Wise Mans Fear… Revolutionising High Fantasy
In between morsels of Game of Thrones you may be looking for epic high fantasy with class. In books 1 and 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicle you may well have found it.
Welcome to the Kingkiller Chronicle
When Patrick Rothfuss’ first book The Name of the Wind came out in 2007 it was an incredible success, singlehandedly revolutionising high fantasy and making even mainstream critics sit up and take notice. Not bad in a genre so long mislabelled in the public consciousness as the domain of bad B-movies, basement dwellers and other people who use words like domain. Recently the fashion for fantasy runs more along the lines of fast-paced urban mysteries or romances, such as the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (which spawned the popular True Blood series by HBO), the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and of course the works of Neil Gaiman. Narrators are flawed and often snarky and the settings usually urban, whether it’s Chicago or London Below. And when the countryside does appear it’s the kind of spooky gothic countryside the Romantic poets were so keen on (now with added werewolves), not the peaceful rural hometown so common in classic fantasy.
Book 1: The Name of the Wind
Kvothe (pronounced like quothe), Rothfuss’ main character, is a modern day protagonist (note that I don’t say hero) in a fantasy setting. He is, first and foremost a smart mouth with a hot temper and although he has a brilliant mind he often doesn’t have the common sense to use it. He’s a fantastically capable student but if his admission to the university via scholarship at a young age sticks in your throat as a little too clever to be likeable then his utter inability to tell when women are interested in him not only balance the scales but are a treat to read, with him blithely sailing through innuendo laden conversations with wide eyed earnestness.
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While the main body of the first book in the series is Kvothe’s first person account of his youth, the framing device is an older Kvothe telling his life story to the Chronicler, a travelling expert on folklore. But Kvothe in the future is not peacefully retired and surrounded by plump grandchildren as you might expect. He’s not yet thirty but has somehow ended up running an out of the way inn in the middle of nowhere and living under a false name. Soldiers are marching, taxes are ruinous and strange creatures are roaming the countryside in packs, killing whatever they meet. It puts a dark, fatalistic slant on what would otherwise be a fun fantasy romp, adding new depth and hinting at a tragic denouement.
The latter two thirds of the novel are set at the University, which is by far the best of the settings in the book. It’s been compared to Hogwarts, which is true if you ignore the fact that it’s set in a fantasy world rather than modern day Scotland, a university rather than a school and practises corporal punishment rather than cheerful team sports on broomsticks. In other words, it’s nothing like Hogwarts. Kvothe’s constant struggles to stay financially solvent while paying for his tuition are a major source of conflict and may resonate with UK-based Mooks who have found university education rising further and further out of their price range and anyone who’s ever dreamed about being able to do storybook magic will devour the magical theory Kvothe learns and employs, which manages to be both convincing and original.
Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear
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The Wise Man’s Fear is the follow-up novel to the wildly successful The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Second books are a dangerous business: too many writers find themselves faced with a choice between submitting an unpolished book that still needs extensive edits or missing the crucial year and a half window to get a second book out while they’re still current. Fortunately, Patrick Rothfuss took four whole years to finish The Wise Man’s Fear and the result is a book that not only lives up to but in some aspects surpasses its predecessor.
The Wise Man’s Fear allows us to see for the first time how well both books are paced and plotted. Without giving anything away there are passages that refer back to incredibly subtle hints in the first book and I have no doubt that there are more clues about the third book squirreled away in this one. Already one fan theory seems so supported by the text it’s already being referred to as fact in some entries about the book on fan analysis website TvTropes. One thing is clear; the songs and stories included in the text are stuffed with clues about current and historical characters. Unlike Lord of the Rings, this is one trilogy where you shouldn’t skip the poems.
The second book of a trilogy is also difficult territory. The world and conflict have been established in the first book but the protagonist’s problems can’t really be solved until the third and final instalment. The protagonist can’t kill the main boss or ride off into the sunset with their love interest. Rothfuss solves this problem by having Kvothe take a term out from his studies to see a little more of the world and pursue the Chandrian, a mysterious group of immortals who most people believe to be folklore.
Where the first book revolutionised the fantasy genre, the second is well established enough to be playful. The tone swings from student hijinks, to adventure story, to a tale of political intrigue and courtly love, jumps back to adventure as Kvothe joins what can only be described as a Dungeons and Dragons adventure party to hunt bandits, an adult fairytale, a martial arts movie and culminates with that favourite of tropes, the hero returning older and wiser. And it is joyous. Patrick Rothfuss is a talented storyteller who can reinvent these genres and make the transitions between them seem natural and effortless. In fact he grows in confidence enough that at several points characters talking about love find themselves speaking in sonnets. (This also happens in the first book but it’s better hidden and less frequent). This mixture of careful planning and bold experimentation mark Rothfuss as one of the most exciting developing writers around today.
Another way The Wise Man’s Fear is different from the first book is that Kvothe is growing up. The worldly, financially independent young man we see at the end of the book may be a far cry from the Kvothe in the framing device but neither is he the boy he was at the start. Not only does he lose his cluelessness with women (and how!) he does some soul searching and uncovers a ‘dark undercurrent’ to himself that may well turn out to be the fatal flaw that turns him into the older Kvothe. Will it be anger? Rashness? The need for revenge? My money is on the latter, although at this point anything is possible. There is no estimated release date for the final book in the trilogy, just a title: The Doors of Stone. The only prediction I’m going to risk is that it will be epic in the true meaning of the word.
How could you not trust hairy author Patrick Rothfuss? He’s wearing a Joss Whedon T-shirt.