The first relatively new fantasy I have read in what feels like forever. I kept putting it down for some reason, but I finally finished it last night. Definitely an interesting book, though I didn't find it flawless.
The characters are the standout feature of this series for me so far. The setting is fine, the dialog is mostly very good, very occasionally slides into didacticism, the plot I'll get to later in this post. The action scenes are, as one of the blurbs promised, excellent. The people are occasionally frustrating, but on the whole they reward patience.
They are not uncomplicated, and that is a very good thing and, I think, difficult to pull off. Logen is easily the most sympathetic of the main characters--the barbarian warrior grown philosophical and somewhat ashamed of his life's path--but that past can't be disowned, and by the end of the book we've seen just how well-deserved is his epithet of "the Bloody-Nine." His little band are somewhat heavily painted with the Noble Savage palette--violent, dangerous men, but who at least live according to some code--and therefore rather show up most of the Union characters. Logen appears to be the only main character who possesses something like a normal sense of humor, which goes a long way toward making him likeable.
Jezal is the hardest for me to put up with; he's vain, shallow, and arrogant, and his only good quality seems to be that he's occasionally aware that he's lacking in quality, which gives one some hope that he'll improve over the series. (This morning I listened to a few chapters of Persuasion on the treadmill; he would have fit perfectly into the Austen milieu of petty, self-obsessed nobility.) Making his love interest a much more interesting character is a bit of a dangerous move, but it does give him something to strive for, and just when you thought his associate West was all Boy Scout, he goes and proves just how wrong that idea was. I'm hoping that Jezal will interact more productively with the other characters in the second book, perhaps grow a sense of perspective.
Glokta is downright fascinating. The smartest character in the cast (with the possible exception of Bayaz), he's an extremely ambiguous figure at this point. The slight softening of his character at the end of the first book was entirely surprising, but it's difficult to take him at face value, and one wonders whether emotion ever has a chance of trumping his survival instinct. His repeated wondering about his own motives got under my skin; for someone so keenly perceptive about humanity, and so evidently self-aware, to not be sure why he's doing what he's doing seems out of place to me. I expect that eventually we'll get an answer; I just hope that it lives up to the long tease. The deftly drawn internal politics of the Inquisition are one of the best parts of the book, I think. I also hope that at some point we get to see someone beat the living daylights out of Severard.
Maljinn is introduced later than the other viewpoint characters, and though it seems like she will have an important role, is something of a cypher at this point. I was surprised when she showed up, the book up to that point having a strongly male cast. I don't need female protagonists to enjoy a novel, and the society is reasonably realistic in its androcentrism, so I wouldn't have minded either way. I did find myself at one point wondering what GM allowed such a blatantly munchkined-out character into the campaign; so far her role has been to kick copious amounts of ass and be hinted about mysteriously.
There were a few things that niggled at me. Around 3/4 through I found myself thinking that he was being a bit too heavy-handed setting up the socio-political situation in the Union (see TV Tropes), to the point where at one point I sighed and went Yes, I remember that history class from my sophomore year. Get ON with it. Another niggle has to do with the map. There is no actual map in this book, but there is an extensive canvas and, as The Tough Guide to Fantasyland promises, we are obviously going to visit every. Last. Corner. of it. (The Tough Guide is hysterical, btw, and useful if you have ever thought about writing fantasy.)
The third problem is the plot. There is an insane amount of stuff going on here, and my fear as I finished up this volume is that it's all going to spin out of control. There's a double threat from the north in the form of Bethod and the Shanka, and from the south in the form of the Empire and this Prophet who is evidently their motivator. As presented so far, it's dubious as to whether the Union is worth saving; the lords are abusing the peasantry and oppressing the rising merchant class, the merchants are conniving against everyone, and the peasantry are being shipped off to be slaughtered by the northern aggressors. The Inqusition is running its own schemes. There are evil magic-users all over the place (I love the concept and portrayal of the Eaters), and they seem to know more about what's going on than we do.
Then at the end there's the whole mysterious business with Bayaz and the Seed, and suddenly most of the main characters are going off on a sea voyage that seems to be only loosely connected to what has happened so far. Half of this would have been enough to keep most people busy for three books. I'll have to pick up the next one and see where this goes.