Best Served Cold + The Heroes + The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie Review

Since the books in the First Law trilogy cannot stand alone, I consider them to be one work.  One super-massive-red-giant, thousands-of-pages-long, split-into-three-volumes work.  That makes Best Served Cold Joe Abercrombie’s sophomore effort–which is not to say it’s sophomoric, despite the copious amount of f-bombs.

Joe Abercrombie

Check out my interview with Joe Abercrombie.

In fact, Best Served Cold is a testament to how much Abercrombie has grown as a writer since he smashed onto the fantasy scene two years ago.  All the elements that made the First Law so enjoyable (the wit, the superbly rendered action, the cynical realism about humanity, the different voices for different narrators, and, yes, the frat-boy language) are in place, but the rough edges have been sanded down to a finish smoother than a sun-bleached skull.  Abercrombie’s voice has become polished and sharp as a mercenary’s blade, and he moves the story between the various narrators with utmost confidence in the characters and his story.

I had high hopes for this book–it was possibly my most-anticipated book of 2009–and Abercrombie delivered everything I wanted and more.

The novel is meant to be a stand-alone book–you definitely don’t need to have read the First Law to understand or enjoy Best Served Cold.  If you have read the First Law, you will encounter so many of the minor characters from that series that this book starts feeling like a sequel.  Abercrombie had mentioned on his website that a few of the minor characters make appearances; in my opinion, it’s more than a few, and their roles are more than appearances.  But they are rendered complete here.  The events they were involved with in the trilogy have no bearing on the story at hand, and their treatment here actually sheds more light on their part of the trilogy rather than the reverse.  So, what I’m saying is, if you haven’t read the First Law but like the sound of this book, give it a try, you don’t need to have read the others.  This is not a sequel; Abercrombie is not writing a series.  Simply, it is set in the same world and therefore some of the same folks people this story.

The story, in a nutshell, is about the mercenary general Monza Murcatto, whose employer gets suspicious of her ambitions for his throne and kills her and her brother.  Except that Monza doesn’t actually die.  When she recovers enough to walk, she has one thought on her mind:  revenge.  So she cobbles together an unlikely band of assassins and sets off to kill, one by one, each of the seven men who had a hand in her downfall….

On the technical side, this book shows that Abercrombie has really come into his own as a writer.  This story could easily have spanned several volumes (then again clocking in close to 700 pages could arguably be considered several volumes), but yet there isn’t really a lot of wasted space.  The events chronicled pertain only to the task at hand–killing Monza’s enemies.  All manner of adventures and mishaps could have been had on the road between each of the seven cities, and perhaps were, but all we hear about are the culminations of those journeys.  He struck the right balance between character exposition through action rather than narrative voice, and discussing only the salient points of the history.  Including short scenes at the beginning of each section that slowly reveal how Monza came to the place she is, and by the last two, begin to twist about the reader’s perception of who she is and who her brother was.

One of the more brilliant ways the characterization was approached came through careful use of metaphors and similes that are not only not cliché but also indicative of the worldview of the character using them.  Monza, for example, sees everything as it relates to mercenary fighting:  sunsets are bloody battlefields, metal gleams like her sword, jingles sound like money.  The fight scenes are described with breathless immediacy; writing interestingly detailed, adrenaline-filled action is definitely one of Abercrombie’s strengths.  Another is his ability to created distinct voices for the different characters he follows from a narrative point of view.  There is never confusion as to whose eyes we are seeing the world through, and the perspectives range from the straightforward lines of Monza’s tunnel-vision to the bizarrely logical number matrices of Friendly to the strangely sympathetic master assassin who has no idea how to speak to his own children.

In broader terms, the book was not predictable but also not disjointed; everything fit comfortably together at the end and concluded events in a satisfying way.  It explored the nature of revenge–playing with the questions like does it really satisfy the pain and is it worth the cost, and also toying with the idea of pursuing vengeance but being unable to exact it when the moment comes.  Monza is not the only character in pursuit of revenge;  there are parallels between her quest and that of several other characters.  At times it seems like every character who is self-motivated is after revenge on someone.  Most of them come to ironically karmic fates, which in a way fits Abercrombie’s MO:  his work embodies the criticism of fantasy that it is about “maintaining the status quo” in a hilariously cynical way.

