Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Dan did not find the second volume of the Kingkiller Chronicles to be worth the wait
I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe.
You may have heard of me.
Thus begins the blurb on the back of the first volume of Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles, and it's repeated on the second.
This is partly because, like many Fantasy novels, the Kingkiller Chronicles is really just one massive, massive novel chopped roughly into three parts. I suspect, however, that it's also partly because the blurb on the back of a book is usually a summary of what happens in the book, and despite weighing in at just shy of one thousand pages of densely printed text, the Wise Man's Fear is actually rather short on the “things happening” front.
If I had to summarize the entire book in twenty-five words or less I would do it like this:
Kvothe is awesome. He meets people who tell him how awesome he is, and they teach him to be even more awesome. The end.
As I so often say at the start of these articles: I am almost tempted to leave it there.
I'm not going to break down the sequence of events in the book, explain how Kvothe goes from the University to Vintas to Faerie to Ademre back to Vintas and back to the University – it's not really what happens in the book (insofar as anything happens) that I'm concerned about, it's the way in which the whole book collapses into a godawful mess of juvenile wish-fulfilment which undermines any hope I might have had for the series.
Oh, I should also add that this wound up getting far longer and far angrier than I intended. Sorry.
A Little Context
The Name of the Wind was spectacularly well received. Like spectacularly well. It won awards, it was praised by the likes of Orson Scott Card and Ursula le Guinn, it was one of those books people admitted to disliking only with a note of shame in their voices.
The book has become something of a poster child for what is best in the Fantasy genre – rich worldbuilding, clever storytelling, intricate plotting and a knowing deconstruction of the tropes and assumptions on which it is based (although to be honest, even in 2007 I was a little bored of deconstruction – it's still worth doing, but people really need to stop pretending that it's a new idea, I mean hell Elric was a deconstruction of the tropes of the fantasy genre).
I was sceptical but ultimately positive about the first volume, ultimately concluding that it was doing a lot of interesting things with the medium, and cleverly analysing the intersection between reality and myth, people and legends.
I was disappointed, therefore, to find myself reading a book which, amongst other things, devotes eleven out of its hundred and fifty two chapters to describing how its sixteen year old protagonist spent three days having sex with a hot faery woman who by the way thought he was totally awesome at sex.
The Double Standard
This bit is going to be a bit high-horsey, for which I apologise in advance.
Ages ago I read Trudi Canavan's Age of the Five trilogy and concluded that when you put all of the protagonist's skills end to end they made her look like a godawful Mary-Sue. But ultimately this was forgiveable because when you get right down to it The Age of the Five was mostly an enjoyable bit of girly fluff which wasn't trying to do anything serious.
For the record, at the start of the book Kvothe is one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen, fluent in several languages, a precocious magician, able to call upon magic of a kind few even believe exists, able to climb walls and pick locks, a master artificer, skilled in both arts and sciences, endlessly resourceful and never ever meets a woman who doesn't fancy him. By the end of the book he's all of that, plus he's even better at magic, has learned secret martial arts techniques that make him better at fighting than anybody he will ever meet except for the people who taught him, has gained the ear of several powerful people, and has been taught secret sex skills by a hot older woman who never the less thought that he was pretty amazing at doing sex even before she taught him to be more amazing at doing sex (I will come back to this a lot because I think it's probably the most stupid and juvenile part of what I now am convinced is a fundamentally stupid and juvenile text).
What annoys me about Kvothe is not so much that he's a gratuitous Mary-Sue, but that despite this fact he is taken incredibly seriously by critics. People bitch about how unrealistic it is that everybody fancies Bella Swan, about how stupid it is for teenage girls to indulge in a fantasy where powerful supernatural beings are sexually attracted to them. People laugh at characters like Sonea and Auraya because they're just magic sparkly princesses with super-speshul magic sparkle powers. But take all of those qualities – hidden magic power, ludicrously expanding skillset, effortless ability to attract the opposite sex despite specifically self-describing as being bad at dealing with them, and slap it on a male character, and suddenly we get the protagonist of one of the most serious, most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the last decade.
