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Adam Roberts, in his Strange Horizons review of Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind (2007), sets up a cage match between Rothfuss and J. R. R Tolkien, specifically Tolkien's The Children of Húrin (2007). I read the review eagerly, followed the twists and turns of the bout, cheered on my favorite, and applauded when Roberts declared the winner: "I am not, in this review, saying that Tolkien is simply a better writer than Rothfuss; although, as it happens, I think he is. But Rothfuss is certainly an accomplished storyteller; it's just that he has not thought-through the implications of writing Heroic Fantasy in the way Tolkien did . . . Kvothe, an individual who overcomes various life obstacles to triumph has plenty in common with Lance Armstrong or that guy in The Pursuit of Happyness. His is a didactic and a feel-good heroism."

At that point, though, I hadn't read The Name of the Wind; I was just tired of and disgusted with interminable fantasy series that did little but imitate Tolkien. Now, having read both that book and its sequel, The Wise Man's Fear, I think that Roberts's review was written under a misunderstanding, one which arose in part from a letter that DAW publisher Elizabeth Wollheim sent to reviewers. In that letter, which Roberts quotes in his review, Wollheim calls The Name of the Wind "[a] tale told in classic high fantasy style" and goes on to reference all the usual suspects, George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Terry Brooks among them.

The thing is, though, Rothfuss doesn't write high or heroic fantasy. (Neither do some of those others, but that's another review for another time.) His main character, Kvothe, is not a hero, but he’s not exactly an anti-hero either; he exists in the tension between those two poles. If Wollheim had mentioned Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series she might have gotten closer to the mark: like the Gray Mouser, but unlike Tolkien's heroes, Rothfuss's Kvothe is forced to survive in harsh urban environments, and he becomes something of a trickster, not above using deception to triumph. But Tolkien outsells Leiber by orders of magnitude, and Wollheim almost certainly knew that his name, and not Leiber's, would attract the attention of booksellers.

The Name of the Wind begins and ends at an inn that Kvothe owns, a place where he has washed up after years of adventure. We're told that he has changed his name but not why he's hiding in this backwater town, only that something has gone wrong in the world outside and that he is possibly to blame. He certainly does not seem to have "overcome various life obstacles to triumph," and, judging from the story so far, a happy ending is by no means a sure thing.

Kvothe is telling his life story to a man called Chronicler. In the first volume we learn about his childhood among the Edema Ruh, a group of traveling players; about the destruction of the troupe, all but Kvothe, by creatures called the Chandrian; Kvothe's years of living hand-to-mouth on the streets; and finally his entry into the University to learn magic.

Right away we get one obvious difference between this book and any of Tolkien's: The Name of the Wind is written in the first person. Characters in high fantasy cannot be self-aggrandizing; they can't talk about themselves in heroic terms, can't say, "Then I did this wonderful deed and then this other one." They need other people to tell their tales for them. Kvothe, on the other hand, talks about his exploits in a style that is half bombast and half self-deprecating, with a leavening of humor to make it easier to digest.

The Wise Man's Fear begins where the first book left off, at the University. Kvothe has been trying to research the Chandrian, but since everyone thinks they're mythical he hasn't had much luck. A wealthy ruler, the Maer Alveron, offers to become the patron of someone who is good with words, and Kvothe takes the position, hoping to discover more outside of the University. He helps Alveron woo a woman and is sent out by the Maer to rout a band of bandits. On the way home he is initiated into sex by Falurian, a Fae who "kept men until their bodies and minds broke beneath the strain of loving her. She kept them until she tired of them, and when she sent them away it was the leaving that drove men mad" (p. 637)—and yet he seems to suffer no ill effects. He learns martial arts and philosophy from people called the Adem.

Much as I like this book, a lot of this made me uneasy. Kvothe is simply too good at too many things to be believable, and I haven't even gone into all of them; he's also brilliant at learning languages, at playing the lute, at magic, at invention. It's possible, of course, that he's boasting, an unreliable narrator, but stories about him from other characters tend to back him up.