Best Served Cold is as entertaining as it is bloody (I thought about keeping a body count but quickly gave that up when the second section ends with a riot), and yet is flavored with a surprising amount of introspection.  Don’t be intimidated by the size; it is best savored as slowly as the dish it refers to.  If you like your epic fantasy gritty, well, it doesn’t come any sandier than this.  Best avoided by those who need happy endings and sterling heroes, but highly recommended to anyone who thinks they might like it–you know who you are, and I think you will.

joe abercrombie

The Heroes is a Joe Abercrombie book.  For better or for worse, Abercrombie has created a brand for himself with his world, his style of storytelling and characterization, and his view of epic fantasy—or at least his self-conscious decision to undermine its assumptions while working within its frame—that lead to an easy summary for a reviewer:  if you liked his other stuff, you’ll like this.  It’s a Joe Abercrombie ™ book.

If you follow my reviews and commentaries around this site with any sort of regularity, you probably know that I’m a huge Abercrombie fan.  I love his view of fantasy, although I would never want it to be the only view on fantasy I had.  That would be depressing, I think, because one of the relentless themes of his work is that victories are hollow, triumph is just another word for manipulated, and almost no one ever changes except for the worse.

My favorite of his books thus far remains Best Served Cold, and reading The Heroes (which I would rank as #2) helped me realize why.  I like that book best because it is the most personal of the stories.  Monza is on a quest to get revenge.  She might be remaking the face of the political world because of who she is assassinating, but all of that is beside the point of what she is doing, which is taking revenge.  In both the First Law trilogy and again here, each of the characters has a story and a stake in the events, but the story is not really driven by those motives; the characters’ arcs are yoked to the harness of a master narrative based in events beyond the control of any of them.  Perhaps it is merely the measure of control that Monza had over her own fate in Cold that makes it more appealing to me on a visceral, emotional level.

The fact that The Heroes really did not was at the heart of my issue with this book.

The novel was difficult for me to get into; it took me a month or six weeks of reading it pretty much only on my lunch breaks to get through the first three sections, and then I tore through the last two in one night and cut my sleep short by four hours to do it.  That’s a hell of a tipping point given that the sections are roughly equal in length and the book clocks in at a cool 560 pages in the US hardcover edition.  My slow reading pace is not to say that I was not enjoying the book; I was entertained by what I was reading.  What I was not, was gripped by it.  And I think that had a lot to do with my reactions to the characters—or, rather, my lack of reactions to them.

One of the advertising taglines for this book is “Three men.  One battle.  No heroes.”  That sums up the book.  It is a close-focus view on one battle that takes place over the course of three days; there are five sections, before the battle, each of the days of the battle, and the aftermath.  There are more than three point of view characters, but the main storylines revolve around Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced king’s guard, cowardly and despised Prince Calder, and the only straight edge left in the North, the old battleax Curnden Craw.  Many, if not most, of the characters are people we have met before in this world.  I have not re-read any of the other books recently, so I barely remembered their previous narratives, and that backstory really did not matter for this narrative; it can function easily as a standalone title.  Regardless of backstory, the characters posed a problem for me:  they were exactly as advertised.  No heroes.  No one to root for, no side to take, no emotional stake in any of the outcomes.  They were interesting to read about, but they did not make me care, and so the first part of the book—especially the lead-up to the first real battle scene—was long and arduous for me.

The moment people started dying it got a lot better.  I am not sure if that says more about me as a reader or Abercrombie as a writer, but the aptly titled chapter “Casualties” was the point where I really started to get into the book.  But it really wasn’t until I could see the end in sight that I couldn’t put it down.

I know all of the above is critical, but on the whole I really did enjoy this book, and there was never a doubt that I would finish it, that I wanted to finish it…it simply remained an intellectual curiosity for longer than I expected.

The good parts of this novel are myriad.  Abercrombie handles a pretty big cast of characters and points of view with ease.  It was easy to slip between the points of view while knowing within a few paragraphs exactly who the next one was and where they were in relation to the rest of the cast.  The book is in many ways a pastiche of scenes, but they all splash together quite elegantly to create a beautiful Technicolor bloodbath of a battle.

