on 23 October 2013
Maybe it's because my life is an endless cycle of going to work and looking after small children, so I need some escapism. Maybe it's because I read this whilst struggling through Robert Jordan's Eye of the World. Or maybe it's because I found the story so gripping that I spent half term largely ignoring aforesaid small children, so I could immerse myself in the vaguely skewed version of earth as we know it; but I loved Best Served Cold.
Wy only 4 stars then? Well, partly because I never give top marks and party because...
What went well:
Non-stop action, with no interminable descriptions of travelling (Yes, Jordan, I mean you).
A group of misfit characters with few or no redeeming qualities.
HIghly enjoyable battles. I generally hate battle scenes almost much as descriptive passages, but Abercrombie manages them well - especially in the Heroes, but that's another story.
Strong female characters - keeping firmly away from the virgin/mother/whore thing; although by dint of the society Abercrombie creates, whores do tend to be the career move of the unfortunate.
Interesting take on the relationship between Shivers and Monza.
Development of Cosca. I liked him more here than in The Trilogy.
The vaguely episodic nature of the revenge.
Even better if:
There was more of Vitari, who actually emerged as the most interesting character, I found. Although perhaps that was because I'd met her before.
The Northmen could be a little more clearly delineated; Shivers came across as a little Nine-fingers-lite at times. And what's with the big softies falling in love at the drop of a pair of knickers? Can't they separate sex and emotions, or something?
In my first review (which Amazon ate), I commented that too many of the women seem 'feisty', rather than developed, but the more I've thought about it, the more I've decided I was wrong. Others have commented that Murcatto is a bit 2D, but then, if you've spent your entire life fighting battles and looting, not to mention trying to retain your status amongst a bunch of untrustworthy men, I'm not really sure how much personality you're going to have. I actually found her growing uncertainty - especially around her brother - quite interesting.
To those who said there was too much swearing: is it bad that I barely noticed it?
The complaints about it being derivative of other revenge films etc. Well, yes. But then there's a reason revenge drama has been popular throughout the ages. Equally, nothing good ever happens to anyone in a revenge drama. Shades of Hamlet, I guess in the idea of duty vs morality (but no lengthy soliloquies here) and I suppose, if you wanted to, you could even find echoes of 'Tis Pity she's a Whore with the ultra-violence and incest,not to mention Kill Bill and a thousand other permutations. Nothing innocent about our Monz though, and I like her all the more for it.
A fair few people complaining about lack of likeable characters puzzles me. That, surely is just down to personal taste. You don't need likeable characters to make a good story, or at least a story you enjoy: Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, The Secret History, Brave New World; not a single likeable character amongst them, but great books. The Octonauts? Great characters, I love them all, but they don't linger in my head all week.
on 22 April 2014
After having finished the excellent First Law series, I looked forward to reading this, a new storyline centred around new or minor characters introduced in the First Law books. It opens rather well, taking a Northman across the sea to another new map and introduces the main characters in Abercrombie's normal style. I thought that from there, it would spin off into another un-put-down-able yarn which I would finish off within a week.
A year later, and I was sadly mistaken. This isn't a bad story, by any means. It's got several nice twists, some memorable characters that are transformed along the way ... it's just the problem I have with this revenge book is that there isn't enough balance to make it an enjoyable read. If you are at all familiar with Abercrombie's work, you will go into this expecting to be (darkly) amused, both by the wit he invests in his characters, and the ironies that play out in the stories they create.
It's disappointing then, to find that as relationships between characters become mangled (as with the characters themselves), the opportunity for humour and amusement is dampened like so much wasted Gurkish Powder. As much as you want to invest in the characters, their intrinsic unworthiness is extrapolated out before halfway, ensuring that you have a pretty insurmountable barrier of dislike to overcome before you even begin to try to enjoy the actual story. Which is pretty bleak.
Best served cold is definitely served cold, as opposed to spicy; the main character is a maudlin model of incest (wrung from the same loins as Jaime Lannister somewhat), largely dead of wit and hollow inside. Her forced relationships are as contrived as her circumstances, which drag you on through a monochrome landscape of war and redshirts, mercenaries and dukes that culminates somewhat predictably in the main characters surviving some pretty heinous treatment, their perspectives and outlook of life shattered into new reflections along the way.
So it goes without saying that this book is a bit of a trial. I'd pick it up one night, and then put it down for a month. It's definitely not (by the author's own admission, no less) one of the best Abercrombie books out there.
Best served cold is the second time I have wanted to give a five star review to a novel by Joe Abercrombie but after finishing the book I just can't quite allow myself to do just that.
Before discussing my reason for this book loosing a star though, let's start with what was potentially 5 star material.
I was quite awe struck by the First Law trilogy and my introduction to Joe Abercrombie. What I was reading was a series of gritty, harsh and almost terrifying fantasy that has become very popular since the Game of Thrones TV show brought the world's attention to George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. However, where the other books I have read in the same vein fall short of Martin's brilliant books, Abercrombie's have been (in my opinion) far more enjoyable and this is true here as well.
