If The Name of the Wind is a half-finished puzzle with its interesting world and characters and boring protagonist, then A Wise Man’s Fear is a puzzle that hasn’t been started. The pieces have been sorted into colors and borders, but nothing has actually been put in place. The things that made the first book worth looking at are unbuilt here; pieces lay scattered about in clumps that could one day be fun to read. The ruined potential is rather depressing.
To start off, my biggest issues with the first book are still here, though this time they were expected. Like the first, this book is set up with Kvothe—who is still too clever for anything truly terrible to impede him—telling his story to a small group, meaning the narration is him talking. Like the first, this book is loaded with long conversations, too much dialogue, not enough paraphrase, and a memory that couldn’t hold so many vivid facts. It’s simply not believable, and really, it isn’t an efficient way to write a story. None of this is new.
Whereas the first novel had some minor pacing issues, this one is overgrown with them. It takes a good chunk of time for Kvothe to leave the university, and by that time that place has grown stale. It’s no Hogwarts. The minor climax that gets Kvothe to leave the school is pretty fun, but the time it takes to get there ruins the payoff. And whereas Kvothe is sad to leave the school, the reader is finally happy that a change of scenery is going to happen. There is a high promise that something really important is supposed to happen to Kvothe, and we know that that something isn’t going to happen while he’s in school. It’s about time he left.
The periods of transition are pretty enjoyable, and there are a good four of them. But once Kvothe finds a new place to bed down, the book lapses into a kind of lethargy. Even Kvothe grows bored. Through some connections, Kvothe winds up in Tarbean helping the Mayor. There is a minor lull in action as Kvothe has to wait around for characters to bother with him, but things soon pick up. The king is sick, and Kvothe has to help solve that bit of mystery. He does, of course, and then this section of the novel just gets boring.
See, the king needs Kvothe, or any smart and clever musician, to help him woo a lady. Of course, Kvothe spends the first novel and the first chunk of this novel being terrible with women—and his friends are always quick to tell him this—so the fact that he needs to help someone else get a lady is ironic and funny. Or it would be if Kvothe wasn’t so good at it, and after a handful of chapters that go on too long, Kvothe has himself another victory. There’s just no struggle or conflict.
While in Tarbean, he finds Denna again. They continue their coy romance, and that’s fun but at this point, a bit played out. There’s a mounting mystery about Denna and her abusive patron, but that’s never resolved in this book. A pity that, as that was interesting.
Soon Kvothe is asked to move on, this time to hunt down some bandits with a few mercenaries. A very large leg of the book takes place with them simply hunting down bandits. All of the characters grow bored—this time the mercenaries aren’t as interesting as the characters back at the university—and as the characters grow bored, so does the reader. This section just drags on and on. Not all seemingly glamorous work is glamorous, and the characters are allowed to be bored, but the reader should never be bored. That’s simply bad storytelling.
To make matters worse, the characters get into this habit of telling each other stories at night. Kvothe, our narrator with a mind like a steel trap, decides it would be important to renarrate every story ever told around that campfire those years ago. Some of these fables are actually pretty good, but they just do not need to be in the book. They take up space and grow tedious. The “story within a story” is an important literary tool, and this book takes that tool, abuses it, but then does absolutely nothing with it.
Once that section is over, Kvothe winds up in the Fae world where he spends many chapters learning how to have sex from Felurian, a kind of elf. Yes, this happens. Kvothe winds up tricking Felurian by being a clever and resourceful musician, so he’s allowed to leave with the promise that he’ll come back and continue having sex with the lusty Fae lady. Apparently she never lets people leave, and when they manage to escape, they are slightly off mentally. Not Kvothe though, he’s to smart for that.
After being in the Fae world, Kvothe follows one of the mercenaries back to his land, and the last chunk of the book is spent in Ademre. The Ademre people have an interesting culture where they never show facial emotions; instead, they use their hands to signal emotions like sad, happy, distressed, etc. At first this is interesting, then it’s just silly as their faces work just fine and there’s absolutely no reason for a culture to evolve in such a way. It’s simply too impractical and ineffective to actually exist, and once the wonder of this culture wears off, it becomes completely aggravating.
Ademre becomes a kind of second university for Kvothe where he learns how to defend himself with martial arts. There are a few points of buildup towards minor climaxes, but none of them actually happen. Ademre is a very closed culture and they don’t teach outsiders, but Kvothe becomes an exception. At one point he gets ready to make a violent exit should he have to (he was being threatened with death or being crippled so he couldn’t spread Ademre secrets), but he ends up getting out of that without any scuffle. Music is also involved.
While this book weaves its way between boring and somewhat interesting, there’s a growing theme that makes such easy victories important. The Kingkiller Chronicle is about a man who had everything and then fell. He had power and magic and wealth, but something happened and now everything is lost. He’s an empty shell who runs an unprofitable inn, and he just wants to lie down and die. This is why the first two books are the way they are; this is why Kvothe is such a perfect hero.
Kvothe is always quick to tell everyone that his story isn’t a happy one, but that isn’t the case if parts one and two are taken as they are. He overcomes everything, gets to have sex with a lusty Fae lady, and winds up wealthy at the end. But the fall hasn’t happened, and the fall is the most important part of his existence and this story.
I have to wonder if the third book could retroactively make these two books better, but as they stand now, neither are particularly good. The Name of the Wind isn’t terrible by any means, and it has some good ideas, but A Wise Man’s Fear is simply a long and tedious work with no payoff. Given that, it’s hard to recommend either book, and since the third novel won’t be out anytime soon, there’s no reason to pick any of these novels up. The entire series hinges on the third novel living up to the expectations set for it, but really, why didn’t Patrick Rothfuss just start there and go forward with Kvothe’s story of attempted redemption?