Of course you can't ever really say, for certain, how a book would have been received if you reversed the genders of its author and protagonist, but something tells me that a book about a red-haired girl who plays the lute and becomes the most powerful sorceress who ever lived by the time she's seventeen, and who has a series of exciting sexy encounters with supernatural creatures, would not have been quite so readily inducted into the canon of a genre still very uncertain about its mainstream reputation.
I know I said I wasn't going to go through the events of the book in detail, but I am going to discuss my irritation with the book in a broadly chronological sequence. This is simply because the book is so huge and so lacking in structure (beyond the obvious detail that some events happen after some other events) that it's far easier to think of it in terms of “The Imre Bit”, “The Vintas Bit”, “The Felurian Bit” and “The Ademre Bit”.
So the book starts off with Kvothe in Imre, where it's a straight continuation of Imre sections of the first volume. Kvothe is unable to pay his tuition again, which I wouldn't object to if it weren't for the fact that I've already read that plotline in book one (about the first quarter of the book, indeed, could be seen as the end of the first volume as much as the beginning of the second). We're thrown pretty much headfirst back into the setting, which was kind of jarring because dude, I read the original two years ago and I sure as hell won't be going back and rereading it to remind myself who Simmon and Kilvin and Exa Dal are (I did eventually remember, but I spent quite a while choking on name soup).
I'm afraid this article is going to be something of a list of Things That Annoyed Me. There were two Things That Annoyed Me about Imre.
The first was an issue that I remember having trouble with in the first book, which I have taken to referring to as the “poverty wanking”. Kvothe spends a lot of time being poor. He spends even more time telling the reader that if they have never been truly poor, they cannot understand what it is like to be poor. This is true, and I could almost accept this as a brave attempt to challenge the class privilege of his readership (and Lord knows I've got plenty of that – I've never had to deal with real shortage of money in my entire life, and I do absolutely take for granted the fact that food and housing and hot water and broadband internet access will be easily within my reach from now until the day I die) but there's just something about the whole thing that rings hollow.
I think mostly it's the fact that while Kvothe only has two shirts, and has to worry about finding the money to pay for his University tuition (something which, in his world, is itself a massive privilege, and one which Kvothe barely even needs given his precocious talent and secret route into the Archives) but he has several easy sources of income which, by the standards of his world, are very lucrative (he makes and sells magic artefacts for pity's sake; a profession for which only a handful of people in the world are qualified, and which he does better than pretty much anybody else out there), and he gets free room and board from a local tavern in return for his services as a musician (he also makes money performing at a local music venue, and while it's not much by the standards of the nobility it's certainly enough to live on). I'm annoyed by enforced poverty as a fictional trope at the best of times (why hello Season Six Buffy, fancy seeing you here) but Kvothe's constantly reminding us that “if you have never been truly poor, you will not understand” makes me want to throw something.
I know I'm on thin ice here, because frankly I'm as middle class as they come. I've never slept a night without a roof except that one time I went camping, I've never missed a meal except through laziness, I spent a year unemployed but I was well supported by my friends and relatives and live in a country with an adequate (if not generous) benefits system. I have, however, read a great many first-hand descriptions of real poverty from people who really haven't know where their next meal is coming from. Kvothe's life is nothing like the lives of those people, and barring the (extremely forced) homeless sequence in book one, it never has been. Kvothe does not read like a poor man who is forced to scrabble for every penny just to pay for life's necessities, he reads like a middle class kid who is jealous of the fact that his rich friends have better toys than he does. It wouldn't be a problem on its own, but the smug, sanctimonious insistence that I “cannot understand” his plight because I have “never known poverty” made me want to scream. No, I haven't known poverty, but Kvothe isn't poor, he's just not rich.
Sorry, that rant's been waiting for two years.
The second thing that annoyed me about the Imre sections was – well it wasn't really a feature of the Imre sections themselves, so much as the way they were resolved and led into the next bit of the plot. Kvothe's university shenanigans go on for a long time. Like I say, this is a long book. A long, long book. Again (I have mentioned this before, I will mention this again) the book spends eleven chapters describing how Kvothe totally got to score with a hot chick. It's long. It's wordy. The author bio on the inside back cover describes Patrick Rothfuss as somebody who “loves words, laughs often, and refuses to dance” and he seems to have chosen to demonstrate his love of words by including a great many superfluous ones.
