Audiobook Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

As soon as I was finished listening to The Name of the Wind (reviewed here) I immediately started on the second installment of the trilogy-in-the-works by Patrick Rothfuss, Wise Man’s Fear.  It was a strange feeling starting up this second volume.  Though I had only finished the previous volume on the previous day, as soon as I heard Nick Podehl’s voice, I felt like I was back home after being gone a long time.  It was really bizarre to me, but I’ll attribute it to the truly marvelous job Podehl did on The Name of the Wind.  If anything, his performance is even better here.  More on that in a moment.

Wise Man’s Fear picks up exactly where Name of the Wind left off.  I suppose it’s obvious, but it bears saying that if you haven’t read (or heard) the first, you cannot pick up this one and expect to know what’s going on.  The first book lays a foundation and this second book builds upon that foundation carefully and with the sort of love that could only come from a writer who is deeply committed to his characters and story.  The first book was a remarkable debut.  This second proves it was no fluke.

Cover for the U.K. edition

If you want a primer on The Story So Far, there’s a nice little summation on the author’s website.  We pick up on the second day of Kvothe recounting his story to Chronicler, with Kvothe still at The University. But we don’t stay there for long.  One of the Masters suggests that, after the recent troubles he’s caused, it may best for Kvothe to take some time off.  To “chase the wind” as it were.  His friend Count Threpe has just the thing– a royal acquaintance in far-off Vintas is looking for a clever musician.  So Kvothe sets off and soon finds himself in the court of Maer Alveron.  Kvothe gets into trouble, saves the Maer’s life, and woos a woman for the Maer using his gifts as a silver-tongued songwriter.  Soon enough, the Maer sends him on a mission to hunt bandits who are waylaying the maer’s tax collectors.  It is on this trip we meet one of the more fascinating characters in the story, Tempi, an Adem mercenary who teaches Kvothe the ways of the mysterious Ademre philosophies, which sound like a mixture of Eastern philosophies centered around doing everything the right way.  Especially fighting.

After taking care of the bandits, Kvothe takes a detour into the Fae, a parallel universe of fairies and mythical creatures, many of whom appear human but are gifted in powerful and possibly demonic ways.  He spends time with Felurian, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world who just happens to drive all men to madness.  She schools our virgin hero in the ways of love and makes him a magical cloak woven of starlight and shadows.  Of course, he tricks his way out of her clutches, but not before running into the Cthaeh, an all-knowing oracle who takes the form of a lone, enormous tree.  It is apparently the most dangerous and dreaded entity in the Fae and all who speak to it are doomed to a life of making decisions that cause misery to everyone around.  So, whoops.

Though Kvothe believes he spent up to a year in the Fae, back in the real world, only three days have passed.  He meets up with his fellow bandit hunters and heads off to return the stolen money to Maer Alveron, but not before yet another detour.  This time to Ademre.  Apparently, it’s not Kosher for the mercenary Adem to teach their philosophy to outsiders, whom they all believe to be Barbarians.  So Tempi is called back to his school to face charges for breaking this sacred trust.  Kvothe accompanies him to Ademre in hopes of making things right for his friend.  Long story short, by the time he ends up back at the Maer’s castle, he’s learned a lot about love and fighting.

In the background throughout is Denna, Kvothe’s true love who appears and vanishes with the wind or the tides or whatever.  Their innocent and playful relationship hits a few snags and by the end of the book, Kvothe is unsure where things stand between them.  The book also ends as the second day draws to a close.  Things seem to have taken a turn toward the dark.  There is something mysterious and unsettling happening in the present day, but right now, it’s in the background, just bubbling under the surface.

Rothfuss spent nearly four years writing this follow-up, and it shows.  The writing is economical and the dialog is especially crisp.  There were tons of characters in the first novel and they are all back here, and even more are added to the cast.  A few are one-dimensional, but not annoyingly so.  They are mostly there to advance the story.  But as far as the audiobook goes, this is where narrator Podehl truly shines.

There are dozens upon dozes of characters and he somehow astoundingly manages to give unique voices to them all.  In fact, if I read the books, I worry I would read the characters in the voices and accents he’s given them.  I would likely never imagine Cealdish to sound vaguely Russian or Ademic sounding vaguely Scandinavian, but so be it.  It’s a genuinely helpful and subtle way to identify characters and add a layer of depth to the world Rothfuss has imagined.  Podehl is an excellent reader and I would not hesitate to listen to a book I wouldn’t likely choose if he were the narrator.

Wise Man’s Fear is a huge, sprawling, yet tightly wrapped package.  The book is over 1000 pages.  The audiobook is 43 hours.  There is a lot to like– it’s a superbly written adventure packed with emotion and it’s hard to stop listening to.  My complaints are minor.  There is the fact that Kvothe is a teenager and doing things teenagers wouldn’t normally be able to do.  But as this is fantasy, I can forgive that.  He does act like a teenager, and that can be annoying.  My biggest complaint, however, is that there is a lack of a true and worthy antagonist.  Yes, the Chandrian are out there, somewhere, lurking.  No doubt they’ll turn up in the finale and hopefully in a big and terrifying way.  But as of right now, it feels like Kvothe’s adversaries are unworthy.  That, however, does little to ruin the fun.

The second parts of trilogies are saddled with the burden of having no beginning and no end.  Because of this, they usually leave the reader or listener unsatisfied.  The best example of a second part of a trilogy is The Empire Strikes Back.  A lot happens, the characters grow more complex, and the story advances.  Because Rothfuss writes in the fantasy genre, quick and easy comparisons could be made to Lord of the Rings, which would have one comparing this book to The Two Towers.  On the whole, I’d rate Wise Man’s Fear as slightly more satisfying on its own, probably because it ends with our protagonist going to bed.  But if I have a hope for the final installment, it’s that it is more like Return of the King and nothing at all like Return of the Jedi.

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