Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Wise Analysis

It took me a while to get through, but I recently finished the fantasy novel The Wise Man's Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. This is the second book of the not-yet-completed Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy, which began with The Name of the Wind. It's another weighty tome, continuing the story of notorious character Kvothe, now in retirement and wanting to set the record straight with an historian about all the famous adventures of his life. It's another solid book, worth the read. But even though I found myself liking it about as well as the first volume overall, there were ways in which this book is better, and other ways in which it's worse.

One thing Patrick Rothfuss excels at is world creation. He seems to have well thought out reasons for why things are the way they are in his book. He'd already established an intriguing magic system in the first book, and some compelling cities and other locations. In this book, he turns his attention to creating some alternative cultures within his world, and describing the peculiarities of their customs and language. It all flows well within the narrative, not feeling unnecessary. And the cultures themselves feel very original. There's a society deep in the throes of courtly pretense and political ambition. There's another that's developed an elaborate gesture sub-language used to shade the meanings of their spoken words. The novel is at its best when painting these fascinating pictures.

But the overall structure of the novel is the same as the first, in that it unfolds as a series of episodes more than a single overall narrative -- and some of the episodes are not nearly as compelling than others. For example, there's an "episode" in this book that sees the main character basically having sex with a faerie creature time after time for more than 50 pages. What starts out interesting in its oddly different tone winds up being painfully tedious and repetitive.

There's also a bit of "middle chapter" syndrome at play in the book as a whole -- after kicking off the story in volume one, things tread water in anticipation of a big climax in the final volume. In fact, the main character starts the novel in one place, goes on 1000 pages of adventures all over the fantasy world, and then literally ends up exactly in the same place he started by the end of the book. If some of the adventures weren't so compelling and enjoyable on their own, you'd be left with a strong feeling of "what was all that for?" by the end of the book.

But overall, the skilled writing style of Rothfuss more than makes up for a few shortcomings in his plotting. I'd give The Wise Man's Fear a B+ (the same as I rated the previous volume). And I'm looking forward to the eventual publication of the final book.

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