Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 17, 2015
What did I think about A Wise Man’s Fear? Well, it’s beautifully written, just as the first one was. It’s a character-driven marvel of word painting that plays out much like a fantasy version of one’s college experience (at least my college experience). This book captures the small ups and downs of life, blown up a bit in a fantasy setting, but not as much as many fantasy novels where saving the world from an all-powerful evil is the goal right from the start and there’s no longer any room (or rather too much room) for the character’s smaller wants and desires to breathe. Those smaller aspects are what make a great character and that’s what this book and this series has in droves.
That said, there may be a little too much of the small character things in this book. Good gosh, nothing all that relevant really happens. I mean, Kvoth’s main goal is revenge against the Chandrian. He made literally no progress toward that end in this book aside from a couple small bits of information and the acquisition of resources with which to pursue them…though he still has no idea how to go about doing that. He’s absolutely no closer to finding them than he was before. Yeah, there’s that random bit where one of them was apparently leading a band of bandits, but that is in no way relevant. He just puffs away into thin air, never to be seen again in the book and without even a taunt in Kvoth’s direction.
As far as Denna’s side story, there’s extremely little development there as well in an overall sense. We do learn a lot about her past and what’s going on with her patron and such, but between her and Kvoth, they just kind of wind up back where they started in this book. There’s one argument they have, but it’s immediately resolved the next time they see each other. Well, that may not be entirely fair. There is certainly an odd tension between them as this book closes, odd in a good way. There’s more of her popping out of thin air wherever Kvoth goes of course. At one point, she and her most recent boy toy burst into a tavern where Kvoth is staying right as she’s about to choke to death…on nothing…why was she unable to breathe again? Oh, so Kvoth could save her…right…
I mentioned in my review of the last book that it was too convenient in terms of what happens to Kvoth at times. That is even more the case here in many ways, though it’s also better in others. It’s terribly convenient that Kvoth’s nobleman friend happens to know the most powerful man in the world and gets Kvoth a position as his helper for some secret task. But then again, I bought it, so does that make it TOO convenient? Nope. Though it’s on the line. I’m watching you, Pat. I’m watching you. There are other examples such as this that really play jumprope with the line between sinfully convenient and “yay, what a great coincidence for Kvoth!”
Let’s talk about what all the haters of this book really gripe about: the plot
It’s true that there are some OUTRAGEOUS tangents that I wish were never included (more on those in a bit) but for the most part, I was with Kvoth on all these tangents. That’s what, to me, makes the meandering chaos of the plot work: Kvoth himself. He’s such a well-written character, as are all the characters around him (mostly) and so wherever the plot goes, I go with him. That’s what really ties this story together for me and makes me root for him regardless of how little actually gets accomplished at the end of the book. Do I wish he handn’t gone off for literally a year and done nothing but have sex with a fairy? Yes. Yes I do.
Speaking of having sex with fairies (and just having sex in general) let’s talk about my biggest complaint in this book, the main reason why it doesn’t get my five-star approval. Sex.
Oh. My Gosh. Where to begin…
Slight spoilers…nothing important of course though. Because apparently sex isn’t important. At all. O_O…
I guess I’ll begin where it’s introduced into the story. Kvoth has never had sex before. He’s interested in Denna, though he’s been attracted to other girls before now as well, even if he hasn’t really paid that much attention to them. But Denna is the big goal, the ONE as it were. When he left to go on his big adventure halfway through this book, he left some unresolved conflict with her and it’s been bugging him. So he goes on his big adventure, does some amazing stuff, and as soon as he starts to head back to the city, he runs into Felurian.
Apparently, Felurian is a Fae creature who is legendary for seducing men and making them go mad with desire for her. The men then either die or go insane. She’s widely believed to be a myth. Up until now, there have been a few folk stories told about her, but nothing to make the reader think she’ll ever be a part of the actual story with Kvoth, or even that she’s in any way important…and then they stumble across her out of nowhere in the woods and Kvoth chases after her into the Fae realm and spends a year doing literally nothing but eating, sleeping, and having sex…and making a magic cloak made of shadow and moonbeams…WHAT? WHY?! There are at least a few small plot revelations during this section of the book, but nothing all that important…so why did we need this? To show how much of a badass Kvoth is? That’s not interesting. What’s interesting is how people THINK he’s a badass but how his legend has been misinterpreted and muddled over the years and how fragile and insecure he really has become. Yeah, he can do some cool stuff along the way, but this was just too over the top.
As I said, Kvoth is still a virgin before this escapade begins. So his first sexual encounter is with a magical faeling who is reportedly the most beautiful, most perfect woman in the whole world, and he blows her mind time and time again on the first try (lego batman style).
As a recently married, de-virgined man, I call bulls***. No. Just no.
I mean, at least she’s an irresistible, magical creature, so it makes sense why he runs off after her and does what he does…but from a story perspective, why did this need to happen? We were doing so well with realistic, relatable portrayals of life experiences. Why does sex have to be treated like an arcade game or like another feather in Kvoth’s cap? He has no emotional attachment to her. Her only real purpose in the story is to have sex with him and make him a cloak out of shadow and moonbeams. Great female character you got there, very modern of you. Why couldn’t we have had an authentic, touching first experience for Kvoth instead of this emotionless, cold, meaningless frolic? He learns nothing from it (apart from how to have sex…he gets really good at that) and it goes on forever! This book didn’t need more length!
It only gets better from there though! After his year of galavanting with Felurian, he literally has sex with the next girl he sees…for no reason other than that she came onto him (pointless)…and then with the next girl he sees, who is his freaking teacher in the ways of the Adem mercenaries. Slightly creepy.
