I'd heard great things about this author in the corners of the internet I frequent, so trying out his new book seemed like a good idea. The beginning didn't grab me, but in the first chapter we meet an acting troupe putting on a play that so cleverly mocks epic fantasy--"despite the actor's warnings [that anything could happen], the good triumphed, the evil were vanquished"--that I was intrigued enough to continue. And so I did, even though as of about halfway through the book I found myself disliking it. Fortunately for me, it's a quick read for 555 pages; there aren't a lot of words on a page.
The story follows four main characters about their lives (in the military, in banking, in court intrigues) as their world seems to be heading toward a major war. Sometime. The relative lack of action didn't bother me so much as the fact that this is by no stretch a standalone book, with its stopping point seeming almost arbitrary. I do think the first book at least in a fantasy series should be able to stand on its own. But there are things of interest in the characters' plotlines; what killed this book for me were the characters themselves.
There are four major POV characters, with the page time divided up more or less equally among them. The level of character development is probably above average for fantasy, and they'd have been fine for an action-packed type of book, but for something slower and more contemplative I was expecting psychological depth more along the lines of what we see in Robin Hobb's books, and there was none of that here.
A couple of mid-book SPOILERS follow.
Marcus is essentially the good-hearted military man with a dead family; nothing new or captivating there.
Dawson is interesting in a meta kind of way. Abraham is trying to play with fantasy's traditional conservatism, and so he gives us a character who might have been a hero in another book: a man who loves his family and is absolutely opposed to the threatened changes in his world. The difference here is that the extreme classism required to uphold a system of "nobles" and "commoners" isn't glossed over; he thinks of those outside of the nobility as "low, small people" who "understood nothing that wasn't put on the table before them." The people he's fighting against support restrictions on slavery and the creation of something analogous to a House of Commons. But while this is clever, I strongly disliked Dawson and so asking me to be in his head for a fourth of the book was a tall order.
Geder is truly awful. His storyline is where the book really lost me. Abraham seems to think a character's ordering 10,000 people slaughtered out of spite makes that character interesting, rather than despicable; he seems to think that if a character who does such a thing also loves his father and is a scholar, that makes him "gray" rather than truly awful. It's a sad reflection on the fantasy genre, with villains who so often are pure evil in every aspect of their lives, that when a character comes along who's about as "gray" as a Nazi commander in real life, some people actually like him. And we spend another fourth of the book with Geder. If there was more narrative awareness of how awful he is I might have hated him less.... but there isn't much, and I've actually read that Abraham sees him as a "sympathetic geek." The idea that an author would expect me to feel sympathy for a mass murderer honestly creeps me out.
Cithrin was the only main character to be both somewhat interesting and somewhat likeable. I did like her storyline; it's about banking and you don't see a lot of that in fantasy, and she certainly breaks the mold of the typical fantasy heroine. Still, she wasn't enough to carry the book by herself.
There aren't nearly as many supporting characters as you'd expect in a multi-POV epic fantasy. Those we do meet are rather flat for the most part, although a few seem interesting. I'd have liked Jorey's POV rather than Dawson's or Geder's; it might have made the book more bearable.
Otherwise, I was not impressed with the book. The world Abraham has created has history, but no culture, no sense of place; he seems to think because it's quasi-European readers can fill in the blanks, rather than his researching interesting aspects of European history or inventing new customs. The writing style is nothing special (at one point he describes the "close-built wooden buildings" of Vanai). The inclusion of thirteen "races" of humanity, some with fur, some with horns, etc., seems extraneous, and they all more or less live together, again, with few hints of any culture. It is nice that there's little magic, and what we do see is unique. But.
In the end, this book had nothing to make it stick out to me. I don't care what happens to these characters and their world in the next book. Abraham has some interesting things to say about the fantasy genre, but it wasn't worth reading a novel for them. Come on, GRRM, I'd have expected better from one of your recommendations.