But there's a lot to like here, first and foremost of which is Kvothe himself. Like his style he can navigate between vainglorious and humble. He leaps into things that most people would not even consider, and when he sees the danger he's gotten himself into he doesn't back away slowly but doubles down, doing something even crazier and more audacious.

When he discovers, for example, that Ambrose, one of his enemies at the University, has made a sorcerous copy of him, Kvothe knows that he has to break into Ambrose's rooms to steal it. His method of stealing it, though, is to set fire to the rooms and then run inside to put it out. When Ambrose sees him coming out of the rooms and swears at him, Kvothe's response, of course, is to act injured and to point out that he had been helping Ambrose—but he doesn’t stop there: in the middle of the argument he lifts Ambrose’s purse. You have to laugh, half admiring and half rueful.

It's also becoming clear that Rothfuss is very much in control of his material. Songs sung in passing, fairy tales told around a campfire, turn out to be important clues. Denna, a woman Kvothe meets casually in a caravan, is much more than she seemed at first. (And may I say a few words in favor of Rothfuss's treatment of women? At one point Kvothe follows Denna, only to find her first protecting a young woman and then giving her advice on how to live on the streets. Denna's advice to the woman sounds natural, both pragmatic and understanding.) There are whole threads on the Internet about who Kvothe's mother will turn out to be, who Denna's patron is, why Kvothe is so reduced from what he once was, and what he keeps in his triple-locked box—and from the way Rothfuss handles his tale we can be confident that he'll supply the answers.

In his review Roberts quotes a passage from The Name of the Wind, Kvothe talking to two of his friends at the University, and then says, "This could be three pals from any novel set in the 20th or 21st centuryl [sic]; and hundreds and hundreds of similar passages serve only to show the author has not entered into the pre-industrial medieval mindset that his medieval pre-industrial world requires." But Kvothe's world is not medieval; the Artificery at the University comes up with all kinds of inventions, and Kilvin, the Master there, seems to have invented the light bulb. (This raises another question, though: why is there such a bare minimum of technology, considering what goes on at the University? Where are the steam engines, the railroads, the cameras? In other novels of this type magic takes the place of technology, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.)

Roberts is right about the conversation between Kvothe and his friends, though. Too often Rothfuss uses modern words and phrases, giving his characters a jarring contemporary sensibility, and I found myself thrown out of his world more times than I liked. To keep Ambrose busy while Kvothe and his friends are setting fire to his rooms, for example, they convince a woman to go out on a date with him. "'[Y]ou're the only irresistibly attractive woman we know,' Simmon chimed in. 'Our backup plan was to stuff Wilem into a dress. Nobody wants that'" (p. 251). It's funny, but it sounds more like sarcastic undergraduates joking around today than someone from the world Kvothe inhabits. Another woman, Devi, wants to join the plot, and says, "I want a piece of Ambrose . . . And yes, we have a past. . And no, it’s none of your business" (p. 252), which could be from a discussion of a bad relationship on a soap opera. Then there's "I continued my usual classes in sympathy, medicine, and artificing, then added chemistry, herbology, and comparative female anatomy" (p. 943), which almost makes me want to retract what I said about Rothfuss's treatment of women.

There are other flaws in this novel as well, minor annoyances for the most part, but they interrupt what is otherwise a terrific reading experience. For example, whenever Kvothe and another character, Bast, are in a conversation, they mention the other person's name nearly every single sentence. Are they in danger of forgetting their own names?

Though I feel that Roberts has mistaken Rothfuss's intended style, his point about the language of fantasy can't be stressed enough. A fantasy world, a world created from nothing, has to be strictly consistent; one misstep and the reader is bounced rudely back into his or her own time. When a character starts using, for example, modern terms to describe a relationship, it's a shock, a jolt, and continued use of these terms over time begins to undermine the world the author has created. It violates the contract between author and reader, in which the author promises to take the reader to an entirely new place, made with entirely new materials.

It's always been an article of faith with me that good fantasy has to be written well, from the point of view of its own created world. But The Wise Man's Fear is so entertaining, so much fun, that its problems of style don’t bother me as much as they usually would. I’m starting to think that it’s worth a few infelicities to find out what Kvothe does next.

