I’m not exactly reporting breaking news when I say that sequels are tricky. Finding the balance between giving people what they liked from the first book and adding enough to justify a second book is one of the more difficult challenges an author faces.
Which brings me to The Wise Man’s Fear, the 1100-page brick of a middle chapter in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some 1100-page bricks. There are few things in this world that I love more than tucking into a massive book. But the fact that this book is around 400 pages longer than The Name of the Wind, while covering quite a bit less time in the ongoing flashback narrative of Kvothe, is disquieting to say the least. And it turns out that pacing is one of this book’s chief faults.
Oh, I should point out that there will be spoilers for both books, though I’ll try and keep spoilers for this book to a minimum (as a side note, you may have noticed that my reviews tend to be more think pieces than reviews per se, hopefully no one has a problem with that).
The book has its strengths, of course, though many of those strengths are holdovers from the first book: the magic, the music, the framing story, Kvothe himself. Rothfuss’ language sings as always. But in this book he appears to have come down with a disease that I’ll dub Martin-itis: the pace of the flashback narrative has slowed to a crawl, and while there’s nothing as teeth-knashing as the storyline of a particular young prince in A Dance With Dragons, it’s enough of a problem that it colored my impression of the book.
The Wise Man’s Fear begins, after checking in with the framing story, back at the University with young Kvothe, and very little has changed. Despite accidentally calling the Name of the wind at the end of the previous book, Kvothe still has all the same problems: he’s broke, he’s impulsive, and he can’t get the girl (about which more later). So Kvothe takes a semester abroad, so to speak, and it’s weirdly too much like practically every other semester abroad story: he learns some things, makes some new friends, and gets laid. A lot. The fact that it takes four hundred pages to get to this new plotline is somewhat less than encouraging.
The semester abroad, sadly, doesn’t move all that briskly, even though Kvothe’s journey to a foreign land is yadda yadda yadda’d despite sounding more interesting than anything in the previous several hundred pages. There are some interesting moments, certainly, and the last chunk of the semester abroad is pretty cool. But one series of events rather starkly underlines another problem that I’ve been noticing with this series. Allow me to set the scene: maybe two-thirds of the way through the novel, Kvothe is seduced by Felurian the Faerie Queen. This isn’t a spoiler per se, as the adventure is mentioned explicitly (if vaguely) by Kvothe in the previous book. As the story goes, every so often men wandering through the woods get a gander at Felurian, whereupon they are compelled to sleep with her, whereupon they lose theirs minds and even their lives. So Kvothe sleeps with the Faerie Queen. Over and over, going through the entire Faerie Sutra in the process. And then, lo and behold, Kvothe is the best lay in the kingdom, and he proceeds to sleep with almost every woman he exchanges more than a few words with for the remainder of the book. It’s bizarre wish fulfillment, and to be honest it didn’t add all that much to the story.
You know what it felt like? It felt like a sidequest in a video game. Go to the Hidden Forest, spend an eternity with the Sexy Faerie Queen, level up in Charisma, acquire a +10 Enchanted Cloak. Hell, quite a bit of the book feels like Kvothe leveling up. I freely admit that the fact I’ve spent the last three weeks playing Ni No Kuni (an excellent throwback JRPG) might have some impact on that assessment. But his time with Felurian isn’t the only leveling-up. He’s getting better with Naming, he earns some gold coins, and he even squeezes in some time to learn Kung Fu (and use his newfound bangin’ skills some more, because ladies be sexy, amirite?). Certainly Kvothe’s journey is supposed to involve progress, but this feels more like Rothfuss ticking off boxes from the words Kvothe used to introduce his story than the organic growth of a teenager on the verge of manhood.
This brings me back to Kvothe’s friendzone relationship with Denna, the elusive woman who he first met on his way to the University way back in the first book. It’s hard to figure out just how we’re supposed to take Denna, who wanders in and out of the narrative seemingly at whim (she even randomly pops up during the semester abroad, which was a bit too much for me to swallow). Every time we see her, she’s with a different beau, and while it’s explained that, as a woman alone in the world, she’s basically scamming these guys to pay the rent, it’s still rather off-putting. It’s also difficult to know exactly what Kvothe sees in her, aside from her beauty and her terrific singing voice. I get that the heart wants what the heart wants, I just wish there were more dimensions to this woman than her measurements.
It just seems like almost every prominent female character in both books is built primarily around sex. Even fairly minor players, like his school chum Fela, are significantly sexualized. Despite her generally interesting character, Devi the moneylender comes off like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Hell, even the badass warrior woman that Kvothe travels with during a particularly boring part of his semester abroad is primarily characterized by her unrequited crush on another warrior. An argument could be made that this reflects Kvothe’s telling of the story, that as a teenager he was pretty much always thinking about sex. Which, fair enough. I was a teenager once, and pretty much always thought about sex. But not all women are sirens, and the fact that Denna is the prettiest girl in town, Fela has the biggest tits in town, Devi is the sexiest moneylender in town, Felurian is literally a Homeric siren… this starts to wear on me, and I’m a guy for crying out loud.
I don’t mean to lay this all at Rothfuss’ doorstep. Fantasy often has a tough time with women. Pseudo-medieval settings are not exactly fertile ground for nuanced gender politics. And as I said above, perhaps it’s a function of how Kvothe (and Rothfuss) are telling the story. But I’m really really hoping the Denna plotline actually develops into something in the third book, because otherwise that’s a lot of ink spilled over a not-terribly-interesting character. And so the book’s problem with women is, at its heart, a function of the increasing problems with pace combined with Rothfuss’ intermittent difficulty developing secondary character.
This is not to say that I didn’t generally enjoy the book. As a sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear succeeds in giving us more of what we enjoyed from the first book, but much of what it adds to the Kingkiller experience is bloat. In fact, the pacing problems threaten to overwhelm the series, as they arguably have for George RR Martin. It’s amazing to think that another eleven-hundred page book won’t be long enough to wrap everything up properly, but that’s where I’m at right now. Name of the Wind progressed Kvothe from childhood to teenager. Wise Man’s Fear progressed Kvothe from, well, teenager to leveled-up teenager. There’s a long road from Kvothe at the end of Wise Man’s Fear to the Kvothe we known from the framing story, to say nothing of the ongoing framing story (which I suspect will indeed be spun off into a new series). While Rothfuss is certainly one of the better writers working in the genre, he’s going to have a tough time of it walking that road at this pace.