Published: Gollancz, 2006
The first book of The First Law is a tale of a brutal world. A declining kingdom now faces invasions from resurgent nations from both north and south, nations which have grievances to settle as well as expansionist aims. Its moribund army is dominated by class privilege, as European armies were until the nineteenth century. Interest is more on the annual fencing competition, which includes several major characters who are former winners or current competitors. Another side of life in the Union is shown by chapters focusing on the work of the Inquisition, which is investigating treason by one of the kingdom's richest guilds using torture and intimidation.
As is fairly common in fantasy, the chapters alternate between the viewpoints of major characters, around half a dozen of them. (This technique is used in the genre because it gives a wider impression of an imaginary world while retaining a personal side.) What is slightly unusual here is that these people are not basically nice with a few character flaws to add realism, but pretty unpleasant on the surface with redeeming features hidden underneath. (Three of these characters are described on the back of the second book, Before They are Hanged, as "the most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union".) This makes the book seem very dark indeed, particularly when the characters are carrying out some morally reprehensible activity such as torture: one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is a senior figure in the Inquisition. His redeeming features include rather more of a sense of justice than his colleagues, as he is convinced at the beginning that the work he does is necessary and that the those tortured are guilty, a conviction that is undermined through the book by the actions of his superiors, and his background, which was as a war hero captured by the Gurkish and tortured himself for two years. His profession will immediately make a genre fan think of Gene Wolfe's classic New Sun series, which had a torturer as its hero, and there are similarities, but Glokta lives in a nastier world and his activities reflect this - parts of The Blade Itself are not for the squeamish. However, he is one of most interesting of the viewpoint characters, and the chapters involving Glokta always seem to raise the quality of the narrative.
The first law, by the way, forbids mages from communication with supernatural beings (the term used, "the Other Side", has a slightly unfortunate resonance of tacky fake spiritualism): something of a problem when all magic however benign does so in a small way. Readers also learn of the second law, which forbids cannibalism; the consequences of this act are a loss of humanity, with the addition of superpowers. The consequences of breaking the first law are not spelt out, but could well form an interesting part of the later parts of this series.
While the nastiness of some scenes will put off many potential readers, The Blade Itself is a well written and interesting fantasy novel (more so for its characterisation than other features), the start to a series that I will want to read to its resolution.