And it may well turn out that Kvothe and Bast are in danger of forgetting their names. At this point, considering how well Rothfuss has structured his series, I’m not putting anything past him.

Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.



Bio to come.
23 comments on “The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss”

You conclude by remarking "how well Rothfuss has structured his series" but, unless I missed it, I didn't see anything about the structure of this novel in the review. I mention this because I've read a couple of other reviews of the novel which have been scathing of its pace and structure, arguing that it is just a series of random events which don't progress the story much. Your synopsis seems to suggest this as well so I wondered what you thought had worked well?

Lisa Goldstein

Martin:
As I said, "It's also becoming clear that Rothfuss is very much in control of his material. Songs sung in passing, fairy tales told around a campfire, turn out to be important clues. Denna, a woman Kvothe meets casually in a caravan, is much more than she seemed at first." There's a good deal of foreshadowing in this series, and it's clear that Rothfuss knows exactly where he's going, which is not always the case with these enormous fantasies. And I have to say, I wonder which parts of the book other reviewers thought were just a series of random events. A lot of times, a scene that seems unnecessary turns out to be important, or foreshadowing for something that's obviously going to be important. As I said, there are whole discussions about this one the Internet -- check some of them out for more about how Rothfuss has structured his novels. (I didn't want to go into this too much in the review because of spoilers.)
Well, we'll see which of us was right when the third book comes out. I think it'll tie up a lot of what puzzled some people about these books -- but of course I've been wrong before.

Adam: My point (which I may not have phrased terribly well) is that it seems you expected high fantasy from Wollheim's letter, and were disappointed because the book turned out to be a "modern realist novel." Of course it's always dangerous to try to get into the mind of a reviewer, and I could be wrong, but I wonder how you would have approached the book without the expectations raised by the letter, if you had expected from the beginning a kind of combination of fantasy and realism, rather than Tolkien's mythopoesis.

Ah, I understand now, Lisa; I think we were talking at cross purposes. You are saying Rothfuss has got a clear grasp of his overall narrative and knows exactly where the story is going. I was thinking more of the internal structure of this book which I had less of an picture of from your review. But, as you say, this is hard to get into without revealing things about the plot.

>>I'm not sure what it is we're disagreeing about, actually.
🙂 I don't think we are, really. As I said, I very much agree with you about the kind of language used in fantasy. Though I enjoyed the book in spite of the language, something I don't usually do when these kinds of jarring anachronism pop up -- I once had to put a fantasy novel down when the main character started talking about his "lifestyle."

Other Adam (I don't suppose we could get one of you to change your name?):
>>I think that you at times in this review confuse Pat's views about women with those of his characters.
Well, okay, but I found the comment about "comparative female anatomy" somewhat offensive, and it was Rothfuss, after all, who chose that phrase. But you're probably right that I should wait and see what Rothfuss does with the character -- he does seem to have a lot of growing up to do.

I haven't read The Wise Man's Fear yet, but I have a question: why does it matter if a fantasy novel uses more modern language? If it's a made up setting (with pre-Industrial trappings or whatever) then shouldn't it not be an issue? I can understand if The Wise Man's Fear was set in 16th century Europe or something, then modern words and phrases would be anachronisms.

Your point about the sarcastic undergrad students is excellent, Lisa, and I agree. Maybe I'm falling into the Biographical Fallacy here, but, when reading, I kept feeling that Rothfuss had created with the University a perfect recreation, not of a fantasy world, but of a modern college with some interesting quirks.
I certainly agree that the novel was filled with layers of detail and foreshadowing, and I commend Rothfuss for that depth and the effort it must have been taken. But that's not structure so much as icing on the cake. When it comes to actual structure/pacing, I thought The Wise Man's Fear was a mess of almost disconnected events that went on for arbitrary lengths of time before seguing into something else.
While reading, I was swept along enough by Rothfuss's gift for words - anachronisms aside, I think he's an incredible knack for sucking you in and not letting go - but, afterwards, the formlessness of it all badly damaged the novel in my eyes.

