Last Argument of Kings - Joe Abercrombie A good but not great series (IMHO), and I'll tell you why.

The plot: The series centers around the travails of a country called the Union and the characters' efforts to save it both from an invasion of Northern barbarians and one from southern crusaders (the Gurkish) led by a coven of cannibalistic sorcerors. The powers behind the scenes are the remnants of a brotherhood of magi. The "good" magus is named Bayaz; and his opposite number is Khalul. As anyone who bothers reading the blurbs on these books will know, this is not your father's Tolkien. There are no good guys and no bad guys (as such), just people trying to cope with an utterly indifferent cosmos.

On the plus side, the characters are well drawn and distinct and their actions are utterly believable. The one who stands out as one of the more memorable anti-heroes of recent fantasy is Superior Glokta. A man captured, tortured and disfigured by the Gurkish who returns to the Union to become one of its inquisitors and master torturers. He struggles to figure out why he continues to live when his life is a living hell -- he lives in constant pain, he struggles to survive the machinations of his superiors, his job is to inflict the agonies he's suffered on others (often innocent of any crime except standing in the way of a superior's ambition), and when he does find an opportunity for mercy, it comes back to "bite" him.

Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is another strong character but by no means a "good" person -- the Gandalf of the trilogy. Rather he is Sauron as he appeared to the elves of Eregion -- Annatar, Lord of Gifts. He comes to the Union, dispensing wisdom and gifts but always working toward his own ends. And, at the end, he reveals his true feelings for the mortals he walks amongst -- they're worms.

Mark Edmundson in Why We Read argues that "great" literature (as opposed to just "good" or worse) should show us what we can be not just what we are, which is where Abercrombie comes up short, I believe. Many of his characters are good or strive to be but they're weak. They're constantly making self-pitying comments about how they can't help but act as they do, and the only character for whom I can hold any shred of respect turned out to be Glokta in the end.

I hope Abercrombie keeps writing in this world (he's left enough hanging threads to justify another novel or two...) because I think he's a good writer and I want to see if he can sustain the cynical hopelessness that he's left his readers with. (Truth be told, I'd also like to see Bayaz brought down a peg or two, or three, or four.)