Book Review: Female Power in The Wise Man’s Fear

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Spoilers!

It didn’t take me long to go looking again for Kvothe, the red-headed lutist of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. I had been somewhat blinded to my fondness for this protagonist by my love of Rothfuss’ artistry, but I found myself missing them both after some time away, and Kvothe much more than I would have expected.

I had been warned that I wouldn’t enjoy the second book in the series as much as I had the first. Kvothe remains in many ways naïve throughout The Name of the Wind, an underdog fighting to play in the same field as older, richer men, ready to believe the best of others on the fringes of society and the worst of those who move at the highest tiers.

The Wise Man’s Fear sees Kvothe ousted from that field and sent to try his tongue on foreign soil. The majority of the book is spent exploring other and Other cultures within the world created by Rothfuss.

Kvothe’s first journey by sea, a journey involving “a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order” is given one full page of text (403-404), and then we land in Vintas, where a once more penniless Kvothe is to meet with a man richer than his king. Unwilling to long support himself by the means of street living with which he is all too familiar, Kvothe bluffs his way to the Maer’s door.

Kvothe then undertakes misadventures of courtly intrigue and faux pas, learning and enlightening us to the intricacies of Vintish culture.

When Kvothe has all but outlived his usefulness to the Maer, he is sent on a fool’s errand, which though more difficult and dangerous than anyone had expected, Kvothe manages spectacularly to complete despite poor circumstances.

On this errand with him is an Adem mercenary, who begins Kvothe’s instruction in Ademic culture—which is interrupted by an encounter with a Fae known to lure men away for intercourse, during which they succumb to either death or insanity.

The second half of this book, alongside its exploration of the Other, specifically explores the ideas of female power in its many and varied forms. The Fae Felurian represents and embodies the female sexual power. She possesses a strange magic that Kvothe hopes to learn and which he temporarily bests through Naming. In besting Felurian, Kvothe earns the right to learn about her powers, both Faen and sexual. Felurian does not learn from him, and so Kvothe’s power is increased while Felurian’s remains static.

Upon returning from this tryst, Kvothe finds himself compelled to follow Tempi to Ademre, where the two are immediately parted and Kvothe made to defend himself by learning the ways of the Adem and particularly of the Adem mercenaries. Rothfuss here shows readers another form of female power. The best Adem warriors are women because women are less often led by anger or impatience and are better at “knowing when to fight” (849). Again Kvothe learns while his female instructors do not.

The power of procreation for the Adem is further purely female. The Adem do not believe that men are involved in procreation. In our culture, historically, much of a woman’s power and value have been derived from her ability to birth children but that power has been limited because of a woman’s dependence upon a man to do so. That power in Ademre is unlimited, and what’s more men depend on women not only for their own birth but also for the continuation of the culture. The Ademic culture then is similar to the early matriarchal, mother-goddess cultures that I have heard postulated, where women are believed to be the sole progenitors and derive their power from this, sort of taking the patriarchal demotion of women as sex objects and turning it into a promotion.

Much of Kvothe’s increased power during the course of The Wise Man’s Fear has, then, come from female instructors and in his acceptance of the female powers offered to him, which might be another paper in itself.

Within The Kingkiller Chronicles so far, Rothfuss has mainly presented a world in which the greatest female power is sexual. However, while almost all of his female characters have presented sexual interest in one male figure or another, few have possessed merely sexual power. There are strong and wise fighters like the Adem and clever survivors like Auri and Devi, and intelligent scholars and craftsmen like Fela and other female university students.

Denna of course embodies for Kvothe the ideal woman. She is one of only a few women who do not advance on Kvothe sexually, and Kvothe is clever enough not to ask or demand her sexual favor. She is in many ways unattainable to Kvothe because he has seen her flee from the sexual advances of other men, but Denna certainly knows how to use her sexuality, so she is powerful in that right. Perhaps she is desirable for being powerful but unattainable. In a story arc that comprises almost wholly of Kvothe’s struggles to attain knowledge and through knowledge power, that interpretation makes a lot of sense.

On the whole, I’m not sure that I can call Rothfuss’ presentation of the female “feminist” in the same way that I can some of George R. R. Martin’s characters or Patricia C. Wrede’s Cimorene, and I wish that I could, because Rothfuss treads near a feminist perspective in this book especially.

****1/2

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day Two: The Wise Man’s Fear. New York: DAW-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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