The Adem don’t attach any intimacy to sex and see it as a purely utilitarian act. This makes at least some sense for her, at least to an extent, because it’s a cultural thing and she’s just “helping him out” because he’s “distracted” by her hotness during his studies with her (does that sound stupid to anyone else?). But just because THEY see sex a certain way doesn’t mean KVOTH has to see it that way. Yeah, he’s a young man full of vigor and all that, and yeah, he has no moral qualms about having sex with multiple people apparently, but don’t you think he’d at least feel a little bad about hooking up with all these women at some point, seeing as how he’s supposedly so hooked on Denna? That youthful pining really comes through everywhere but in these sections of the story. Shouldn’t he at least THINK about her at some point during all this? He literally thinks about how all of this might relate to her IN PASSING on ONE occasion and then he just goes back to galavanting around with everyone he sees from then on.
Even after all that though, it gets better! Rothfuss attempts to address some of the dangers of of casual sex with multiple partners: pregnancy and STDs. The attitude toward the great dangers is so flippant, however, that these things are barely referenced on only one occaision with some of the most convenient, lazy explanations I’ve ever seen…
Apparently, there is a root Kvoth chews every day in order to render himself temporarily infertile… O_O
Way to take all the harsh reality out of it for us, Pat. Way to whitewash this whole issue by simply inserting a single reference to this unnamed herb that we’ve never heard of that magically makes all possibility of unplanned pregnancy disappear. Not only that, but it’s a MALE contraceptive which we with all our vast technology and knowledge haven’t quite perfected…but apparently there’s some weed lying around and readily available even in far-off, strange lands that just does the job if you chew it every day. No biggie. Again, way to side-step the issue there with a magic cure-all deus ex-machina of sorts. More like a deus-SEX-machina…
But wait, it gets better! Apparently, the Adem also have NO STD’s! Even though they all are pretty much CONSTANTLY having sex with one another, there is literally NO trace of any sexually transmitted disease among them. That’s not something I just extrapolated, by the way, it’s something one of the women actually tells Kvoth. Why is this the case? Apparently because they only ever have sex with other Adem and not outsiders apparently…even though their culture spans hundreds if not thousands of miles with distinct populations in different places that do indeed intermingle as we see in the example of Kvoth’s instructor. Bull. Honkey.
BUT WAIT! IT GETS BETTER!!!!!! Apparently the Adem believe that men have no part in creating children. Let me say that again. The Adem people believe that women just “ripen” like fruit every now and then, especially in the Fall. How the ever-loving HELL could any culture, especially a modern, enlightened one like the Adem, grow to believe that? Part of their job in Adem mercinary culture requires them to travel for long stretches of time, far from home in foreign lands where they doubtless can’t have sex for some time. Have they never noticed over the past thousand years that when people don’t have sex they don’t get pregnant? Have they not noticed that a man injects a little package of something into the very place where babies come out from? Maybe THAT has something to do with it. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the more often a woman has sex THE MORE OFTEN SHE GETS PREGNANT! Sorry for the lewd imagery, but holy CRAP this made me angry. It makes no sense!
Oh man. I need a break.
You know there’s so much we can learn about our own sexuality by reading about this responsibility and guilt-free world of sex and revelry where we can sleep around to your heart’s content without any emotional entanglement or any sort of consequences whatsoever.
It’s almost as though Rothfuss is trying to push this philosophy of free love hippy-style on us through this apparently perfect culture of noble savages. Everything the Adem do is presented as flawless and without error, never really questioned by Kvoth and apparently never meant to be questioned by the audience. Yes, they’re fascinating and well constructed as a world-building element, but good gosh they frustrated me at times. From the attitude the rest of the story takes toward sex, It really seems like Rothfuss was putting his own views on sex into the Adem’s philosophy, which is a tad disturbing for me. I mean, he’s a grown man and he can do what he wants, but jeez man. You could have at least treated it in a realistic manner instead of making every so squeaky clean with your deus SEX machina infertility roots and disease-free-even-though-they’re-more-oversexed-than-the-USofA Adem culture. I mean, he really seems to have gone out of his way to separate all sex in this story from any sort of emotion, let alone a loving, committed relationship. Yes, i have my personal beliefs about sex, so maybe I’m a tad biased, but I like to think I’m open-minded when it comes to other people’s views. I can’t be the only one who thought this was odd, right?
I don’t mean to say that you can’t make your characters sleep around. You can make your characters have sex with whomever whenever you want, but when you actually address some of the real-world concerns of such a practice so frivolously, with out-of-nowhere made-up solutions that are 100% effective all the time, you are misrepresenting human sexuality and turning it into a farcical imitation of the real thing, a cheap, meaningless thrill for your character and possibly for your readers. If you don’t want to address unwanted pregnancy and STD’s, that’s one thing. It’s still not the right way to go in my opinion, but it’s better than actually bringing those things up and immediately swatting them down with convenient world elements you just pull right out of your butt simply so that your character can go back to thoughtlessly having sex with anyone he pleases.
It’s almost as though Rothfuss was like “hmm, Kvoth sure is banging a lot of chicks. Some people might think he’s being irresponsible…hmm, how can I get around that?…oh, I know. Magic root. Boom. Awesome, let’s get back to the sex.” From a book that handles almost everything else so very well, that was a pretty huge slap in the face.
Even after all that though, I really enjoyed this book. It’s artfully, masterfully crafted in its prose, I love Kvoth, I love the world, I love the magic. It’s mesmerizing. Frustrating at times. But mesmerizing. The whole sex thing really was like a pebble in my boot while I was reading it, but it was the softest, most comfortable boot in the world.