Your examples of anachronisms are not that bad to me, but of course people have different standards of anachronisms. Technically speaking, all of today's language is an anachronism, since someone from the middle ages or from a made up world, wouldn't speak modern day English enough to say "Good morning," but we can't just write a whole book in another language. What level of modernity you draw the line at is somewhat arbitrary, though I agree that it is really mostly about what "jars the reader out of the narrative." Yet some people have an easier time incorporating modern and ancient together in one world. It is only the fact that a majority of readers have a harder time doing so, which makes the use of anachronisms a mis-step. If people in a fantasy world have "a past," or want to go on "a date," it doesn't bother me much. But then, as you say, it wasn't bothersome enough for you to put it down in disgust. One's objection to an anachronism is entirely subjective and is often not an inherent fault in the writing.

Jake --
Really bad anachronisms jolt me out of a novel and make it very difficult for me to get back in. I mentioned above the word "lifestyle" in a medievalesque fantasy I read once -- that's a word with a very specific time-frame, twentieth- and twenty-first-century, and a very specific type of person who would say it. Someone in the setting of this particular book wouldn't have a lifestyle, or very much of a choice of what they wanted to do at all -- the medieval "lifestyle" was mostly planting crops, harvesting them, giving some to the lord and then starting the whole cycle over again, so the word wouldn't have even been invented. Likewise, a student at a medieval-type university wouldn't use this kind of sarcasm, though of course there were different kinds of sarcasm at the time.
Well, it's possible I'm in the minority about this, though I know there are other people who feel the same way. And it's worth remembering that Tolkien himself was a linguist.

(Sorry, that last comment was intended for R.S. Hunter as well)
Nathaniel --The novels are a history of a life, and lives are pretty formless. That said, I think a lot will be tied up in the final volume, and a lot of what seems unimportant or unnecessary now will turn out to be integral to the plot.

"To keep Ambrose busy while Kvothe and his friends are setting fire to his rooms, for example, they convince a woman to go out on a date with him. "'[Y]ou're the only irresistibly attractive woman we know,' Simmon chimed in. 'Our backup plan was to stuff Wilem into a dress. Nobody wants that'" (p. 251). It's funny, but it sounds more like sarcastic undergraduates joking around today than someone from the world Kvothe inhabits."
I could hear the young wannabe actors, playwrites, students of Shakespeare's time in London saying that, or words to that effect. Or in the taverns around the colleges in Paris of the 13th century. Or in the colleges of Spain of the same century. Or even around the colleges of Alexandria earlier. Boys will be boys, so to say, and they said it then, and even further back.
Until the series is concluded it's pretty hard to make final judgements about what the author's doing.
But one can say, that so far, he's a most smooth storyteller who understands so well how tales aggregrate around a hero's name, whether or not the Hero as a single individual was responsible for them all or not. That takes care of his youth. Hercules strangled twin pythons in his crib, after all, and we are speaking of a Hero .... Or maybe not, but at this point only the Kingslayer knows for sure.
Love, C.

I agree with C. There are many things that might seem modern to us but are based on human habits that go back thousands of years. Writing about it in modern terms is merely an interpretation into our language. Just like writer's today don't write, "Thou art"'s and "Mayest thou"'s, so we also translate ideas and social concepts into today's English.
Now, Lisa, I do not think you are in the minority. I think you are in the majority, and I think you have a point. If the idea does not fit into the world the writer has created then it can be jarring. But to say sarcasm doesn't fit into the University life that Rothfuss has created is going too far for me. The atmosphere he has set up, both in the university and in the city life, is one that I see making way for sarcasm, dates, dating histories, having a past together, etc. If you are talking about a contract between author and reader, then there is a certain commitment on the part of the reader to accept the premises of the novelist. The exception is if it is inconsistent. If the writer delves into a world where there are no real life choices in the culture, then yes, I'd say "lifestyle" is out of place.
If the writer is doing historical fiction, then that contract tightens, and there is an assumption of fitting into the stipulations of the world that existed a thousand years ago. But with fantasy, I think a writer should have the freedom to include elements as he sees fit to shape a world that he likes and wants to share with us. It does not bother me to come up with light bulbs in his world without locomotives or combustion engines. Unless a piece of technology necessitates the immediate discovery or invention of another or requires previous knowledge of another, then I feel the author is free to pick and choose. I, as a reader, am willing to accept his choices, and if I don't like them, then I just don't like them, but that doesn't mean I fault him for his writing.
I think an author has to find balance between creative license and "not jarring the reader." Because, like I said, I do not think you are in the minority. There are a lot of readers who want a specifically medieval story and find it jarring to find anything that they might encounter on the street outside. Though I think this is partly the fault of the reader, an author still has to do his best to appeal to readers who pay his wages.
--thanks for your responses
--Jake

