After reading the reviews, I didn't expect to like this book. I certainly didn't expect to be awed by this book. Now I think the real problem is classification; it's labeled an epic fantasy, but to me that seems a bit like labeling Jane Austen's work historical romance--technically it might be, but it's missing all the elements that genre readers are looking for. Just as Austen's work lacks sex and even kissing, here there is a noticeable absence of epic battles, magical creatures, royalty appearing onstage, and so forth. Many reviewers have said the pace of Shaman's Crossing was slow; I don't think that is the issue (I had trouble putting it down) so much as the dearth of typical fantasy events. In other genres, a lack of battles and special effects doesn't make a book worthless, and I would say Shaman's Crossing reads more like historical fiction (in someone else's world) than your typical fantasy. That's part of why I loved it.
A huge draw for me was the world: rather than yet another medieval/feudal setting, this story is set in an expanding society much like America in the 19th century; the technology level (with guns, factories, and some indoor plumbing) seems to match. The difference is the government, ruled by a king and nobles (much like Europe at the same time), and the society, where men's careers are determined based on birth order and women's roles severely limited. Nevare, the main character, is born second to a noble family and thus destined to join the military, and the book begins with his childhood and details his first semester in a military academy. Others have called him dull, but I found him fascinating because he was so easy to relate to. Where other fantasy heroes are endowed with such inhuman courage that even death doesn't daunt them, Nevare has real, human struggles with issues like hazing and whether to report honor code violations--in short, not typical fantasy fare, but issues many of us have had to face, all dealt with in a thoughtful and realistic manner. Fantasy elements make their appearance in a bizarre indigenous spiritual experience Nevare has as a teenager, which has grave supernatural implications for him later in life. This book drew me in so well with its superb characterization and insights that I didn't need Nevare's predicaments to be life-threatening to interest me; somehow Hobb managed to write about his everyday life so well that it would have sufficed on its own. The biggest problem I had with the book was Nevare's early scene with his fiancée-to-be, where the fact that the author is female was painfully obvious; throughout the rest of the book, though, the male characters seemed completely realistic (at least as far as I can tell!). And there were some continuity errors (i.e. Yaril's color-changing eyes) that a copyeditor should have caught, but nothing major.
In short, if you're looking for standard epic fantasy, this isn't your book; if you're willing to be drawn into a unique, fully-realized world and the life of a mostly ordinary young man, I strongly recommend Shaman's Crossing. As for me, I'm off to get the sequel!
EDIT: The sequels are quite a shift, and I found them disappointing. Shaman's Crossing is perhaps best read as a standalone, and functions well as such.