get the idea), but I really do. I’ve known people who consistently made poor choices, sometimes involving their relationships, and I’ve felt the same urge to try shaking them out of it or rescue them from the latest situation they’ve found themselves in. Denna is one of those – Kvothe enjoys the time he spends with her, she’s a talented musician, her sense of humour matches his, she’s beautiful, but she also makes terrible life choices. But you can’t save people from their own choices. Try and you’ll just drive them away, and then they won’t even have your friendship.
Kvothe understands this, and his decision to just drop it and be her friend is exactly the right one. It gives her a respite from all the crappy things in her life, and it gives her something to contrast them against. And by not acting like a condescending, judgemental hero-in-waiting, Kvothe gets to be a safe place for her. That is exactly how we must act around loved ones in abusive relationships.
Kvothe messes this up quite a bit, though. He keeps putting his romantic feelings ahead of their friendship, and the last thing Denna needs is to deal with yet another man’s romantic feelings. He has no right to keep poking them in when she has been so clear in establishing the boundaries of their relationship. For now, I think Rothfuss has done a fairly good job of making it clear that Kvothe is in error when he behaves this way, and that’s a good thing. I’m a little scared, though, that he’ll fumble the relationship in the last book by giving Denna to Kvothe (at least for a while – we know from the narrative set up that they won’t have a Happily Ever After), and I will just scream if they come together just in time for her to die of whatever her lung troubles are.
Except for two passages. The first being their big fight. Kvothe says some truly nasty things in that fight. I get that he was hurting, and that he was terrified for her safety. Heck, there was probably some PTSD in the mix there. But he behaved abominably. That’s forgiveable since he’s 16 and a character who always makes the right choices would be insufferable, but I felt like there needed to be a bit more introspection. I know it’s hard, since it’s a very fine line between introspection and wallowing, but I feel like Kvothe needed to think about what he said during that conversation more, and perhaps display a better understanding of what he had done wrong. I also feel like there should have been more of a consequence. When Kvothe and Denna find each other again, they just avoid talking about it and have a few awkward pauses in their conversations before they get back into the rhythm of their relationship. I don’t think it’s good for Rothfuss’s younger male readers to see so little consequence for such abominable behaviour, and I don’t think it fits Denna’s character to gloss over the incident so easily.
The other passage is when Kvothe rescues the Denna look-alike from bandits. This lets him play saviour to a Denna (even if she isn’t the original) and get her appreciation. Denna, despite falling into a good number of tropes, is interesting, and part of what makes her interesting is precisely that she doesn’t conform to Kvothe’s Knight In Shining Armour fantasy. Letting him act it out anyway with a pseudo-Denna felt gratuitous and absurd.
That’s not to say that I disliked the whole sequence. Having Kvothe repeat what had been done to his family but with himself as the Chandrian was a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the execution was a bit so-so. The lead up and the act itself were both great, but then it was dropped, as if it had just been yet another of Kvothe’s adventures. He only compared the two scenes for a single moment, and that was a bit of a waste. I feel like the episode could have been used to advance the Chandrian/Amyr plot, perhaps by showing how close Kvothe is coming to evil. Instead, we just get a doctor telling him that you cut off gangrenous legs, so of course it’s a good thing to murder a bunch of bandits. End of story, introspection over. And while he does seem a little disturbed that he had left one of the men alive but fatally wounded, he quickly comes to peace with that (even worse, he smiles to think of it). The only guilt that remains with him is that he also murdered women. Even after his experiences with the Adem!
Instead of exploring the issue raised by the Amyr (the danger of “for the greater good”), the episode became little more than an opportunity for Kvothe to play saviour to a girl who reminds him of the girl he really wants to save. And that’s just annoying.
There were several scenes where Kvothe really just doesn’t seem to get it. Even worse, he always does a little pontificating to show just how well he does get it, then proceeds to completely bungle the interaction. The best example I can think of off the top of my hat is when he reveals to Alvaron and Melurian that he is Edema Ruh. As narrator, he notes how delicate the situation is and the fact that he must proceed with extreme caution. However, he introduces the topic by telling them that he murdered the travellers, making them think that the Ruh have been kidnapping girls, then reveals that they weren’t actually Ruh and that he knows this because, as a Ruh, he knows that Ruh would never kidnap girls. All of this in a conversation with a woman who already strongly believes that the Edema Ruh are thugs and rapists. Does that really sound like proceeding with caution? Does that sound like handling the matter delicately? It is, literally, the worst possible way to explain what had happened. In fact, I’d say that his description of the events practically guaranteed Melurian’s reaction.
How about, instead, he were to take the events chronologically: A group of Edema Ruh were murdered and bandits took their place for a) the writ of safe passage, b) access into towns, and c) the convenient excuse to lure girls away from their families in the middle of the night. He was staying the night with them on his journey when the bandits boasted to him of their ploy. When he found out that, in addition to stealing from communities as they pass through, they had kidnapped two girls, he killed them in order to rescue the girls, and he brought them home to their families. It isn’t nearly as dramatic, but that’s the point. Right from the beginning of the story, it’s clearly established that the people who kidnapped the girls were not Ruh, that the Ruh were as much victims as the girls had been, and that Kvothe’s actions were warranted. Melurian may still have gone into a rage, but at least then it would be because of her own prejudices rather than simply because of Kvothe’s inability to put the dramatics aside for a moment.
And may I please mention that implying Melurian had had pre-marital sex with a Ruh to her husband probably doesn’t fit “handling the conversation delicately” either?
There were a few scenes like this, and they were just painful to read. Not in the “oh no, this tension is building up and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop” sense, which would have been wonderful. No, it was in the “holy shit, Kvothe, can you please just shut your freaking mouth?!” sense.
My final complaint comes right near the end, when Kvothe is trying to learn how to read Yllish story knots and he discovers that Denna has knotted a word into her hair, strongly suggesting that she may know how to read Yllish story knot (or at least may have some information that could advance things). Rather than talk to her about this, perhaps probe how much she knows, perhaps describe the knot inscription he’s trying to translate to see if she has any insight to offer, the subject is just dropped so that Kvothe can have some more awkward silences and then blurt out that he wants her to love him so that their relationship can get even more awkward. There was a perfect opportunity for her to have some actual involvement in the main plotline, and it’s like it just never occurred to Rothfuss. Maybe he had something else in mind for that interaction and he was too focused on his planned progression to see the natural progression forming under his nose. I don’t know, but it was frustrating.
This review is getting quite a bit longer than I intended, so I’d better wrap it up! I’m really enjoying these books, and Rothfuss definitely has a way with narrative. Despite some pretty glaring flaws in this book, I did enjoy the ride – no small feat when the ride is over 1,000 pages long!
There are a lot of loose threads that I can’t wait to see resolved, though I’m a little afraid that, given the hints we’ve seen so far, the story can’t possibly be concluded in a satisfactory way. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
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