This particular juvenile 'witticism' is particularly apt in this context because males did dress as female in both medieval and renaissance theatrical events, whether street carnivals in honor of religious figures, or later, in the theater.
And judging from my childhood on, with the JayCees, the Masons, whatever all male societies -- men can never wait to dress up in women's clothes for comic effect or whatever, when it is topsy-turvy times. So I'm sure it's no different back then, either. There are a lot of cultural behaviors that are so ingrained in all human societies, and this seems to be one of them.
Love, C.

Foxessa, Jake -- Of course students have always used sarcasm, but it's this _kind_ of sarcasm that feels wrong. "Our backup plan" for example -- "backup" sounds very industrial to me, from a modern society where complicated machinery needs backups. And "Nobody wants that" -- I could be wrong, but I've never seen this kind of formulation except very recently.
And it's not males dressing as females that bothers me -- though I don't remember it happening in this particular world -- it's that the student banter jolted me out of the world and back to my own college days.

Lisa,
It sounds like you just _want_ the narrative to _feel_ ancient. And that's fine - I respect that; most fantasy readers want the same thing. My point is merely that that does not make it bad writing. "back-up" may sound industrial to you, but when I hear it I think of a best friend "backing you up," preferably with a sword. Whatever the context, your primary desire is to be transported into a different world, and all I'm saying is that what keeps you in that world is subjective - it's a matter of what you feel. Secondly, I think it is safe to assume people had secondary plans back in the middle ages, in case their primary plans failed. I personally don't like when the characters talk all pretentious and say "We need to have a [secondary plan (or other synonym)]." It makes them sound too adult or too serious. Rothfuss obviously wants to have his characters appear more like amiable college students than seasoned warriors or gloomy scholars. He needs to use language that conveys that, at the risk of letting it sound too modern for some readers to handle.
Those are just my thoughts. I still say that it's a fine line for a writer to balance. He has to communicate smoothly if he wants people to read. I think he did, so I don't see the point in criticizing after the fact that he broke some subjective rule.
Thanks,
Jake

Jake -- I don't want the language to feel ancient, I want it to be consistent with the world Rothfuss created. The world is somewhat industrial (people come up with new inventions at the University) but it's nowhere near modernity. And it wouldn't be so frustrating to me, except that most of the book is, as I said, a terrifically fun read, so that when I stub my toe over one of these outcroppings of modernity it's actually painful. (In Roberts's review he quotes one of the students saying "It's not a big deal." If you can find that phrase in any pre-twentieth century novel I'll eat my copy of _The Name of the Wind_, all 722 pages of it.)
As you say, it's all subjective. And it bothers me, and I'm the one who wrote the review. 🙂

Naked the man without brother at his back.
Sometimes we are wrong about when usage enters the language. 'World-class' is employed by Jane Austen, from characters speaking of landscaping and view.
Last night I encountered the usage 'super' to modify 'important,' in the writing of a South Carolinian pastor justifying slavery of African peoples and their descendants into perpetuity. This was from 1830.
Love, C.

I like the graffiti in the toilets of Pompei for a sample of what's modern.
http://www.pompeiana.org/Resources/Ancient/Graffiti%20from%20Pompeii.htm
"Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls" is probably my favorite.

