As many have pointed out previously, this is a great modern novel with a traditional adventure flavor a la Melville or even Dickens. The world building is first rate, descriptions are vivid, and the pace quickly builds into a page-turner. If you find it slow going at first, just keep going and you'll get sucked up in it soon enough.
Here are the primary draws to this novel (for me):
+ Quality world building - this is a deep and fascinating world, and not everything is spelled out in too great a detail. It makes the little bits and pieces you collect about the world (such as the Flikkermen) seem like exciting discoveries, gradually fleshing out your mental landscape. Worth reading just for this. Also, the concept of "woken" animals is quite well done, despite being a concept that could have completely fallen flat. It's presented very well I think.
+ Strong female lead - It's nice to see a female lead who is not painted as perfect (although apparently she's beautiful), but who is determined to have her way - not in a spoiled sniveling way, but in a strong "this is my life" coming-of-age kind of way.
+ Following along with that, strong characters over all - Most of the characters are multi-dimensional and you can see their motivations behind their actions and any changes of heart they have. Some of them have motivations that are unclear, and this is generally shown rather than told. In other words, you develop your own opinions and ideas of the characters rather than having the author force-feed you. It works. The only exception would possibly (for me) be Nilus Rose who I think gets the short end of the well-rounded-character stick. Then again, there's two more books left, so we may yet learn much more of him.
+ Rollicking story - The story reminds me of many literary classics, from spanish picaresque to Dickens to Treasure Island. The characters stumble from one adventure to the next, and I for one was happy to just follow them along.
Not all is perfect however, so I would be remiss not to mention the (few) shortcomings:
- Some of the 'bad guys' are a little 2-dimensional and obvious. The whole good mage vs bad mage bit just feels a little tired.
- There is an overabundance of instances where you want to smack one of the main characters or roll your eyes, a bit like in a horror movie when you don't want them to separate, or in a romantic comedy when it's like Just Explain To Her Why You Did XYZ!
- The ending seemed extremely rushes and jumbled, quite out of pace with the rest of the novel. So many twists were coming, and so much action on top of action in a way that was out of proportion with the rest of the story, that I had try and reread several pages. Still didn't help a lot. I finished the book with my spinning more from slight confusion than from excitement or realizations. It seemed like you get a handful of pages from the end and suddenly everything just happens at once and it's done and aww, we just need to work together.
- Following along with that, the sappiness factor skyrockets at the end. It felt all of a sudden a bit Young Adult or after school special there near the end. Then again, after reading so much George R R Martin, Joe Abercrombie, etc. it's nice to have a little saccharin thrown in once in a while. Maybe we do need to be reminded once in a while to value our friends.
All in all, this is an excellent read, and I can't wait to start the 2nd novel (just purchased today). It may not be perfect, but it's well worth your time. Plus, if you have kids old enough to handle some of the fighting (although death and gore is surprisingly limited), I think it would be an excellent novel to read together as a family.