Friday 18 September 2009

Book review: Best Served Cold

Best Served Cold

By Joe Abercrombie

(Gollancz, 1 April 2009)

First things first: aesthetically, this book is - as the phrase here in the UK goes - the 'dog's bollocks.' In other words, it looks stunning. Abercrombie is very much the success story of British fantasy in recent years, with sales of his books rumoured to be around the 300,000 mark (and that figure, if correct, is drawn almost entirely from the sales of The First Law trilogy, so doesn't really include sales for Best Served Cold).

Gollancz, unsurprisingly, have thrown their full weight behind this novel, and this support is clearly demonstrated by the book itself. The excellent artwork is old news, but you have to hold the book to really appreciate its beauty - the embossed title, the crisp feel of the cover, the nicely-presented inlays (one at the start of each section, revealing a different part of the map - a very nice touch). Full marks for presentation then, but this only raises the question of whether the story itself lives up to the lovely dust jacket that it wears...

The focus is certainly narrower. Whereas The First Law trilogy is geographically expansive (taking in events all over the Circle of the World), Best Served Cold is set exclusively in Styria, a country made up of city states engaged in a state of perpetual civil war, reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. It is against this backdrop that the feared and reviled mercenary general Monzcarro (Monza) Murcatto finds herself undertaking a blood-soaked quest to avenge the death of her brother, Benna, who - like Monza - was thrown off a mountain by their erstwhile employer, Duke Orso, but - unlike Monza - didn't survive. Essentially what you've got is a revenge tale, imbued with Abercrombie's distinctive black wit and irony. And a lot of blood.

I noticed quite quickly that Abercrombie's writing has improved markedly. While I enjoyed Last Argument of Kings very much, after some reflection I do feel that some of the writing in it seemed a bit forced, a little rushed even. This wasn't a problem in Best Served Cold - the prose is altogether sharper, but also meatier when it needs to be. I've always found Abercrombie's prose to possess an almost cinematic quality, in the sense that I can for the most part visualise the world and characters very easily, and this trait thankfully continued in Best Served Cold.

While the plot's premise is simple - Monza and her merry band of cast-offs and misfits attempting to kill seven men or die trying (well, in Monza's case at least) - Abercrombie manages to cram the story full of elaborate ploys, intense battles and plenty of did-you-or-did-you-not-just-poison-me? moments. In Last Argument of Kings, Abercrombie showed a knack for twists, and he's at it again here - some you will see coming, some you won't. Stylistically and thematically, Best Served Cold continues in the same vein as The First Law, yet it's even bloodier and more full-on than his first three books...put together. In years to come, if you look up the word 'visceral' in the dictionary you might find a simple statement: 'read Best Served Cold.' Naturally the entire bloody mess comes wrapped in Abercrombie's trademark blacker-than-death humour, with plenty of sharp one-liners being tossed about.

While Best Served Cold is technically a standalone novel, it maintains close links to The First Law - there are references to various factions and power struggles from the earlier books that are clearly becoming long-term story arcs, while many established minor characters make appearances, rubbing shoulders with plenty of newcomers. The US cover (left) makes Monza out to be an ass-kicking-hot-chick-in-leather but in reality she has much more depth than that, with nagging self-doubt and bleak world-weariness blending with white-hot anger to form a hugely flawed, interesting protagonist.

The northman Shivers, a minor character from the earlier books, makes for a solid sidekick - his character arc is well-handled and convincing, as his perception of both the world and himself gradually changes. Friendly, a former convict obsessed with numbers, somehow manages to inspire a degree of sympathy in the reader despite being a heartless killer. The most intriguing new character by some distance though is Shenkt, largely because he's hard as nails and possesses a strange ability that makes for some rather memorable fight scenes...

So - desperate battles, nefarious plots, wisecracking characters spilling gallons of blood, and prose shot through with gallows humour. Surely a winning combination?

Well...not quite. Best Served Cold has a number of flaws in my eyes.

The main issue I had was - surprisingly - with the characters. I just couldn't connect with most of them on any real level. Perhaps it's because the entire lot of them - to varying degrees - are cheating, lying, backstabbing scumbags with barely a redeeming feature among them. It was odd to read a novel where there was no 'hero', where it's not clear who you're meant to be siding with (none of them, I suspect). This is not to say that some of them are not likeable in their own way, but I found it so hard to invest in any of them because they are all so morally vacant. While I'm all for shades of grey rather than black and white, Best Served Cold almost takes it too far, with the end result that I found it hard to care what happened to any of them - hence my enjoyment of the novel was seriously hampered.