Anisa Irwin

Phrases like "It's not a big deal" didn't bother me at all in this book.. I think because I never got the feeling that I was in a really old world.
It has a University, they use things like matches.. Which, I think were only created in the early 1800's...
Then again.. They all traveled by horse or foot, drew water for bathes and lived life on the road, etc.
That being said.. It is fantasy.. It's not supposed to be historically accurate.. It doesn't need to follow trends or fashions that we have tied to certain timelines.
It's made up. It doesn't have to follow our guidelines at all. It's the authors world.
So.. for all we know... They did say things like "Lifestyle" or "It's not a big deal".. They weren't influenced by the same things and people we were in our world so it is very possible that they spoke our "modern" language well before we did 🙂
I mean.. Let's be real.. They are calling the wind and binding things together.. There are faeries and not-demon-demon things..
I loved the series.
I do agree, however, with the "Bast" and "Reshi" in every sentence they say to each other. That's a tad odd. Lol

Will Sargent -- I like this! But you'll notice that the graffiti doesn't say, "Celadus the gladiator is one hot dude, and all the chicks dig him."

Gilgit

I liked the book, but had more reservations that you. The thing that jumped out at me though is when in your review you say: then added chemistry, herbology, and comparative female anatomy" (p. 943), which almost makes me want to retract what I said about Rothfuss's treatment of women.
Seriously? Rothfuss has every "good" character think about women as if they are plucked right out of the 21st century, but because he said one arguably politically incorrect thing you feel the need to call him out?
You make me curious. Would you refuse to root for any character that actually thought like a medieval or ancient person? And would you insist that the author was actually trying to promote such behavior?
However, I do agree that Rothfuss regularly pulls you out of his world and back into ours. I didn't mind the language - having people talk differently can be useful, but I don't require it. No, what I couldn't forget is that all the other kingdoms were basically backwards thinking and everyone acted like they had to not act scandalous or ruin their reputation, but the moment women showed up at the university they immediately start dating like its 1999. Everyone who's good thinks like we do, everyone who's bad doesn't.
I may have cheered like everyone else when Kvothe broke the young man's arm, but I never for a moment thought of it as anything other than Rothfuss talking directly to us.
Still, I could forgive this. I still enjoyed the story and liked how it set things up. I agree that Rothfuss is adding details that will be relevant and is in control of his story. But come on! He spends over 700 pages over the course of two books to describe one year at the university! And in that time he learns a few things, but not really that much. By the end of book 2 we are 1700 pages into the story and we are really still in the set up.
Repeatedly Kvothe is turned away from finding more information by what strikes me as obvious roadblocks thought up by the author, not actions organic to the story. People say things and there is a misunderstanding and Kvothe is stymied again. This happened so often I had to check that I wasn't reading an old script from an episode of "Three's Company". I kept wondering if Mr. Furley was going to stick his head around the corner and say, "You kids aren't talking about the Chandrian are you?" (Old reference.)
At one point he's talking to someone about Fae Goddesses, but he better not mention the Chandrian because he'd be thought of as strange.
And I used to like Denna and think the conversations between her and Kvothe were terrific. But we are 1700 pages in. The conversations stopped being memorable. Time for them to come clean. Enough!

"because he said one arguably politically incorrect thing you feel the need to call him out?"
I didn't take this as being politically incorrect but as a pretty big personality change for him. He says this -- if I remember right, it's been years -- after Falurian initiates him into her awesome sexytimes technique, and he goes from being somewhat shy and admiring around women to thinking of them as body parts, to treating them so casually and interchangeably that he doesn't even mention their names, only their anatomy. Yes, I know that just about any young straight male would do the same, but Kvothe is presented as the hero of the story, someone who can do everything well, and I expected more of him.
So no, it wasn't that he was thinking like a medieval person (though I don't think medieval men actually hopped from one bed to another), but the way he was acting here that bothered me. I was also a bit annoyed with the anachronism -- "comparative female anatomy" is a very modern construction, along with being used so often it isn't funny any more -- but as I say that wasn't the main thing.

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