Tuesday, 17 March 2009

‘Best Served Cold’ – Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz)

I said that you wouldn’t have to wait too long! ;o)
Here’s a question for you. You’re an author who has just written a trilogy that has garnered loads and loads of praise. What do you do next? Do you write another trilogy (safe in the knowledge that your fans will lap it up) or do you try something a little different and aim at fitting a whole trilogy’s worth of goodness into one ‘stand alone’ novel? I know what I’d do (because I’m as mercenary as any of the characters in ‘Best Served Cold’) but Joe decided to try something a little different. I’m glad he did and, if you’re a fan, I reckon you’ll be glad too. If you haven’t read any of Joe Abercrombie’s books then pick up ‘The Blade Itself’ and go from there...

No matter what you do for a living there is always a price to pay for being too good at your job. For Monza Murcatto (the Snake of Talins, most feared and famous mercenary in all Styria) being too good at her job fuels the more paranoid thoughts of her employer and ends up with her being thrown down a mountain and left for dead. Monza isn’t dead though and now she is after revenge on all the men who were in that room when she was betrayed. Her allies include the most disreputable scum Styria has to offer and a barbarian who wants to make a new start and be a better man. Her enemies are... pretty much everyone else. And all that is before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down...

As far as I’m concerned Joe Abercrombie’s books seem to just get better with each one that’s published. In case that isn’t enough of a clue I’ll admit to being a big fan of all of Joe’s books and I’m trying to talk in a sensible way about how much I enjoyed book without falling into pointless fanboy gushing. Whichever way I fall, it’s still a great book.

‘Best Served Cold’ is a book where the central theme is betrayal. It’s not just Monza’s betrayal that we get to learn about (although that is the mainstay of the plot); there are plenty of other examples of betrayal to get to grips with. At a rate of betrayal that stands at almost one betrayal every other page (or feels like it) ‘Best Served Cold’ is a sordid examination of the lowest points of the human condition. Everyone is out for themselves and they don’t care who they have to step on to get what they want.
Depressing? Yes, but only to an extent. It is sobering, to say the least, to see the dreams stripped from our barbarian friend (who you will have met before, he’s not who you think though) but Abercrombie does allow a measure of redemption to be sought and sometimes even gained. The nature of everyone’s scheming also breaks the air of cynicism that the novel possesses. The reader is allowed to witness elaborate schemes that put others to shame, cruel fate is also allowed its head in scenes that are almost slapstick in their comedy.

The characters on show also make ‘Best Served Cold’ a story that demands you follow it, especially as two of them give a twist to events right at the end. No one is perfect by any means and we are shown this in no uncertain terms. What we’re also shown though is precisely what led each of the main players to where they are now and this casts a whole new light on events. There’s no such thing as a stereotypical ‘evil’ character in ‘Best Served Cold’, just people who are paying the price for choices that they made themselves. There is a measure of sympathy to be had for all of them and they are all well drawn enough that this sympathy comes easily.

Of course; watching a bunch of disreputable and completely untrustworthy characters bounce off each other, over the course of the book, is perhaps the most fun of all. While these people have respect for one another they don’t trust each other at all. Watching the directions that this distrust sends the plot down is dizzying and compelling all at the same time.

If all this wasn’t enough, Abercrombie gives proceedings a good dose of what made his last three books such a gripping read. There are battles that are about as real as you could possibly imagine although you may not want to after you’ve read about them. People actually respond in ways that seem reasonable given the situations that they face. There’s even a noble goat with important lessons to teach us...
All of this results in a book that gives us a better look at a wider world only hinted at in the ‘First Law’ trilogy. There are hints at a big confrontation on the horizon and I for one am going to be around to see it all kick off.

‘Best Served Cold’ was sat fairly high on my ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2009’ list, now it’s firmly on my ‘Favourite Books of 2009 List’. Read it.

Ten out of Ten


ediFanoB said...

Great review Graeme.
German edition RACHEKLINGEN will be available on 1rst of September 2009. This is quite fast for a translation.
I read First Law trilogy also in German. Good translation and a fair price.
I sent a pre-order for RACHEKLINGEN by end of 2008 :>)
So I look forward to September but would like to have a gorgeous Spring and Summer before...

Anonymous said...

Neat review.

You're absolutely right. It's going to be tough to top this for best book of 2009.