Patrick Rothfuss is an astoundingly talented writer and his Kingkiller Chronicle books are excellent for many reasons. When I read the first book in the series, The Name of the Wind, I was taken by the characters. Most of his characters seem archetypal and two-dimensional at first, but once you get to know them they start to show some depth. Now that I've finished the second book, The Wise Man's Fear, I am utterly entranced by the world he has built and the cultures who inhabit it.
In the first book, the world wasn't fleshed out, other than the University and the city of Tarbean. The Wise Man's Fear, though, shows a much broader swathe of the world, as Kvothe travels, and the cultures he unveils are rich with brilliant details. I wonder if Rothfuss has ever studied anthropology or world cultures, because there are many little things that are just exquisite.
About halfway through the book, Kvothe travels to the faraway land of Vint in search of a patron. Vint seems more like the old Eastern Europe of Rothfuss's world - people are more superstitious and the nobility retains much more power than in the more Western parts of the continent. More Russia or Poland to the University's Renaissance Italy. Vint isn't the best fleshed out culture in the book (more on that later), but there were some beguiling customs that made it seem real.
I was particularly impressed by the custom of ring-giving. Every Vintish noble keeps a stock of rings made of different metals. When a noble wishes to summon a commoner or someone whom he views of being of lesser status, he dispatches a servant with a note and an iron ring. The recipient then can keep and display the ring. When a noble corresponds with an equal or someone of unknown status, he sends a silver ring. To humbly entreat one's betters, a gold ring is sent. Rothfuss also shows the elaborate etiquette and customs that have grown up around this ring-giving culture. Later in the story, Kvothe is given a ring of bone and another of wood that signify radically different things.
The real star of the show is the land of Ademre, inhabited by the Adem, a race of blonde martial artists. It sounds like it would be a cheap expy of medieval East Asia, but the more we learn about the Adem, the more original they become.
The first Adem whom Kvothe meets, Tempi, is a blank-faced and inscrutable, even rude, mercenary. His people are rumored to be given their superb fighting abilities by their silence. They are said to keep their words inside, so that their unspoken words act as fuel. As Kvothe and Tempi travel together, Kvothe instead learns that, among the Adem, speaking too much or displaying facial expressions is considered rude and barbaric. Instead, the Adem express most of their emotions, along with nuances of meaning, with an elaborate and subtle system of hand gestures.
When Kvothe travels to Adem to study from Tempiâ€™s mistress, he learns that all Adem are devoted to the study of a truth called lethani. Over time, Kvothe and the reader learn the truth behind the cryptic lethani, and it makes the code of Bushido look boorish by comparison.
The Adem are wholly imagined by Rothfuss, down to exquisite little details. Everything about them, from their eating habits to their attitudes toward sex, are not only described, but they fit into a coherent framework that makes them seem not just real, but plausible. Itâ€™s the depth of his imagination displayed in this book that makes me believe that, one day soon, Rothfuss will stand as an equal along Tolkien and Martin.