The Imre section ends with Kvothe being put on trial for malfeasance (using magic for harm), and Kvothe pointedly refuses to discuss it despite the fact that (according to the Chronicler) it's a major part of his legend. This didn't bother me so much since I was pretty sure a long courtroom sequence would be deathly dull. Then, however, he gets an offer of patronage from the Maer of Vint, which requires him to take leave of the University and undergo a hazardous journey to a foreign kingdom. Here is how this journey is handled in the book:
Several unfortunate complications arose during the trip.
In brief there was a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order. It also goes without saying that I did a great many things, some heroic, some ill-advised, some clever and audacious.
Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man's shoes and recited poetry. The last should demonstrate more than all the rest how truly desperate my situation became.
However, as these events have little to with the heart of the story, I must pass them over in favour of more important things. Simply said, it took me sixteen days to reach Severen. A bit longer than I had planned, but at no point during my journey was I ever bored.
Now okay, I get it. I really do. Because this is a serious fantasy novel which deconstructs genre conventions and plays with your expectations Rothfuss is deliberately glossing over a segment in Kvothe's life which, in a lesser novel, would be highlighted. I get it. I even get that because Kvothe is narrating the whole novel in first person, his choice to skip over this section reveals something about his character, both his jaded unwillingness to revel in tales of adventure and his almost childlike delight in subverting the expectations of Bast and the Chronicler (which parallel Rothfus' delight in subverting the expectations of his intended audience oh do you see how many levels this works on).
This section appears on page three hundred and sixty five. It comes at the end of three hundred and sixty four pages which have been taken up with scenes where Kvothe converses with infuriatingly quirky girls (all of whom are hot), or infuriatingly eccentric old men (none of whom are hot), or with sequences which rehash plot threads which were already covered in the first book, or with endless conversations in which Kvothe engages in self-indulgent wordplay with either a hot quirky girl or an eccentric old man. I'm sorry but you do not get to bore my tits off with trivialities for three hundred and sixty pages (for those of you keeping score at home that's twenty pages more than the entirety of The God of Small Things) and then score points by not describing a sequence of events that might have actually included some incident.
Also: funnily enough, I have no idea why a sequence in which Kvothe escapes from pirates has “nothing to do with the heart of the story” when a sequence in which he talks to an annoying quirky girl, or one in which he wanders around the Archives for ages finding no interesting or useful information, or one in which invents a new machine for catching arrows, or a scene where a hot woman offers him sex and a fortune in return for access to the Archives and he refuses, or a scene where he shows how totally awesome at playing music he is, or yet more of his pointless back-and-forthing with Ambrose, or any of the other things which take up the first third of the book are somehow totally vital to it.
This is because I have no idea what the heart of the story is or is supposed to be, and I am pretty sure I will have no way of knowing what the heart of the story was supposed to be until the last page of the last volume. I mean as I understood it the story was supposed to be about Kvothe's pursuit of the Chandrian, and how his chasing legends ultimately led him to become a legend, but all I got in the first three hundred and sixty four pages of The Wise Man's Fear was minutiae and pointless worldbuilding. If Kvothe wanted to focus on the heart of the story, he could have summed up half of the first book and a third of the second as “I went to the University looking for information about the Chandrian, but I didn't find any.”
After Kvothe arrives in Vintas, things actually get a lot better (at least for a while) and I found myself getting back into the swing of things. I could have done without his having arrived penniless, necessitating yet another sequence in which Kvothe tricks his way into the towers of the great with nothing but the clothes on his back and his native wit but it's all dealt with fairly quickly and Kvothe's interactions with the court of the Maer of Vint are relatively well done (although once again, it basically consists of Kvothe being amazing at everything, and all the people who matter deciding that they will immediately like, trust, and respect him because of his obvious natural superiority – sorry this was in fact the section I liked, I just really think it's important to remember that Kvothe's social interactions make Bella Swan look well articulated).
