Normally I try to include some brief, spoiler-free information explaining at least the basic premise of a book for the benefit of people who are unfamiliar with it, but sometimes it’s difficult to do that for epic fantasy books. This book draws you into a well-developed world, following a variety of characters, with a variety of separate events slowly building up to a larger picture. If I tried to explain what it was about, I’d spoil the fun for any potential readers of seeing that larger picture develop for themselves. I’ll just describe the setting a bit generically, and not attempt to explain much about the story itself at all. Since this is a very character-driven book, I’ll talk more about the characters and my reactions to them than anything else.
The story takes place in a fictional world with different territories populated by different human cultures. The story focuses primarily on people living in or visiting the territory in the middle of the known world, sandwiched between enemies to the north and the south. Meanwhile, they have plenty of internal problems and political intrigue with people vying for power and trying to accomplish their own agendas. Magic definitely exists in this book, but it’s pretty rare as far as the common people are concerned. There are also brief hints of the paranormal, but no fantastical creatures so far.
This is more of a gritty, realistic-type of fantasy story. The world-building is done very well. I feel like I have a good picture of the world, and at no point did I get bogged down in details. There is plenty of violence, and our main characters are flawed individuals. Some of them are very flawed! We primarily follow three characters, but we occasionally read from other perspectives and of course there are a variety of additional supporting characters. The characters were all pretty distinctive and easy to keep straight. They weren’t all very likeable, but they were all interesting to read about.
The most annoying main character was Jezal. He’s a young noble who generally sees himself as superior to everyone around him. The way he looked at and treated other people really got on my nerves sometimes, but there were occasional hints that he’s capable of more depth and I expect he has some eye-opening adventures in store for him. Inquisitor Glokta was another main character who wasn’t particularly likeable. Before the beginning of the book, he had been through a lot of hardships and physical torture and he’s very bitter and jaded. Sometimes I found him a sympathetic character and other times I wanted to shake him.
Logen was my favorite of the main characters. He has a violent past, and he’s certainly no angel, but I saw him as the more rational and good-hearted of the main characters. The chapters that focused on his part of the story were the ones I enjoyed the most. He had some funny scenes with a minor character named Malacus Quai, and I would have enjoyed more of that. Quai seemed like he was going to be an interesting character at first, but he kind of faded into the background. I’d like to see him play a larger role in the next book.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any women. There really aren’t that many so, if you need your books to have strong female characters, this might not be a good choice for you. Maybe that will change later in the series. There are a couple female characters though, one of whom shows up more often as we approach the end of the book and I expect we’ll see far more of her in the next book. Both of them are strong in some ways, and weak in others, but neither of them seemed that capable of making well-considered, rational decisions. To me, that is an important requirement before I’ll call anybody, female or otherwise, truly “strong”.
I really liked the author’s writing style. Although this book had a primarily darker tone, there was also some humor sprinkled throughout and there were several times that I laughed out loud. I wouldn’t call this a fast-paced book exactly, and there are plenty of moments of character development and introspection, but it has its share of action and I can’t think of a single moment when I felt bored or anxious for the pace to pick up. The main reason I’m not rating this higher is simply because it didn’t take over my life. :) I cared what happened, but not to the point where it became terribly important to me. I enjoyed the story and I looked forward to reading more of it when I was doing other things, but I also found it easy enough to put down.
The book didn’t end with any major cliff hangers, but it definitely was not an ending. None of the main threads were wrapped up. I would love to jump directly into the second book in the series, and normally I would, but first I need to read an unrelated library book that finally came in yesterday.