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Monday, July 27, 2009

"Best Served Cold" by Joe Abercrombie (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Order "Best Served Cold" HERE(US) and HERE(Europe/Overseas)
Official Joe Abercrombie Website
Read FBC Review of "The Blade Itself" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Before They Are Hanged" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Bursting upon the epic fantasy with his superb First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie became the "perfect" representative of the "new gritty" epic fantasy for me, so much so that I broke my rule of not listing an author as "favorite" until I read a minimum of 4 and preferable more books by him/her that impressed me.

"The Blade Itself" was a top 5 fantasy for me in 2006 and "Before They Are Hanged" was my #1 fantasy of 2007, while the ending of the trilogy "The Last Argument of Kings" was a notable 2008 book. I read the trilogy several times so far and the only book that was less than an A+ like TBI or an A++ like BTAH, though still an A, was LAOK since it had too much combat and magic for my taste, while I think Mr. Abercrombie' strengths lie more in great characters, intrigue and superb dialog than in action scenes. Still I loved the first and last 100 pages of it quite a lot too.

"Best Served Cold" is a triumphant return to Mr. Abercrombie' strengths and it's a co-#1 fantasy novel for 2009 for me so far and highly likely to remain there untill the end of the year.

OVERVIEW: For a general overview of the setup and the undertones of "Best Served Cold" I would strongly recommend checking out the reviews of the earlier First Law novels linked above. While "Best Served Cold" is a standalone, with a clear beginning, clear ending and a main thread, it has a lot of subtle touches that need the original trilogy for appreciation. However this novel may be a perfect introduction to Mr. Abercrombie' s work since it showcases his immense strengths in one volume and it can be read without any reference to the earlier novels.

Styria is a sort of Renaissance Italy from our history, a country of city-states, ambitious princes, mercenaries and two strong external influences, the Union and the Gurkhish who are involved in a long conflict that often flares in outright war.

Duke Orso of Talins is the most ambitious of these princes and in the previous trilogy we met him as a strong Union supporter, even becoming the King's father in law.

Monza Murcatto discovered her talent for war early on and she attracted the attention of famous mercenary leader Nicomo Cosca who took her and her younger brother Benno under his wing; in due course Monza became the most feared, admired and reviled general of Styria, while Cosca faded away as a drunkard though we met him as Glotka's mercenary in the Trilogy so we should not be surprised to see him here too.

As a "daughter" of Talins, Monza leads Orso's armies to the brink of defeating all its rivals; she has only one passion, her brother Benno who seems to be loved by all and is her confidante, "agent" and second in command. Unexplicably for her, Orso accuses the two of them of treachery and tries to kill them in his palace; Benno dies but Monza, believed dead and thrown of a window to shatter on the ground below, is saved by the sinister "Bone-Thief", though she is crippled to some extent and disfigured. From then on she has only one goal - to kill all seven men present at the attempting murders.

Assembling a team of killers and poisoners and using the secret fortune hidden across Styria by Benno and the cover of being assumed dead, she embarks on her "vengeance at all cost" mission. Of course things are not quite what they seem and soon she is embroiled in the intrigue and wars for the domination of Styria as well in the larger struggle of the mages that have been using the Union and the Gurkish as their front for so long.

Shivers is a named Northman that refused to participate in treachery at the end of LAOK since he wanted to become a "better man". Coming to Styria believing some tales about making a "honest living" there, he immediately finds himself easy prey to robbers and tricksters until he gets mad; falling in with Monza may be either the best or the worst thing that have happened to him...

"Best Served Cold" stands at over 600 pages and is divided into seven main parts based on which Styrian city the action takes place in or around. The narration is from various POV's but Monza, Shivers and later Cosca are the most important. The ending is great.

ANALYSIS: The structure of "Best Served Cold" is a little bit different than the First Law trilogy since it focuses strongly on Monza and the group around her as they try to kill the seven men above.

While the POV jumps for a while mainly between her and Shivers, the action proceeds linearly in one thread; only at the end the focus fragments in several sub-threads involving various (surviving) characters. In a way that is the inverse of the First Law structure which took a bunch of characters and "shook them like dice", splitting them in various groups involved in various threads which connected, split, reconnected to end in an unifying grand-finale.

