The Wise Man's Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two - Patrick Rothfuss

~~Moved from GR~~


Wise Man's Fear

by Patrick Rothfuss


First of all, I want to point out that I'm in the minority here--scratch that, I'm practically alone in the universe-- in not finding myself enchanted by Wise Man's Fear. On GR alone, there are about 40,000 5-star ratings, about 5,000 positive reviews, and only 1% of the ratings are 2 or below. Readers of all varieties not only enjoy but adore this book, and I'll just say here and now that it's not only possible but actually probable that I simply am not "getting it." One thing I know for sure: it tends to be praised for its literary and poetic writing style, and I just don't "do" literary and/or poetic writing styles. Just as the multitude of positive reactions that praise its lyrical style, complex world, and interesting characters are obviously valid, I think I can explain why it didn't work for me. If you read and love WMF, please give me leave to read, dislike, and review it at my rather literal level. If you're thinking about reading it, then please take those 5,000 positive reviews into account. If you analyse books at my admittedly non-literary angle, and, to paraphrase Austen, pictures of perfection make you sick and wicked, maybe you'll find my review helpful. Certain aspects of this book really pushed my buttons, and as I'm going to explain why, fair warning that my tone will range from exasperated to furious. If you haven't read the book, bear in mind that you will actually be a statistical anomaly if you dislike it--just go give it a try!

Rothfuss has clearly put a great deal of thought into creating his universe, and is obviously greatly attached to his characters. I also think his deconstruction of "epic fantasy" is an interesting idea; as one reviewer put it, it is a reversal of the "poverty to power" story. I also very much like the tiny details of various cultures, like using rings as intricate symbols of power or gesticulation rather than facial expression as emotional signs, absolutely fascinating and a great way of bringing the story to life. However, I was irritated by what I saw as authorial wish fulfillment, aggravated by the portrayal of women, and untouched by the writing style. 

Rothfuss deftly avoids one of the main dangers of epic fantasy: rather than diverting all the energy that should go into characterization into tedious descriptions of the uber-significant-epic-black-white-good-evil struggle, he instead places immense efforts into revealing the character and life story of our young, handsome, famous narrator, Kvothe. I don't handle perfect heroes well, and as Kvothe is quick to tell us in an excruciating amount of detail, he is a teenage boy's wish fulfillmentincredibly talented, incredibly clever, precocious, an incredible magician, a master duelist, an accomplished thief, incredibly handsome, incredibly desirable, with magical colour-changing eyes and a collection of dangerous nicknames,lauded and admired by all, .... the list goes on and on and on and on. He is the greatest musician of all time. He is one of the most talented, inventive craftsmen ever born. His magic is stronger than any student in recent history so that in duels, he deftly disarms pairs of opponents teamed against him ("It's been years since I've had a student go undefeated for so long.") He's one of the most intelligent people ever to enter the university, as well as the youngest student ever (he's between 15 and 16), with a photographic memory and an ability to learn anything, especially languages, faster than anyone in living memory. He's a "rebel," apparently in a cool and hip way. His friends also tell him adoringly that he is a perfect man of action, the guy they all want to be.

He is, in fact, the quintessential Mary Sue.

I know that is an irritating term, but to me, it really seems to fit. Now, I don't tend to like epic fantasy protagonists, so you may see it differently and find him engaging. Even I thought maybe I was just exasperated and overstating the case, so as a sanity check, I put Kvothe through the original Mary Sue test. Even tallied conservatively, he scores a 197. According to the test:

"71 or more: Irredeemable-Sue. You're going to have to start over, my friend. I know you want to keep writing, but no. Just no."

...And he scores a 197. 
Everything is just too effortless for Kvothe. Sure, he has a Tragic Past, but he honestly doesn't seem to spend much time trying to hunt down his parents' killers. Yes, he keeps telling us how poor he is, but not only is he never short on the necessities, he has several extremely lucrative skills that he always employs at the requisite moment. Every so often, Bad People decide they don't like him, but obviously, not liking Kvothe implies that you are a Bad Person and must be punished. The rest of his world are already in awe of him and Kvothe himself is fulsome in his own praises, so why should I root for him? Despite all of Kvothe's efforts in telling me how talented, honorable, intelligent, and likable he is, he just hasn't precisely convinced me.

