Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review Best Served Cold

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie, 632 pages, hardcover. Published 2009.

2 LINE SUMMARY: Kill Bill meets the Lord of the Rings meets Assassin's Creed 2. If Machiavelli and Quentin Tarentino co-wrote a novel this would be it.

PLOT: Monza Murcatto, raven haired, buxom, passionate leader of a band of mercenaries is stabbed, tossed out a palace window and left for dead on a garbage heap(this all in the first ten pages). She spends the rest of the novel enacting vengence on the seven men in the room who either helped gag, stab, and toss her, or watched without assiting. Monza is rescued and recovers with the help of a creepy bone thief/grave robber who specializes in human anatomy. As she heals she becomes addicted to a painkiller opiate that throughout the novel she will struggle to overcome. To help her revenge she hires a poisoner, a barbarian, a torturer, and an ex convict serial killer. Each brings his/her special talents to bear on the job at hand. As the novel progresses she murders the guilty as well as the innocent to acquire her revenge. Ethical and moral questions are asked by people who have no ethics or morals, and no satisfactory answers are found to the problem of revenge: That one often causes more damage and destruction in the act of revenge than the initial act of violence created. Turnabout follows turnabout and the story has several suprising moments that genuinely shock despite the cynical worldview the novel presents. The ending is not entirely unexpected nor is it predictable. Abercrombie is adept at structuring a plot well, and bringing all the various subplots and narrative threads together quite masterfully.

ANALYSIS: I don’t really know why I like Joe Abercrombie's novels. In all reality I shouldn't. The cynical world view, the lunatic fringe characters, even the magic systems don't necessarily convince(again, more or less pulled from a dungeons and dragons guide) was conspicuously lacking in this one. I've heard it said some people take a secret delight in the twilight series by stephanie meyer(I’m not delighted by bad writing so I have no real interest in the books) and that they can neither explain nor understand what it is that so motivates them to keep reading. I feel that way about Abercrombie's books. He writes about the way the world is, and he writes about people who try to be better or change and often fail. In that sense he mirrors the "real" world, where the bad guys often win. In a way in Abercrombie's books no one wins, and if they do they don’t do it for long.

His characters are scarred, or rejected, but mostly just plain lost in world circumstances they didn't create. I think that may be the reason why I do read his books. Many of the characters have a sense of "thrownness" to misuse Heidegger's phrase. They are trying to find a moral or value system that will allow them to survive the violent times they exist in and nothing really suffices. Abercrombie is a close student of history, as is shown by his blog and he often mentions the books of history he has read. I think that may be his ultimate point. History is a nightmare, as Stephen Daedalus once famously said, and Abercrombie may have added : and there is no waking up from it.

Another reason I enjoy his novels are the characters, their interactions, and the humor. His comic timing is perfect and his use of images to comment on deeper themes has grown since the first law trilogy. For example, in one stunning scene Monza sword fights with one of her targets in a stream. The character's scarf gets tangled in a mill wheel. It pulls him under then lifts him up out of the water again and again until Monza throws a piece of wood in to jamb the mill and hold the character at the zenith of the circle. While there he speaks about the things he's done, she's done, and what they've all done to survive. Monza kills him anyway but the idea of the renaissance wheel of fortune leaps to mind and Abercrombie uses it to comments on the idea. The only way to get off it is to die. No one stays at fortune's favor for ever.

His next novel, according to the blog, is titled The Heroes. Of course, how can it help but be sarcastic. But he is never completely cynical. His characters do come away from their experiences with some measure of self knowledge. They learn, they make connections with other characters, and they understand more than they did at the novel's beginning. That self knowledge may not be enough to save them from the historical situation they've been born into, but it is a minor victory nonetheless.

SCORE: 8/10. Well plotted, great characterization, richly detailed world. Sometimes it wallows a bit much in its own violence and mayhem and for that I took a few points off.

SIMILAR BOOKS: The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan.

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