In Vintas, Kvothe does many great things for the Maer, including helping him win the heart of his intended bride, which he manages to do perfectly despite the fact that at this stage in his life one of Kvothe's vanishingly small number of weaknesses is a complete unfamiliarity with romance and an inability to deal with women.
Kvothe's final service for the Maer of Vint is to go north with a motley band of mercenaries and sort out some bandits. This they do, chiefly because Kvothe is able to call down lightning from the sky and kill a whole bunch of them. Now in the previous book Kvothe is remembered as calling down lightning from the sky, when what he really does is throw some flashpowder at some people. This provided a nice illustration of the book's central ideas about the difference between myth and reality and the way tales grow in the telling. In the bandit encounter in book two, Kvothe really does just blow them all up with a lightning bolt. Now yes, it takes a lot out of him and yes, he actually does it using “sympathy” not what Kvothe thinks of as “real” magic but since to a real-world reader as well as to pretty much everybody in the actual setting, sympathy is real magic anyway, the distinction is somewhat lost.
On the way back from his victory over the bandits, Kvothe encounters Felurian.
Oh Felurian. Where to begin.
Felurian is that staple of fantasy novels, the deadly naked sex monster. She's the most beautiful, most alluring, most sexually attractive woman you'll ever see, and she will totally kill you with sex.
Felurian is the sirens, and Artemis and pretty much every other sex-death-nudity chick from mythology or fiction rolled into one. Kvothe catches her, bones her, breaks free of her sex-death-nudity mind control, completely whips her ass in a straight fight, then bones her again, then plays music that makes her think he's awesome, then writes half a song about her that is so awesome that she agrees to let him go so that he can finish it, then disses her sexual prowess, which prompts her to get really insecure and tell him what an amazing lover he is, then they have sex some more, then she sews him a magic cloak, while he goes away and talks to a prophetic tree which turns out to be evil.
Then they have sex some more, then he comes back to the real world and is all “bros, I totally did it with Felurian” and everybody is all like “no way, you'd be mad or dead” and he's like “no I totally did it with Felurian” and then the hot barmaid from earlier is all like “no he's definitely telling the truth because I am a woman and I can see that he has got totally sexed up since we last met, because I tried to sex him and it freaked him out, but now it looks like he wouldn't be freaked out and also he would be totally awesome at sexing.” Then Kvothe does sex with the hot barmaid and he is totally awesome at it, and he explains how doing sex with the hot barmaid is totally as good as doing sex with Felurian, because women are like music and sometimes you want to listen to a beautiful symphony and sometimes you just want a nice simple jig, and by the way this definitely isn't sexist, and if you think it is then you know nothing about music or love or him.
This last line, apart from being switched from the first to the third person, is a direct quote from the book.
So yeah, Felurian.
I should repeat that apart from a few misgivings, the Vintas segments of The Wise Man's Fear did actually convince me that I'd misjudged the book, that pacing issues aside it was going to turn out okay. The Felurian section convinced me that what I was dealing with was the worst kind of third-rate wish-fulfilment crap.
Here is the exchange between Kvothe and Felurian after he finishes his half-finished song (a song, I should add, which is included in full in the text, and which both Kvothe and Felurian describe as having beautiful words – a claim I would hesitate to make about anything I had written myself, particularly if it was incidental music for my fantasy novel):
Some of the fire left her, but when she found her voice it was tight and dangerous. “my skills 'suffice'?” She hardly seemed able to force out the last word. Her mouth formed a thin, outraged line.
I exploded, my voice a roll of thunder. “How the hell am I supposed to know? It's not like I've ever done this sort of thing before!”
She reeled back at the vehemence of my words, some of the anger draining out of her. “what is it you mean?” she trailed off, confused.
“This!” I gestured awkwardly at myself, at her, at the cushions and the pavilion around us, as if that explained everything.
The last of the anger left her as I saw realization begin to dawn, “you...”
“No,” I looked down, my face growing hot. “I have never been with a woman.” Then I straightened and looked her in the eye as if challenging her to make an issue of it.”
Felurian was still for a moment, then let her mouth turn up into a wry smile. “you tell me a faerie story, my kvothe.”