There is back-story inserted at crucial moments that almost, though not quite, pulls the rug out of what came before, the understanding of which is strongly colored by Monza's view.

But first and foremost Best Served Cold is about two characters that take over the novel, one new in Abercrombie's universe and starring from the beggining, the second an old acquintance appearing first in the back-story and later taking a more and more central part. Cosca and Monza, "the teacher and her protegee", well Abercrombie' style so do not expect quite the usual, are why the novel succeded so magnificently for me..

The other main lead at the start, Shivers is a pale shadow of the two and I think the author realized that after a while, wisely letting him fade in the background. Shivers is the least satisfactory of Abercrombie's main characters in the four novels so far, his "I do not want to be Bloody Nine" gets tiresome quickly and after all we saw that before since Logen did not want to be "Bloody Nine" either; it just happens that in the First Law universe, as a "named" Northman you are "Bloody Nine", or you are dead or a runaway. But it does not matter since the supporting cast as well as the cameos of Vitari, Carlot and Jezal more than make up for Shivers "B-rate actor cast as a star" inadequacy.

Location-wise, "Best Served Cold" set only in one place - Styria - though with hints and rumbles of the big universe picture in the background, showcases another of Abercrombie's great strength, "local" world building as opposed to the big picture which is still somewhat sketchy. We saw that many times in the First Law with great locales like the Union capital Adua, the North, the Southern city of Dagoska and so many others, all that had an undeniable "reality" to them. Here we travel the main cities of Styria and we believe they are "real places" rather than squiggle on paper.

The cynical dialog and "thoughts" are still there and form another highlight of the novel, while the action scenes and (mercifully few) battles are well done too with the twists and turns at the end absolutely great. The ending is perfect this time, though of course it begs a new "First Law Universe" novel...

Highly, highly recommended
, showing once more why Joe Abercrombie *is* "new gritty" for me.


Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for Mr. Abercrobie to write some FANTASY that have some "sense of wonder" in it and not cheap tricks to confuse the reader because the 1st Law world is BORING, especially the British Empire shit.
So yeah, it's gritty, fanny sometimes, but I'd refrain from labeling it as FANTASY.


Liviu said...

Deleted some spam (Chinese characters ads) comments that seem to have multiplied recently like flies and got accepted by mistake;

Regarding the one pertinent comment above, well I guess that's one reason why I love Mr. Abercrombie work so much since it's close to historical fiction though it has more magic than GRRM so far.

So maybe Joe Abercrombie is just not for you - enough authors out there to choose from and not everyone is for everyone...

Chad Hull said...

Very nice commentary as always.

I've been curious about Abercrombie for awhile. Someone else noted that they didn't think Abercrombie's writing should be called fantasy. For me that would be a point of attraction as I've grown weary of the typical 'swords and sorcery' affairs.

Without name calling or the intention of giving offense, would you call his writing "standard genre fantasy" or perhaps something more substantial?

Unknown said...

Anon, it seems you went into the series expecting something that was never promised by the author or any of the promotion. Even on the back covers there isn't really a promise of 'wonder,' rather there is a plot synopsis with a promise of brutality and then there are brief character descriptions.

However, I do think wonder can be found in the books, maybe just not in the way you're looking for. Rather than writing a sprawling fantasy world Abercrombie tends to focus on characters and actions and that "economy of movement" brings subtle things to light in the relationships that are other worldly. So for setting junkies there might not be that grand scope, but if you're willing to let go of your expectations I think Abercrombie is quite a rewarding experience.

Parametric said...

I am SUCH a huge Abercrombie fan. Best Served Cold is my best read of 2009 by a mile as things stand. Genius.

YetiStomper said...

Abercrombie is great.

His work has sort of a pulpish feel to it. But there's good pulp and bad pulp and Abercrombie is FANTASTIC pulp. I only say "sort of" because there's a secondary layer in which he's taking all of the expectations and tropes inherent in the genre and using them against the reader.

Cindy said...

Regarding Anon:

I think it comes down to what your definition of "fantasy" is. If it's wonder and awe and magic and dragons then it won't fit. But then again "fantasy" can even go as far as to cover mystery novels as it's not the real world it's someone's fantasy world with made up characters.

Then again we're all entitled to our opinions, I'm sorry you weren't impressed with the book. There's something out there for everyone and I hope that you do find that book or fantasy :)

Ed S. said...

