Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Wise Man's Fear - my thoughts on his genius

It has taken me a little time to finish Patrick Rothfuss's mammoth second installment in the life story of Kvothe.  I must confess to a certain trepidation. 1000 pages carried us through just one year of his hero's eventful life. I am unsure as to how Rothfuss will close the circle between the precocious teenager on the threshold of some great infamy and the enigmatic innkeeper haunted by some unknown intervening tragedy.  He has only left himself one volume to do it and has promised to bring it in within a shorter span of pages.  As I frantically weave together the threads for the final volume of my own trilogy, I have to say I think Rothfuss has set himself a very tall order.

But first let us be clear.  I liked the book.

I think the quality of a piece of artwork is defined by the response it inspires in the observer and  I think a similar rule also holds true for books whose individual worth is defined by the response they inspire in the reader   This is a good book because it made me think, it set me mysteries that I wanted answered, and told me stories that amused and entertained me.  But that definition of quality means different people can quite honestly and legitimately judge the same book as being great or awful.  That dichotomy is evident in the range of reviews Rothfuss has on Goodreads and the way that the less complimentary one star reviews have been propelled towards the top of the lists by copious likes.

The structure of the books reminds me of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy.  That alternates its protagonist's bitter crippled present as a monk enslaved by a bishop with the glorious past when he was   King Arthur's sworn swordsmen Derfel.  There is again that question, by what tragic pathway did the young man become the old one.  That central question is the thread that holds me in thrall to Rothfuss's story telling.  It is those scenes in the Wayfarer Inn that most leave me wanting more, where the extent of Kvothe's fall is exposed, yet where he still retains so much of the man he must have become.

However, my doubts remain.  Rothfuss is a world builder of extraordinary skill who writes lovingly in great detail.  There are two huge chunks of the story,   a trial and a sea journey which are dismissed in a few paragraphs as the older Kvothe tells his chronicler that he can't be bothered to go into the detail.  My suspicion is that Rothfuss did go into the detail, that he did describe all those events in exquisite loving prose but that some editor suggested that 1000 pages was enough and cuts must be made, and rather than streamline any excesses in his writing, Rothfuss simply amputated a couple of narrative limbs.

This is not to say that his writing is flabby, it is carefully considered and structured prose.  However, it savours the detail of the story, painting a picture with many fine brushstrokes.  It may have been in consequence of this that my own reading of it was a drawn out affair, a repast to be sipped and nibbled at rather than devoured in a single sitting.

Rothfuss creates and describes two new and intricate societies.  The Maer Alevron's world of  patronage with its rigid barriers of class, service and protocol all denoted by the exchange of rings, and the Adem. These last a fascinating society in a land without any natural resources whose economy is dependent on exporting the most feared mercenaries in the world.  It reminds me a bit of Las Vegas where a place with no resources thrived through an analogous market in service industries, though in the case of Las Vegas it is gambling and sex.  There is an irony in that parallel since the Adem have a somewhat open attitude towards sexual encounters which appear to be given far more freely than a smile.  One does just wonder what might happen if the Adem where hired by both sides in a conflict  Possibly it would be like the medieval mercenary swiss pikeman who would agree not to fight each other too seriously in such circumstances.

As in the first book, Denna drifts in and out of the story, while Kvothe struggles vainly in the "just good friendship" trap.   It is when I read those passages that I wonder how far Mr Rothfuss might have himself endured some stubbornly unignited teenage romance.  The kind where the young man worships some enigmatic paragon whom he has set upon a pedestal and decides that he was especially favoured because she chose to practice her virtue on him and no-one else  (or is it me I am thinking of?)

Rothfuss loves to build worlds and detailed worlds at that.  From the intricate operation of his magic system, to the political intrigues of court and university, from the perils and wonders of the faerie realm, to the strange high town-low town structures of  Severen where the discontinuities of society are mimicked by geography. All through Mr Rothfuss takes us on a travelogue through his capacious imagination and it is an entertaining journey.

The story is not without flaws.  For example, a man of the Maer's wealth hires a band scarcely less cohesive and coherent than Enid Blyton's famous five to root out a group of tax collector robbing bandits. Some critical reviews have mentioned Kvothe's impossible prowess in every field of human endeavour, including several bedrooms.  However, I am content to be shown the tale that Rothfuss wishes to tell and to experience and enjoy the skill of his storytelling.

It is, however, no surprise to hear that Rothfuss accidentally wrote a 20,000 word novella about one of the minor characters Auri.  Dare I suggest that Rothfuss's interest in the Worldbuilders charity may in some part stem from the realisation that turning our own world into a significantly better place could be a more manageable task than wrestling the tale of Kvothe to a satisfactory conclusion in under 1000 pages.

However, I still await the next instalment with interest, for above all else I want the answer to that central (seven word!) question.

What happened to the red headed innkeeper?


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