The action scenes are, in a word, glorious.  Abercrombie is an ace at writing interesting fight scenes that are varied and often surprising.  In a book with as many fight scenes as this one has, it’s an impressive feat for me to say that I couldn’t predict where any given match-up was going, didn’t get bored and feel like I was reading the same fight over and over, and didn’t hear echoes of previous clashes the way—ahem—he unfortunately echoes himself when discussing women’s bodies (two words, Abercrombie:  back knobs).

As far as the character stories go, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he did not go full bleak at the end.  As perhaps life simply is, it’s a mixed bag.  Some of the characters get honors they did not deserve, others actually maintain (find?) a moral code that the reader can almost admire, some find their fates manipulated beyond their ability to comprehend using 100% of their brains, some go back to the mud, some survive.  There is no point during the narrative that you are certain who actually will make it to the last page alive, or what state they will be in if they get there, but neither is there an overweening sense that everyone will die, either.  If this is Shakespeare, it’s a history not a tragedy.

The writing is sharp and easy and littered with my favorite word (hint:  it starts with an f).  The battle is as comprehensible as a battle can be.  The morality is ambiguous, and so are the characters, because sometimes the bad surprise you with a moment of goodness, and sometimes the good flash an inner ugliness.

In short, it’s a Joe Abercrombie book.

It’s good, if you like this sort of thing.  Like Inigo, I love it.  Maybe not my favorite Joe book, but one of my favorites of 2011, no doubt.

joe abercrombie

I’m taking a page from Jay’s book and re-running some old reviews from my now-defunct personal review blog. For the most part they are unchanged in content, except for removing things that no longer apply and actual editorial scouring…no, not even my prose is immune. 🙂

I find it a grave oversight that our site doesn’t actually have reviews of these books, so it’s with special pleasure that I offer up my (reprinted and somewhat reduxed) impressions of the Joe Abercrombie’s first fantasy work.  Since The First Law trilogy is one story and was written as a trilogy (vs. starting with a standalone novel and adding sequels), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to consider the set as one entity.  The individual books that comprise it are, in order, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings.

I want to start these reflections by saying, up front, that I really liked these books. I found them to be a fresh take on a genre I gave up on after eighth grade, in a style after my own heart.  Abercrombie’s characters are funny, his world is engaging, and his stories predictably unpredictable (that is, you never know what to expect and you kind of get that from the beginning).

A bit of background about the books before I start dropping opinions and analysis like death spells. These books would fit under my umbrella of “gonzo fantasy”:  they are crass, they are violent, they are drunken and dirty and deranged.  (Note:  There are minor spoilers ahead, in the sense that I tell you what type of story is told in books two and three, but I don’t think I have ruined anything for those of you still unversed in this tale.)  The first book introduces the various protagonists–I hesitate to use the term “heroes”–and sets this disparate group of people on convergent paths. It seems to be meandering rather aimlessly for the first third or so as we are introduced chapter by chapter to Logen Ninefingers, barbarian non grata on the run; Jezal dan Luthar, a decorative nobleman drinking and swindling his way through his youth and his father’s fortune; Ferro, an escaped slave bent on revenge; Inquisitor Glokta, the crippled war hero cum Spanish Inquisition-style interrogator/confessor/torturer; and the unprepossessing wizard Bayaz, relict species of ages long dead. After about two runs through the cycle of characters, the storylines begin to spiral in toward the central point; the book ends when the characters are finally all brought together and some semblance of the trilogy’s overarching plot is revealed. The second book takes them out into the wider world on a quest to recover a dangerous artifact/weapon, and the third brings them home again for the conflagration of all the various tensions tearing apart their kingdom and their lives—wars on two fronts to be ended or lost, religious zealots from the “dark side” to be conquered with an even darker magic, a royal succession to be manipulated, old enemies to be crushed beneath the heel of vengeance, etc.