Part of my ire stems from the way it reminds me of my kindergarten days, when my sister and I used to play make-believe, inventing epic quests and choosing characters. We both amped our characters up and up and up, often quarreling about their special skills. "No, MY character's the smartest in the world!" "Mine's smarter!" "No she's not! And mine's faster! And prettier! And stronger!" Eventually, we realized our perfect characters led to excruciatingly boring plots. (And, of course, at that point, we started fighting over who got the evilest evil characters. I think I won.) To me, Wise Man's Fear felt like one of those games, except that Rothfuss apparently didn't have an older sibling to force his character into slightly more realistic levels of prowess.

It's not that unusual for me to have trouble warming to a epic-hero-style main protagonist, but the secondary characters also fell flat for me. To me, it seemed that all of the characters--all the world, in fact--revolve around Kvothe. Any other histories, any other background, simply doesn't matter unless it is relevant to Kvothe's current feelings or situation. His friends apparently exist to serve him. They cluster around him, (literally) watch over him when he sleeps, echo him, laugh uncritically at his jokes, applaud his every act. Kvothe's gravity-inducing ego not only led to flat secondary characters, but also an egregious number of plot holes.

 [For example, everyone notes that the Mayor's assassin had NO MOTIVE. But once Kvothe identified him and he served his role as plot device, apparently that ceased to matter and we never heard about him again. WTH? This may be intentional; life isn't always logical. But as someone who tends to read murder mysteries, it drove me nuts. So here's a question: is Kvothe really egotistical, since apparently he's correct in assuming the entire world revolves around him? ]

(show spoiler)

My boredom was disrupted by what I saw as homophobia and sexism--although since many social justice bloggers love the book, take my reaction with a grain of salt. For example, Kvothe uses "someone who fancies boys" as one of his stock insults, and effeminate men are always inherently evil. I was repeatedly irritated by casual comments like, 


"'Does it seem odd that men always have to do their sleeping somewhere else?' 'It seems pretty obvious women control the bed'."

And all those "cute" sex jokes! Apparently it's funny to talk about grabbing women's breasts and "squeezing their tits"; since that multipage discussion was otherwise pointless, it must have been intended as comic relief. A student who is obsessed with math is told by his teacher, 

"Your next assignment is to have sex. If you do not know how to do this, see me after class."

Oh, how incredibly amusing. How my sides are shaking with mirth. The men also have a discussion of the best techniques to use to chase and capture women, and the women also repeatedly refer to themselves in terms of ownership. As Kvothe himself says,

"Each woman is like an instrument, waiting to be learned, loved, and finely played, to have at last her own true music made. Some might take offense at this way of seeing things, not understanding how a trouper views his music. They might think I degrade women. They might consider me callous, or boorish, or crude. But those people do not understand love, or music, or me."

...yeah...for the record, I'm in the group who doesn't understand love, music, or Kvothe. Kvothe's "tragic" lady love, a beautiful prostitute, routinely complains about being trapped and restrained, and Kvothe tries to be incredibly patient so that he doesn't frighten her away before he can capture her. It never seems to occur to him that she could, yaknow, actually just exist under her own agency. (To be fair to Kvothe, it never occurs to her either.) Despite skills that would allow her to make her own way in the world, she is apparently prefers the life of a prostitute who is physically abused by the men who own her. To me, she seemed weak-willed, pathetic, and whiny, and is, unfortunately, one of the most multidimensional female characters in the book. 

No discussion of the female characters is complete without talking about the Adem, the "noble savage" race. While a lot of the Adem culture felt incredibly imaginative and interesting to me, and in fact pushed my rating from a 1 to a 2, to me, it suffered from an overarching tang of the Kipling-esque "noble savage close to the earth". Adem culture is devoted to fighting, and apparently women are better at it because "women have less trouble" with "anger and impatience". To me, stripping women of emotional depth is as problematic as putting them on a pedestal. In addition, the Adem take on the "Amazonian female" role: they have no issues with nudity and strongly believe in casual sex (with Kvothe, naturally) as often as possible because they don't feel that it is "particularly intimate." Fun fact: they have so many sex marathons that they haven't connected cause and effect of sex and pregnancy. To me, beautiful women who run around in the nude, desire sex with our hero, and don't require commitment isn't "sexual freedom"--it's male wish fulfillment.
Which brings us to what I considered the immature, amateur sexual wish-fulfillment aspect of this book. Now, I'm a lit prude, so take this with processing plant's worth of salt. Kvothe is a sex magnet: women, (and men) find him irresistible. After pages and pages of sexual banter, my limited tolerance snapped when Kvothe stumbles into the mad naked faery sex goddess of love and desire, and nearly 100 pages are spent discussing their fun in bed. 

