Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Best Served Cold

This weekend, I finished Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, an unusual fantasy novel that reads a bit like one third The Count of Monte Cristo, one third The Magnificent Seven, and one third Abercrombie's own stuff. It's an interesting book. It's got a fast, engaging, and weighty plot, complete with a lot of twists and turns. Some of these twists are telescoped way in advance and don't surprise at all, but a few others caught me off-guard. The gist of the story is that mercenary general Monzcarro Murcatto and her brother are betrayed and murdered by their mentor and patron, Grand Duke Orso, who's making an impressive run on becoming king of all Styria, a kind of fantasy analog to the medieval Italian city-state landscape (the prevalence of Italian sounding names also helps there.) Except that she doesn't quite die, and someone comes along to patch her up and restore her to a semblance of functionality. Naturally, her first thought is revenge. She starts gathering a group of unlikely hirelings, starting with northman Caul Shivers who's attempting to turn over a new leaf and become "a good man" instead of just an instrument of violence. She also ends up with an autistic mass murderer, the very same mercencary general that she herself betrayed (who's now a raging alcoholic), a tag-team of finicky and treacherous poisoners, and more, and goes about her bloody work. Collateral damage tends to be high as she has her first few successes, comes to the attention of Orso, and the plot really gets into high gear.

Not only do you have the sneaky assasination "capers" thoughout the book, but the politics involved start to take center stage before long. Styria is wedged between two "superpowers", the Gurkhish empire, and the Union. Both of these superpowers are revealed almost right away to be patsies for the real powers behind the thrones; Valint and Balk's banking house, and The Prophet's religious movement.

In addition to the well-paced plot, most of these characters were really quite interesting, and were kinda fun to read about. Sadly, the two least interesting to me were Shivers and Murcatto, and those were the point of view characters nine times out of ten. But still; the characters, the dialogue, and the plot were clearly this novel's strong suit.

I read Best Served Cold without reading the preceding First Law Trilogy. Although this novel references a few events and characters from the earlier trilogy, it's not really a sequel, just a stand-alone novel set in the same setting. I'm not that thrilled to go back and read more Abercrombie just yet, though. The work had some flaws, or at least things that I personally didn't like. I'll start with the least offensive and work up from there.

First off, I suspect that many fans like a good fantasy setting. I know I do. Now, let's be honest; a setting doesn't make or break a novel, and some novels are in fact sunk by the writer's inability to stop doting on his setting (China Miéville, I'm lookin' at you) but a setting that generates at least some interest is better than one that doesn't. And in this novel, the setting just doesn't do it. It's odd, really, because the action jumps from one city-state to another several times, but never at any point does it seem to matter where they are. They're all the same. They blend together into a rather bland whole. It's also not really very fantastic. There's very little reason why it couldn't have been told in medieval Italy. One character seems able to come and go and will without being seen. Magic? Probably. She may also have cast a firestorm spell of some kind. Maybe. She might have been using their version of Greek fire, too. It's not 100% clear. Another character seems to have been imported from Shaolin Soccer and comes equipped with wuxia style super powers. Other than that, the fantasy is extremely low key. In fact, it's nonexistent.

Secondly, Abercrombie cheated a bit. It's one thing to withold important information from the readers so it can be revealed at the dramatically appropriate time. But this should be done by also withholding the information from the key point of view characters. If key point of view characters know something important and the writer just doesn't bring it up to create a false dramatic tension when he finally does, all I feel is, "uh... why didn't we know this before now when there was no reason not to tell us?" I don't want to get too into the details to avoid spoilers, but two characters have relationships with family members that really are important to the plot... but which we simply aren't told the details of and led to believe that they are something other than what they are. Cheating, in my book.

The third problem with the book is that it's too much. I like a grim and gritty fantasy. At first, my perception of this was that it was "deliciously nasty". But after a while, it was way too much. It wallows in nastiness. It's gratuitously nasty. Hardly a single sentence in the entire book doesn't hammer home the point. Good Heavens, Joe Abercrombie. We get it already. A little bit of subtlety would have gone a long way here. And ultimately, this is what turned me off a bit from the book. The gratuitous nature of the grim and gritty aspects of this fantasy just became too much after a while. The repetitive, incessant nature of it. Literally everything that is described is made tawdry, false and mean. As an example, someone we already know to be a nasty customer, is shown cutting off a cadaver's leg, thinking of all the ways he can cook it. It's never brought up again, and it has no bearing on his character in any way; why did we need to be treated to a page and a half long internal monologue of a cannibal on how to cook this person's leg?

Anyway, I'm a self-professed fan of grim and gritty (the actual term used in some discussion circles that I'm a part of) but as always, moderation is key to success. This lays the grim and gritty on so thick that Abercrombie's work is almost a parody of itself before it even begins.

No comments: