Look, my first book review for the site; isn't it exciting?
The Blade Itself (The First Law book 1) by Joe Abercrombie
To the north, the barbarian tribes have been united by a ruthless warlord intent on destroying all who oppose him, seemingly unaware that an inhuman army is massing on his borders; to the south, and empire backed by foul magics prepares to extend its territory; and in between, a kingdom ruled by a senile king and wracked with treachery and intrigue. Into this kingdom comes a man claiming to be the ancient wizard Bayaz who disappeared centuries earlier with a promise to one day return and take his seat on the Closed Council. Driven by a hidden agenda, Bayaz draws to himself a strange cadre of characters: Logen Ninefingers, the barbarian warrior driven from his home in the north; Jezal dan Luthen, a foppish noble trying to make a name for himself in the kingdom's annual games; Inquisitor Glokta, a former champion of those selfsame games whose body and soul were crippled years earlier when he was tortured as a prisoner of war, and has now become a torturer himself; and Ferro Maljinn, a bloodthirsty former slave spirited away from the Empire by one of Bayaz's compatriots. What is it about these varied individuals that has drawn Bayaz's interest, and how does it tie into the movements in the north and south?
The first installment of a trilogy, The Blade Itself was a highly engaging read populated with interesting characters, most of whom are enjoyable without being likable: Jezal is narcissistic, misogynistic, classist, and an all around boor; Ferro is paranoid, vicious, and borderline animalistic; Glokta -- my favorite character -- despite engendering sympathy due to his crippled condition, still derives pleasure from his job as torturer, and so on. In fact, even the characters who come off as sensible and likable in the beginning turn out to have some glaring character flaws or dark secrets by the end of the volume. And yet, Abercrombie does such a fine job of crafting these characters that even though I might not like what they're doing, I understood why they're doing it, and so become invested in them. Except Jezal -- never really warmed to him, but I have high hopes that Bayaz's plans for him will cause the character to blossom a bit in the subsequent volumes.
I would gladly recommend The Blade Itself to any fan of fantasy novels, especially those who enjoy complexity of character and plot, and I'm quite looking forward to reading the next installment in the trilogy, Before They Are Hanged.