[And apparently, even though this is Kvothe's first time and he's a 16-year-old boy, this ancient goddess of sex who has driven men to their deaths (literally) with desire complements him on his boinking skills. To quote, "'you were like a gentle summer were a dancer fresh upon the field.' I tucked that comment away for later ego-polishing purposes". No, Kvothe, believe me, there's no need. Kvothe, of course, manages to be the first person to get Felurian to release him, but not before she teaches him all of the arts of sex. Curious? Don't worry, you get pages of descriptions of exactly what that means. And the poses have names. I think my brain started melting. To dull the pain, I seriously considered starting a drinking game, taking a swig every time the word "naked" or "breast" was used, but was forestalled because (a) I don't drink, and (b)I wouldn't make it through the section before I ended up in the hospital with severe alcohol poisoning. Kvothe's sexual prowess, on top of everything else, is so vaunted that I began to wonder if the whole story was intended as an elaborate farce. Before Felurian, every woman finds him desirable, and he incredibly skilled at "pleasing" the women of his world. Post Felurian, he becomes a hyper-Casanova, wooing and wanking every female he runs across.] 

(show spoiler)

I'm not male and descriptions of sexual feats irritate me, so I find this pitiful bit of ignis fatuus boring and embarrassing. 

I also find the narration style profoundly irritating--and yes, this may be due to my lack of literary sophistication. Almost every single dialogue tag has one or two adverbs dangling off the end, and narration tended to tell us that a character "spoke angrily" rather than showing us the anger by having the character clench his fists. I was entertained when I was unable to disentangle meaning from the chain of adjectives; for example, one character "says" something, "her expression bashful and brazen." (A dictionary might be helpful here, as these are antonyms.) Maybe this was all part of the poetry aspect; I admit that I have no poetry in my soul, and for many readers, the lyricism was a highlight of the book. Kvothe is, of course, not just a poet but a master poet, and we get a few instances of his poetry. (I think it's a mistake for an author to give us actual instances of a character's "brilliant" and adulated work--just think of what it implies about the author's humility.) But the poetry doesn't just pop up there. Every so often, when things get "romantic," the characters' dialogue swings into rhyming couplets a la Romeo and Juliet. I don't find it lovely and I don't find it cute. I find it awkward and vastly irritating.

And the overstuffed prose! For pages on end, nothing happens except for descriptions of Kvothe's perfections and his banter with his adoring fans. Yet in an interview with the author, Rothfuss claimed his strength as a writer/storyteller is

Brevity...I don't engage in long, tedious bouts of description or big chunks of explanation. It's efficient. I think the tendency to over-explain and over describe is one of the most common failings in fantasy. It's an unfortunate piece of Tolkien's legacy. Don't get me wrong, Tolkien was a great worldbuilder, but he got a little caught up describing his world at times, at the expense of the overall story.

Which I found rather amusing, since over-explanation is, for me, a significant failing of this nearly 1000-page novel. Given my review, I know it's pot-calling-kettle, but at least I have no illusions. I know Tolkien-bashing has become an international sport and I'm glad that Rothfuss feels superior, but given that remark, all of the LotR "homages," from having the magic word for "open" be "edro" to the elvish poetry that sounds like garbled Sindarin, feel rather more like appropriation.

Maybe part of my venom stems from disappointment; I really, really wanted to like this book. Maybe it's because of my oversensitivity to over-perfect protagonists and what I interpreted as sexism. Maybe I just fail to appreciate the epic-ness of epic fantasy. It all comes down to this: for me, the protagonist needs to be the imperfect underdog. Why is it that Frodo was handed the ring and made into the main protagonist rather than, say, an uber-intelligent, uber-powerful elflord like Glorfindel (or a giant eagle, who could just fly straight to Mordor)? Why is it that every Greek hero, no matter how powerful, has a fatal flaw, an Achilles' heel? Why is it that Harry Potter was a middling student who only made it through school by cribbing Hermione's notes? Because for the story to have any suspense at all, our hero must be a pawn struggling against fate. If he's controlling the board, the game's just not fun any more. Because while we sympathize with characters who fail, it's hard to root for Mr. Perfect. When I read fantasy, I want a story where an ordinary character can rise up to affect the destiny of kings.