Anonymous, please name some authors you think are providing that "sense of wonder" you didn't find in this book.

Anonymous said...

well, there's no need for sword & sorcery examples, or stating the obvious authors. But O.K., just take Jacqueline Carey an her Kushiel's Legacy as example of similar setting and much much better world than 1st law.

and yes, seems FBC is not for me.

thank you.

Id said...

I'm just about to finish BSC and I have loved it. The First Law Trilogy was an amazing read and it jerked my emotions everywhere and then stabbed me through the heart by the end. Great stuff truly. I will follow Abercrombie's work from here on out barring some huge literary atrocity.

Side Note: My daughter was born on the 12th one of her 2 middle names is Vitari.

Cindy said...

Every book has it's reader, just like every blog has it's reader too. BSC just might not have been a book for you.

There are plenty of books that people have raved about and I've found boring, dull and overrated. There's nothing wrong in no liking Abercrombie, and no one in any way is making you feel bad for that.

Though I do wonder what you were expecting going into it? What were your expectations that you thought you'd encounter?

FBC covers a lot of books of different types. If you find that you don't like the selection, then I wish you luck in finding a blog that does cover it.

Andy said...

I really enjoyed the First Law Trilogy and many of the characters so I'm looking forward to this. One thing about Abercrombie though, he tends to seize upon a verb and then use it to death - at first I really enjoyed the verb "slithered", for example, but only if used sparingly - once Abercrombie decided he liked it, he used it to death in the first two volumes of the trilogy and it became highly annoying (people didn't do anything but slither?). He found a new verb in the 3rd book, forget what it was, but he overused that to death also.
Anything like that in the new book?

As for the discussion of recent fantasy books that evoke "wonder" - I'd definitely nominate the world presented in the Locke Lamora books by Scott Lynch

Anonymous said...

I'm about 3/4 of the way through the book and am really tempted to abandon it. I'm finding the violence is getting to be tedious and the characters some what annoying. Has anyone else felt the story tends to lag?

I've loved it up until recently, but would have liked it to be edited down to somewhere around page 500.

CroakerBC said...

Really can't wait to read this book. I was totally enthralled by the First Law trilogy. It was the perfect fix of grim, gritty fantasy I have been waiting for for a long time.

I guess it's not for everyone. After all, there are people who think R. A. Salvatore's works are masterpieces of fantasy, so there you go.

Anyway, I am still debating with myself which of the following is my favorite gritty noir-fantasy: The First Law Trilogy or Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains.

I wish Charlie Huston would try his hand at the fantasy genre one of those days. His Joe Pitt series totally reinvigorated the genre and added to it a very delectable touch of noir. I can only at the thought of him writing a fantasy novel.

CroakerBC said...

[quote]I really enjoyed the First Law Trilogy and many of the characters so I'm looking forward to this. One thing about Abercrombie though, he tends to seize upon a verb and then use it to death - at first I really enjoyed the verb "slithered", for example, but only if used sparingly - once Abercrombie decided he liked it, he used it to death in the first two volumes of the trilogy and it became highly annoying (people didn't do anything but slither?). He found a new verb in the 3rd book, forget what it was, but he overused that to death also.
Anything like that in the new book?[/quote]

Seriously, did you notice that you used the expression "use it to death" 3 times in your comment?


Or was it deliberate?

Anonymous said...

"Best Served Cold" is fantastic. It moves a break-neck speed...Most of the time although there are many (IMO) slow moments.
Cosca reminds me "Snidly Whiplash of the old "Rocky & Bullwinkle" show.Morveer & his apprentice Day are reminiscent of Boris & Natasha of the same cartoon series.
Murcatto is (to me anyway) a "Joan of Arc" type character though definitely NOT of the Saintly ilk. As to the rest of the characters they are mere fill-ins something for the protagonist to react to.
I have read the trilogy and the Heroes and am nearing the end of Best Serves Cold, next will be Red Country.
Mr. Abercrombie is definitely NOT a "run-of-the-mill" writer.

Anonymous said...

Fully 1/3 of this book consists of "salty" dialogue between stereotypical fantasy mercenaries, the remaining 2/3 is unremitting, and unrealistic, swordplay and bloodshed. There's no reason for this thing to be 870 pages.


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