As should be obvious from that description, there are some elements common to most epic fantasy. (1) Widely different group of people bound together (2) on the road by (3) a quest to save the world, and (4) the final showdown that determines the fate of the world. Only slightly less ubiquitously used elements include (5) the last wizard standing; (6) a world living in the shadow of its past—or perhaps more properly said, living as a shadow of its past; (7) a magical item that requires a scion of a pre-designated bloodline to wield it. And all this is as it should be. Abercrombie has described his intention with the trilogy as being to epic fantasy what Unforgiven is to movie westerns—definitely an example of the form, but one with a slant-wise take on the genre.

I think that is an honest way to describe it. For every genre staple/cliché that is included, another is pissed upon. There is a near-constant undermining of expectation, both by the standards of fantasy epics and those of literature in general.  Another way to summarize the trilogy—mine, in fact—would be: Reservoir Dogs + “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” + The Empire Strikes Back, dropped into post-apocalyptic Middle Earth.

This book speaks in the cant of a 21st-century 20-something, hence the inclusion of a Tarantino movie. It is well written, witty, and full of violently poetic descriptions and snarky one-liners, if also littered with more comma splices than bodies (Abercrombie has assured me this is part of his “style,” and since he does apply it consistently I suppose that might even be true). The prose is furthermore blood-soaked in its graphic depictions of battles, deaths, and interrogative torture–and Abercrombie spits out (or should I say, spits on?) some of the most uncomfortably realistic sex scenes I’ve ever read.

As far as the characters go, do yourself a favor and don’t get emotionally attached to any of them. One reviewer said the events of the last book seem to be orchestrated by the puppet master—the behaviors of the characters do not seem to fit with the arc of their development. I can’t decide if that is right, or if it was just that the characters were not developing the way we thought based on how they normally will change over the course of a book. But this is what makes me include the short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”—they are like the Coquette, the Glutton, and the Gambler, falling back into their old patterns of behavior without qualm or second thought once the mitigating circumstances are removed. This is, to me, a very Aristotelian view of humanity; he suggested that man’s character is the sum of his actions, so that a habit, once formed, essentially becomes the man. Certainly the play of events in The First Law supports that idea.

Finally, unlike most epic fantasy, which ends either with happy success or a noble self-sacrifice that saves the world and is thus a bittersweet happy ending, the story of The First Law ends more in bleakness than in triumph. The characters who make it to the end alive have accomplished more than they could have hoped, simply by managing that feat, regardless of the outcome of the struggle for world supremacy. By the time the end has come, there seems to be little difference between the “good guys” winning and the “bad guys” winning—the point is that the status quo will remain the same, and that the villainy or virtue of either side is subjective. This view of the world is cynical, not quite to the point of being chilling but close, and put me in mind of the havoc wreaked upon hope and reason and the very tenants of beliefs about the world by the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Only no Return of the Jedi follows to put the misery back into its designated corner and restore the world’s tinsel-sparkle.

I appreciate what Abercrombie was trying to do, which was to turn everything onto its head and then yank the rug out from under you while you were still trying to squeeze your eyeballs back in. Certainly the direction he chose to take the story gave it the impact of a heavyweight’s right hook. But despite the fact that I liked this aspect, I can’t help but feel a little bamboozled by the difference in expectations raised by the style of the first book and the exit strategy of the last book. It’s akin to how I felt after seeing the “black comedy” film Happiness for the first time:  it was funny in the beginning, but by the end the humor was overwhelmed by the tragedy. If I were to go back and re-read the whole trilogy it might be funny the whole way through—or not funny even at the beginning—now that I know what’s coming. But after just one read of the whole sequence, I feel like I started in one genre and finished in another. Again, I realize his point was to knock down expectations, and I did enjoy the whole ride. As an artistic choice I respect the end…but for me the humor in the first book belies the starkness of the end.  Perhaps my sense of humor is just not Germanic enough?–if I had found Michael Haneke’s movie Funny Games, well, funny, I could see myself thinking the ending here was humorous.

Despite my sense that the ending was one standard deviation too far from the beginning on the lightness scale, I really loved the books.  They reignited my enthusiasm for reading epic fantasy, and I will continue to be a fan of Abercrombie even if he essentially writes the same book over and over again.

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.