I am trying to figure out what this book is missing for me. There's nothing that makes me angry about it, there's plenty to like. And yet, still, although I read it and mostly enjoyed it, the first half of the book is already fading in my mind, and I don't see any reason to ever re-read it. I'll probably read the rest in the series, and this is perfectly competent fantasy. It's just not...enough.
I've been worrying this over in my mind, trying to pinpoint why I say that. The dialogue is good. The characters are often really good. The overall plot seemed very generic fantasy, but well-done.
Maybe it's this: I didn't get a distinctive voice out of the author. Not enough of one, anyway, to make this book stand out against the amount of fantasy I've been reading these days. With four or five fantasies under my belt in the last little while, there is a serious danger of them all blurring together, unless the author has a strong voice and something unique he or she wants to do.
And I think that's the problem here. This is good, it is competent, but when read in the midst of a fantasy binge, it is not distinct enough to stand out.
The kingdom of the Union has been held for some time. But there are encroachments from the north and possibly, the south. The new "King in the North" (which sounds way too George R.R. Martin to me) wants Angland. And is invading. The bureaucracy in the main city of the Union has grown complacent, corrupt, and power-hungry, so they really don't want to hear this.
The not-wanting-to-hear-this is enforced by Glokta, an Inquisitor who was himself horribly tortured during the last war. That has given him no compunction about torturing in turn.
Into this city comes a man saying he is the centuries-old First Mage. He has a huge savage-looking Northman with him. The inquisitor is given the task of exposing him. (As readers, we already know that he is who he says he is - would it have been more interesting to have that be an actual mystery?) Along for the ride is the puffed young noble who will be competing in the fencing competition.
Turns out the Mage is gathering a group to go to the end of the world, including the Northman, the puffed young noble, an apprentice, an explorer, and Ferro.
Ferro is where this book comes closest to bringing something new to the party. She is a former slave. Her anger knows no bounds, and killing everyone in the society that enslaved her might slake her vengeance, for a start. She's also pursued by malevolent forces. This voice is interesting, her fixation on revenge, her absolute hatred, and belief in herself.
They leave on the quest at the end of the first book. All the characters are interesting by this point, but the story hasn't grabbed me. Still, that's enough to keep me reading from here.