I felt my face go grim. I don't mind being called a liar. I am. I am a marvellous liar. But I hate being called a liar when I'm telling the perfect truth.
Regardless of my motivation, my expression seemed to convince her. “but you were like a gentle summer storm.” She made a fluttering gesture with a hand. “you were a dancer fresh upon the field.” Her eyes glittered wickedly.
That's right, Kvothe was so amazing at doing sex that the ancient sex goddess of sex and death was actually unable to believe that he was a virgin because he was so amazing at doing sex.
Once again, I say this. The next time you hear anybody complain about the fact that – in certain popular novels targeted at young women – hundred year old vampires fall for sixteen year old schoolgirls, point out to them that in one of the most critically acclaimed fantasy novels of the twenty-first century a faery creature of unbridled sexual potency, as ancient as time itself, who lures men to their deaths with her irresistible beauty and insatiable lovemaking has her mind blown by the sexual prowess of a sixteen year old virgin.
There is a part of me, a tiny part, which respects the sheer brass bollocks of this. Not only does Kvothe get to live out the adolescent fantasy of being taught how to be amazing at sex by a fantastically hot older woman (and I understand and appreciate this fantasy, and don't think there's anything wrong with it – adolescent fantasies are important, even for grownups, hell that's why I play RPGs and read genre fiction) but said hot older woman takes the time out at the start of the whole sequence to make it very clear both to him and to the reader that he was already amazing at sex and that all her tuition will be doing is making him even more amazing at sex.
Also what is up with her not using capitalization. What does that even sound like?
As part of the Felurian interlude Kvothe encounters a prophetic tree, which Bast interrupts the story to tell us is the most dangerous thing ever because it has absolute knowledge of the future and is utterly malicious, and therefore if you encounter it your every action will bring nothing but destruction (this is clearly a nonsensical idea, and is dropped into the middle of the text without ceremony or foreshadowing and I have no idea if we're even supposed to take it seriously). The whole faery interlude just came so totally out of left field and turned the story on its head in ways that felt annoying and unsatisfying. It introduced a whole bunch of concepts that didn't really have any buildup, and it transformed Kvothe's story from a story about a clever, resourceful man whose reputation grew far beyond the reality to the story of a man who really was just all that and a bag of chips. Suddenly he went from being somebody who did great things, and to whom legendary powers were attributed, to somebody who really did just have access to ancient powerful magic for no clear reason.
To put it another way, at the start of this review, I quoted the “I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings...” section from the first book. In The Name of the Wind we see that when Kvothe “burned down the town of Trebon” what really happened was that the town was burned down by a rampaging Draccus (a creature which itself was the mundane source of a fantastical rumour) while Kvothe was in the area for other reasons. This engaged cleverly with the novel's central themes.
In The Wise Man's Fear we deal with the “I have spent the night with Felurian” section of the speech. Unlike the town of Trebon, where the truth behind the story is both more mundane and more interesting than the version that is repeated in legend, the story of Kvothe's night with Felurian is just – well – exactly what it says on the tin. There's no clever twist or double meaning, no unexpected subversion of our expectations. He just really did do something which he totally shouldn't have been able to do, and looked awesome while doing it, and got to have loads of sex with a really really hot woman who by the way thought he was awesome at sex. It's not clever, it's not illuminating, it's just pathetic.
I really do think that the Felurian sequence broke the book for me. Part of this is that my perception of Kvothe and the text in general shifted so fundamentally after the utterly facepalm-worthy faery sequence. Part of it is that once he's been initiated into the mysteries of womanhood by Felurian, Kvothe suddenly starts to have a whole lot of sex.
Once Kvothe has been taught to be awesome at sex by Felurian (but just so it's clear, he was already awesome at sex, this is very important) he then gets taught to be awesome at fighting. Thus becoming the best man ever.
In the world of the Kingkiller Chronicles there exists a kingdom (or an area of land at least) called Ademre. Ademre is one of those spurious fantasy cultures that seems to have a totally martial-arts based economy. They follow a philosophical thingy called “the Lethani” and study awesome martial arts that, of course, make them better at fighting than everybody else in the world. They then go into the world as mercenaries where they make a fortune being awesome at fighting, most of which they send back to their homeland, where it goes to support their otherwise extremely poor countrymen.
