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A tremendous second act
on July 2, 2016
I've seen some of the negative reviews of this second volume of the kingkiller chronicle posted here. I don't dismiss them, as I feel that like most books this one is not for everyone. However, it certainly was a book for me, and found it to be at least as powerful, engrossing, and artfully written as The Name of the Wind. I'd first address a few of the things one may not like about it:
Assuming you've read The Name of the Wind you should know that The Kingkiller chronicle is not a story like, for instance, A Song Of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones). The latter gains much of its power from rich world-building, a myriad of characters connected by intricate web-like plot-lines, and more than a few story events that are world changing on a grand scale. Rothfuss's story is more self contained, character-driven, and subtle, but if this is the kind of thing you can't get behind you probably didn't make it through The Name of the Wind anyway. Of The Wise Man's Fear more specifically, I've seen a few commenters who felt it was more a continuation of the first book rather than a true second act, that it didn't move the story along enough for their liking, and that too many questions seem unanswered going into the (as of now) unreleased third book. I felt strongly to the contrary of each of these, for the following reasons.
The Wise Man's Fear picks up right where The Name of The Wind left off, in the University, with Kvothe expanding on many of the prior novel's plot-lines. This is satisfying but not until later in the story do you truly appreciate that Rothfuss isn't just tying up loose ends and replacing them with new ones. Rather, he's laying the groundwork for much of what is to come. Indeed, when the story shifts settings about halfway through it feels somewhat abrupt, but later it becomes clear how this transition is part of a larger natural progression of what Kvothe's character needed to grow. Without spoiling too much, let it suffice to say that Kvothe spends time in a few new settings where he picks up different pieces of the man he is to become, specifically pieces he couldn't have gotten at the University. Many times Kvothe doesn't realize the ways each of these new encounters change and shape him until after the fact. As such, The Wise Man's Fear is very much a story of Kvothe growing from a man of raw and untapped potential into one who actually fulfills that potential, often through unsuspected turns. At one point early in The Wise Man's Fear he reflects that, while much of his reputation had previously needed to be fueled by showmanship and artfully crafted deceptions (think of the story that he doesn't bleed, which was really just the result a medicinal trick and a great performance), some of his newer exploits needed less embellishment. This proves prophetic, and by the end of the book he actually has to alter some of the stories he tells in the opposite way because he feels the whole truth of them is actually too fantastic to be believable, or sometimes too dangerous.
Through this all, we learn more about the Chandrian, the Amyr, the Fae, and other core mysteries in the story. No revelations are particularly explicit; most require some inference on the part of the reader. Rothfuss has a great knack for subtle storytelling, and I felt he did this even better in The Wise Man's Fear than the first book, especially in the second half. Much of what the reader learns of these mysteries doesn't actually provide answers to the story's core questions, but rather brings better into focus the questions themselves. This sets things up nicely for a third volume to bring things neatly together. Likewise, in the "present day" a deeper appreciation is gained for the anguished "third silence" of Kote and his current state of being. At the end of The Wise Man's Fear Rothfuss hasn't directly connected many more plot elements than at the end of The Name of The Wind; but rather all such elements are brought into much closer proximity to one another, leaving the reader with a satisfying feeling of a story slowly, subtlety, and steadily coalescing. This, to me, is the mark of any good second act.