On top of that, some of the characters just didn't seem that interesting - many readers seemed to like Morveer, but I found him to be an annoying bore and felt my eyes glazing over in many of his POV scenes. It's disappointing, since the references to his childhood indicate that he has quite a dark background, but he never fulfilled his potential. His catchphrase 'Caution first, always' grated after a while, as did his assistant Day, who - as a character - did nothing for me at all. Giving a character an odd trait (constant eating in Day's case) might make them memorable, but it doesn't make them interesting. Sadly Ganmark and Shenkt - two of the best new characters - make only fleeting appearances.

There are issues with the pacing. Effectively, the story boils down to a linear series of big events. These are mostly handled well (more on that later) but now and again the story got bogged down in between them - I was never in danger of losing interest, but it did test my patience at times (normally when Morveer was prattling on to Day).

There's a minor issue with repetition in terms of the language. With a revenge story like this, you expect there to be plenty of violence and blood - that I have no problem with. But unfortunately there's only so many ways you can describe someone getting stabbed, or impaled, or maimed. And when people get stabbed, impaled and maimed as much as they do in this book, it means that the descriptions quickly become over-familiar: 'spots of blood', 'black blood spattered...' and so on. After a while it did become a little tiring - as did the frequent mention of 'runny shits'...

I also had an issue with the tension - or lack thereof. Some of the twists - and there are more than I expected - I never saw coming, others I saw from a mile away. One scene - arguably the most significant in the book - had less impact for me because I had already guessed what was coming. This was a real shame, since it would have been brilliant if it had occurred without forewarning. You can also argue that the final confrontation reveals a rather glaring hole in the plot, bringing certain characters' motives and decisions into question, though this didn't bother me too much (the twist that comes with it managed to make up for these shortcomings).

Verdict: It's frustrating really, because Best Served Cold could have been brilliant. It's chock full of action, has several surprising twists and there's some engrossing scenes. Abercrombie's dark wit is present and correct, and there are some well-judged comical moments, as well as some well-developed character arcs. But to my mind the pacing is sluggish at times and the characterisation isn't as strong as I've come to expect from him.

Still, Best Served Cold has given me the urge to re-visit the earlier books to read them again in the context of what happens in this novel, and I will certainly pick up Abercrombie's next novel The Heroes when it surfaces (the sections of The First Law that were set in the northlands were easily my favourite chapters, so I am really looking forward to this).


Dan Smyth said...

My sentiments almost exactly. I lost my excitement for the novel after about 400 pages. I think if he could have either fixed those things which were lacking or just made the thing shorter, that this book could have been simply amazing. Can't wait for his next. Hoping for better things to come though. Thanks for the review.

James said...

Dan - yeah, though I didn't mention it in the review, I did also think the book was a little too long. And yes, could have been brilliant but sadly fell short. Still, like you I eagerly await the next book - 2011 I think though :(

Elfy said...

It's funny how people read books differently and get different things out of them. I'll preface this by saying that I'm a huge Abercrombie fan, so I guess it's unsurprising that I enjoyed the book more than you did, James. You liked Ganmark and Shenkt, they were two characters I found boring and cliched and kind of cringed every time they entered the story. Conversely I liked Day and Morveer. I also enjoyed seeing more of Vitari and she's another character many people don't much like. I am looking forward to Heroes because the Northmen were my favourite characters from First Law.

RedEyedGhost said...

Nice review James. I'm glad to see somebody not drooling all over this book. It was about twice as long as it needed to be, and I really had trouble finishing it.

I'm still looking forward to The Heroes, but Abercrombie's been demoted from my "stop everything and read this now" status.

James said...

Elfy - that's why books are great! People have different opinions, and without that there would be no debate! I've seen plenty of fans saying that they liked Day and Morveer, so clearly they worked for many readers. I liked Ganmark because there was something rather cold and detached about him... And yeah, the northmen are the best :)

RedEyedGhost - As I commented earlier, I do think length was an issue. And I'm definitely looking forward to The Heroes, since I think it'll be a better book. Hopefully it has Black Dow in it...