Kvothe travels with an Adem mercenary as part of his work for the Maer of Vint and, because everybody who meets Kvothe either takes an instant irrational dislike to him or treats him like he's the most important person in the universe, this mercenary initiates Kvothe into the secrets of the Lethani, and begins to instruct him in Adem martial techniques. It is worth pointing out at this point that doing either of these things is about the most horrific cultural taboo his society has, and is punishable by death or excommunication from the Adem (which the Adem, being the Noble Warrior Culture naturally consider to be a fate far worse than death).
The Adem discover that Kvothe has been taught their secrets, and he and his mercenary friend are summoned to Ademre to face judgement. They talk to Kvothe and he impresses them with how completely awesome he is and how he totally groks the Lethani even though he was only introduced to the concept about three weeks ago.
So because it's totally forbidden to share the secrets of the Lethani with people outside the Adem, but because Kvothe is apparently totally “of the Lethani” because he totally understands what this complicated philosophical concept is all about because of how awesome he is the only option that the Adem have open to them is to teach Kvothe to be totally awesome at fighting.
The Adem, as it turns out, have a matriarchal society, for which Rothfuss scores precisely one point (he did not, at least, assume that it was impossible for women to have a prominent role in a warrior culture). He promptly loses that point for explaining that the reason the Adem have a matriarchal society is that their martial art is all about control and women are so much calmer and more sensible than men, because men are just so aggressive.
It also turns out that the Adem have no cultural taboos about nudity or sex. This of course leads to an intricate and profoundly well realised exploration of the ways in which our cultural notions of … oh who am I kidding. This is an excuse for Kvothe to have sex with a bunch of hot women who want to have sex with him because he is so awesome. Also there are no STDs in their culture because they all have sex with each other all the time, and obviously if your culture is based on rampant unprotected sex, it must be impossible for anybody in your culture to get an STD, because then STDs would spread around your population really fast, and obviously that couldn't happen, so they must all just be totally disease free. QED. Just to be clear, I'm not extrapolating here, this is exactly how it is explained as working in the book. At no point does Kvothe ever receive a sexual proposition from anybody he does not find attractive, and there is no engagement at all with the question of homosexuality.
So Kvothe gets taught to be awesome at fighting. To be fair, he does very clearly wind up being much less good at fighting than any of the actual Adem, there's a comedy sequence in which he gets his ass handed to him by a ten year old girl (although I kind of felt that this undermined the earlier point about how women in Ademre are better fighters than men – because we're clearly supposed to find the fact that Kvothe is beaten up by a girl funny and faintly emasculating, which makes the Adem's supposed respect for women warriors ring rather hollow). At the same time it's very clear that his two months of training in Ademre are going to make him better at fighting than anybody he is ever actually likely to get into a fight with, except for supernatural beings.
I think what bugged me most about the Ademre section was that it felt like this entire culture existed purely to provide an excuse for Kvothe to get good at fighting. These people who are utterly mistrustful of outsiders, incredibly paranoid about their secrets, and grounded in a social and philosophical ideals that Kvothe clearly finds completely alien never the less happily teach him their greatest secrets and formally initiate him into their society, and they do all of this despite the fact that he never shows even the slightest sign of having internalized (or even of remotely respecting) the ideals of the Adem. He never, for example, seems to get over his habit of assuming that women are inherently less capable fighters than men (he feels particularly embarrassed at being beaten up by a young girl and later on he massacres a group of bandits and feels particularly guilty about the fact that they had two women with them).
To put it another way, the overwhelming impression I got from The Name of the Wind was that while over the course of the novel, Kvothe acquired a great many skills, he didn't actually learn anything. He acquires awesome sex skills from Felurian, but doesn't learn anything about interacting with women except how to get what he wants out of them. He acquires awesome martial-arts skills from the Adem, but doesn't learn to really appreciate or understand their culture (except insofar as he comes to appreciate the benefits of being surrounded by hot women who treat sex as little more than a handshake). He doesn't really grow or change or develop in any meaningful way, he just gets more powerful – he's like the protagonist in a CRPG: he wanders around doing arbitrary-seeming quests and unlocking more powers. In every meaningful sense, the Kvothe who returns from Ademre at the end of The Wise Man's Fear is exactly the same as the Kvothe who was homeless on the streets of Tarbean in The Name of the Wind.
