This is a debut book, and inevitably the first in a trilogy ('The Kingkiller Chronicles'), by this author, and it is quite stunning. It is focused quite tightly on just one character, for it is his story, told largely in autobiographical form, from the perspective of a point in his life when he is still relatively young but has already become something of a legend.
Unlike many fantasy books, the reader is not dropped headfirst into a morass of names and places and customs. Rather it builds very gently and precisely, a step at a time, as Kvothe tells his story, and the other countries, languages and beliefs are simply there, an occasional reference tossed out to whet the appetite. Because of this, the book seems quite slow to get going, and there are places where it almost begins to drag.
But about halfway through, when Kvothe reaches the University, the pace picks up and the book becomes totally absorbing and hard to put down. There are a couple of passages which are quite breathtaking, and even the slowest parts have a wonderful eloquence. There is a brilliant clarity in the writing, which is unusually poetic in nature, comparable to the best Tolkein passages, and vastly better than the average for this type of work.
This is not a swords and sorcery all-action story, but nevertheless there is enough excitement to keep things bubbling along. The magic is a feature, of course, but it never acts as a deus ex machina. In fact, when it is used, it is possible to see the carefully placed trail of clues which led to it, so that we always understand exactly what has happened.
The story is complete enough to read on its own, but inevitably there are mysteries and hints about the events of the subsequent books. The author has achieved such a high standard with this first book, however, that it is hard to see how he can possibly repeat the feat twice more. If he can, the series will be quite outstanding. [First written in February 2011]