Monday, July 27, 2009

Best Served Cold

A while back, an online friend from the UK recommended a book called The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. He said it was the most original fantasy novel he'd read in a while and he thought I'd like it because it was extremely violent, somewhat urban, and it had "Some of those barbarians you're so fond of." Sounded like a good bet, but a quick check showed that the book wasn't available in the US yet. I considered ordering it from Amazon UK, but the cost and shipping were a bit steep for an unknown quantity.
Several months later I spotted The Blade Itself on the shelves at Barnes & Noble and Borders, but gave it a pass, mostly because I saw that it was the first of a trilogy and I wasn't in the mood to start a new series. Still I remembered my friend's recommendation and figured I'd get around to trying Abercrombie one day.
That day came last week. I was browsing at B&N and I saw a big, thick, hardback book with Abercrombie's name on it. I assumed it was another in the series that began with The Blade Itself, but a quick read of the dust jacket's inner sleeve showed that while the book was set in the same world as Abercrombie's other novels, it was a stand alone with all new characters. That did it for me. I could give Abercrombie a try and wouldn't have to invest as much time as a trilogy would require.
Took the book home and planned to just read a couple of chapters. Looked up after a hundred or so pages had passed. Oh yeah. This is my kind of book. My British friend was dead on. I'm here to tell you, this book kicks ass and takes names, pretty much from the first page.
As the title implies, this is a story of revenge. The infamous mercenary Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna have been victorious in many battle for their employer, Duke Orso, a man who would be king. But the sibling's victories have made them a bit too popular with the citizens for Orso's comfort, and fearing that they might seize his throne before he can, Orso orders Monza and Benna killed. Monza just manages to survive and spends the rest of the book seeking vengeance on Orso and the six men who helped him. Her allies are about as motley a crew as you can imagine. A drunk, a psychopath, a pair of poisoners, a torturer, and a (Yay!) barbarian from the frozen North. But don't let that fool you. This barbarian ain't Conan by a long shot. In fact there's no one in the cast you could point to as a stereotypical fantasy character. Their morals and motives are far too ambiguous. No real good guys in this book and loyalties and allegiances are subject to change as are friendships and other relationships. Right or wrong become a matter of whose side you're on that day.
The book has several action packed set pieces including a harrowing battle in a high priced brothel and a massive siege near the end. Abercrombie writes violence that hurts. People get cut. They get wounded. They get dismembered. And those are the protagonists. The supporting characters fare far worse. Much like in the work of George R.R. Martin, no character is safe in Best Served Cold. Don't get too attached to anyone because they might not leave the book alive or intact. It all makes for a satisfying level of unpredictability, and when you've read as much fantasy as I have, that's a rare thing.
Speaking of fantasy, there really isn't much of that to Best Served Cold. There's no magic (unless you count some Remo Williams style martial arts) no non-human races like elves or dwarves, and no monsters, save the human kind. The world feels more historical than fantastic. It has a very European feel to it. The cities remind one more of Venice and Barcelona than of Minas Tirith and Shadrizar. It reminds me far more of the works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, and Michael Moorcock than of Tolkien and his followers. I would definitely push this one over into the sword & sorcery category as opposed to epic fantasy. I think Robert E. Howard would have liked the book a lot. He'd have laughed at the dark humor and cheered the battle scenes.
Best Served Cold contains a lot of gore, some rough language, and some fairly graphic sex, but nothing worse than an R rated movie. Still, probably not the best thing for a kid to read after he finishes Elftsones of Shanarra. It's no worse than many mainstream crime novels I've read, but for fantasy it's pretty grim and gritty.
So anyway, you can bet I'll be picking up the First Law Trilogy next time I'm at the bookstore. Abercrombie has won me over big time. I wouldn't want everything I read to feature "heroes" this amoral, but it certainly is refreshing to see someone pushing the boundaries and taking fantasy into dark and dangerous territory.


Brett Brooks said...

Wait...don't you need sorcery to be "Sword and Sorcery?" I mean...I'm just sayin'...

The way you describe it, it almost sounds like "Fantasy Adventure Noir" or something.


Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yeah, all I meant is it's closer to S&S than Tolkien, more in the tone than anything else. And, as I know you know, much of what's considered S&S doesn't have any "real" magic in it, including some of the Conan stories. I guess the primary thing which makes Best Served Cold a fantasy is that it's set in an invented world.