Something I've avoided talking about thus far is Denna. Denna is Kvothe's love interest.
I'm really not sure what to say about Denna. Kvothe meets her early in the first book, and then she's in and out of his life like the wind (oh do you see). Kvothe's love for Denna is pretty much his biggest drive in the book – even more so than his pursuit of the Chandrian, which is frankly lacklustre at times. Basically it's your traditional Nice Guy Protagonist in love with Mysterious High Class Prostitute story – it's sort of like Moulin Rouge or Mal/Inara in Firefly. They have lots of conversations in which she tells him how much she values him and how brilliant it is that he isn't like other guys who just want to control her and tie her down, and Kvothe spends a lot of time narrating to himself how brilliant it is that he isn't like other guys who just want to control Denna and tie her down. Meanwhile he spends the majority of his free time fantasising about how great it could be if he could control her and tie her down.
Okay, that's slightly unfair, but only slightly. In this type of narrative in general, the mistake writers wind up making is always in presenting the problem as strategic in nature. Try to tie the girl down, and she'll run away, so it's more practical to take a softly-softly approach so that you can get what you want. The notion that what the girl herself wants might enter into the equation is always rather a side issue. It is taken for granted that Kvothe will only be able to truly “be with” Denna if he can get her to stop running and stay with him – he never even considers the possibility that they could have a relationship in which she simply retains the independence she seems to value so highly.
I don't think the Denna thing would bother me if it weren't for the fact that Rothfuss' women are so uniformly … fneh. Pre-Felurian, they're basically all desexualised and childlike (like Auri, the quirky pixie girl who lives in the Underthing) or else Mysterious Gatekeepers Of The Mystic Lands of The Sex (like Fela, Devi, and all of the other hot women who fancy Kvothe without him realizing). Post-Felurian, the Mystery has gone out of the non-childlike women, but the Gatekeepers of the Lands of The Sex they remain.
I don't want to make too big a thing out of this (particularly since if I did this would apparently be evidence that I knew nothing about music, or love, or Patrick Rothfuss) The Kingkiller Chronicles is just generally not great for women. It has a fair few female characters in it who are interesting, but their interestingness is somewhat undermined by their total obsession with (which always includes sexual interest in) Kvothe.
In Conclusion: Follow Through
The Kingkiller Chronicles is a serious Fantasy series for serious Fantasy readers. I know it is, because it keeps telling me it is.
Each volume opens and closes with a section called A Silence of Three Parts, this chapter is always slightly different, but it always ends with the following line:
It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.
It's this line that sets my expectations for the series. It will be serious, it will be melancholy, it will chart the tragedy of a man who did great and terrible things.
But it has no follow through.
So he gets expelled from the university, but it in no way stops him accessing the university. He's poor, but never so poor that he can't afford everything he could possibly need. He's of low birth, but nobody who isn't clearly evil reacts badly to him because of it. He wanders blithely into faerie and is none the worse for wear. He encounters a society in which everybody has casual, unprotected sex with everybody else, and this apparently creates a society completely free of sexually transmitted diseases. He rescues two girls from a gang of rapists, and briefly muses that they will now be unable to find husbands, but when he returns them to their home village virtually everybody expresses a twenty-first century, non-victim-blaming attitude.
The Wise Man's Fear is nine hundred and ninety four pages of setup, foreshadowing and copout. Kvothe wanders a world which exists only as a backdrop for him, and interacts with people who exist only to flatter him (either with their irrational hatred or their equally irrational adoration). It is a shallow, superficial text pandering to shallow, superficial fantasies. If it was three hundred pages shorter, and less portentously written, I'd recommend it unreservedly as a way to indulge your inner fourteen-year-old.
I have no doubt that The Wise Man's Fear will take its place alongside The Name of the Wind in the canon of modern Fantasy. I'll just sit here with my palm over my face.