Northern barbarian Logen Ninefingers tries to stay alive in the wilderness while being pursued by his enemies. When he receives a message that a powerful wizards looks for him, he decides to take a job even without having a clue what the said job is about.
In the southern capital of the Union (this is the name of a kingdom) a crippled inquisitor Glokta does his job - a little too enthusiastically. He used to be a dashing military officer, but several years being a prisoner of war made him practically handicapped with the only good thing that came out of this is his current ability to scare his prisoners by his appearance even before the interrogation.
In the same city a young officer Jezal trains for an upcoming fencing tournament. He does not like the training, but has to take at as his reach father has high hopes for him.
This is how the tale starts. Some more characters introduced later and they and the ones above meet and interact with each other. The first thing noticeable right away is the quality of writing: it really shines and up there with the best examples of fantasy genre. There are no clumsy passages, bad or forced dialogs, and so on. After a while one also notices the quality of written characters. The majority of them feel like real people - they act and talk naturally, even the ones with minimal screen time. I can only think of two exceptions where I felt major characters were somewhat wooden (Major West and his sister), but considering this is only the first book of the trilogy they still have time to develop.
Several other things of note: I finally found a realistic description of absolute monarchy with all its corruption, decadence, and power fights. Utopian absolute monarchy with a nice kind king became a fantasy cliche started by none other than Tolkien, but as the real history shows it is not realistic and never lasts long. I also finally found an ancient great wizard - the greatest living - who shows his humanity and does not behave like a demigod who occasionally teaches mere mortals bits of wisdom; the examples are too numerous: Gandalf, Dambledore, Pug, Ged come to mind right away.
So why 4-star rating then? The book feels like a giant prolog for the things to come. There is a huge buildup, but nothing exciting happens until the last couple of chapters and even then it feels like a warm-up. Glokta keeps doing his routine job, Jezal keeps practicing, etc. I was able to put down this book at any time without any regret. The buildup I mentioned kept me interesting and hopeful; I began reading the second book of the trilogy right away in anticipation.
This review is a copy/paste of my BookLikes one: http://gene.booklikes.com/post/867675/quality-writing-great-characters-but-the-story-is-slow