One of my criticisms of this harsh and gritty sub-genre is that it is a constant downer and an effort to read. The crushing defeats and constant cruelties can make reading the books hard work. However, Joe Abercrombie has brilliantly compensated for this by including lots of his wonderful yet admittedly dark humour to his books. This humour is in abundance in Best Served Cold and the book is better for it.
In what is effectively a very brutal revenge story that extends beyond simple killing into all out war on a large scale I was surprised to find myself grinning and laughing all the way through. The jokes find their way into every dark scene at just the right time to both leave the horror of the situation whilst also allowing you to stomach what is happening. Because of this I never feel the need to put down the book and take a breath but instead keep reading as I am eager to find out what happens next.
Keeping people reading is doubly impressive in a book of this size. Often with so many pages to a story you find yourself wishing that they'd just get on with it, but in this story I always found myself thinking, "Yay! There's still this many pages to go."
All of the characters in this book were brilliantly illustrated and even the side characters are fascinating examples of the variance of personalities amongst the human race. There are no characters that I regretted reading a chapter in their POV and that is a big rarity for me as I am usually eager to return to the main characters and even more often to one character in particular, always seeing the intervening chapters as annoying interruptions in the narrative. This book flows nicely from start to finish and each character (flaws and all) were wonderful to read about...
However, it is here where finally I come to the reason why I can't bring myself to give this book five stars. The ending.
Whilst I have grown to love each of the characters individually and I was suitably surprised by twist endings in their stories, I still haven't ended the book with a sense that each character got what they ultimately deserved at the end of the story. Sadly, this is a common problem I have with this kind of book. The harsh truth of life is that sometimes the good get the shaft while the bad rise above it all and get exactly what they want. The trouble is that this is a very unsatisfying truth and it is hard to stomach in a book that often we read to escape such harsh truths in real life.
Just as the brutality is tempered with humour in order to make it easier to stomach, the suitably realistic endings need to be tempered with at least a little satisfaction in order to reward the reader for sticking with the story for so long. I don't need to have all the bad guys die and have the hero live happily ever after but I do like to see at least one of my favourite characters end the book a little better off then they started it or at least with some kind of paradigm shift that could hint at a new understanding that could lead to the possibility of a brighter future.
Instead I find that all the things I am hoping for never happen at the end. People that I'd like to see suffer at least a little or maybe learn a lesson from what has happened end up profiting. Characters who were severely wronged over the course of the book end up without even a modicum of justice. Basically there is nothing to which I can really get behind and think: Yeah, I'm glad that happened.
Overall though this is a very enjoyable book and it is only a vague sense of dissatisfaction that has come over me at the end of the novel that has lost a star from this review. The writing is excellent, the characters well rounded and loveable, the story is suitably complicated with plenty of twists and basically it is an excellent novel.
There are many out there who will not feel as dissatisfied with the ending as I do so I can happily say without reservation that I seriously recommend this book and this author.
on 3 May 2011
I'd not read Abercrombie's First Law trilogy before buying this book, but rather bought it because it was £1.99 in hardback in a book sale and I'd heard he was meant to be a pretty good author. After making sure that the book was a stand-alone novel (because I didn't want to get into another trilogy) I handed over my pennies and settled down to give it a go.
have to say, loved it. Loved his characters (more than two dimensional yet not quite more than caricatures) and thought the plot was great, with plenty of twists and turns and never knowing who will make it out alive. I especially liked the hinting at greater themes and larger plots working in the background. I enjoyed the book so much in fact that I finished it in three sittings and immediately ordered all three books in his debut trilogy.
If you're looking for a damn good fantasy read then buy with confidence.
on 2 September 2011
A few years ago Joe Abercrombie burst on to the fantasy scene with Scott Lynch and a host of other authors. Joe was largely lauded as the best of these new wave authors and after devouring the First Law trilogy, I found it hard to disagree with all the praise that was being heaped on him.
If I am honest, I didn't rate him as highly as George R R Martin, Bernard Cornwell, Stephen King or Robert McCammon but then they are my four favourite authors. With Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie has taken a large step to breaking into this upper echelon on my persona list.
Best Served Cold is dark, gritty and in places pretty funny. Joe has a general theme running through his standalone books. His next book (after Heroes that is) is rumoured to have a strong western influence (as in cowboys not dress code). Best Served Cold is specifically about vengeance.
There are both new and some familiar characters from the First Law Trilogy on display here and although the theme lends itself to some graphic and uncomfortable situations, no matter how abhorrent the actions of the lead characters are, you can't help but route for them.
All of the characters go through some sort of transformation as the book unfolds. The best of these is Murcatto, who on a moral scale, some argue is the only likable figure in the tale. Although Murcatto is obsessed with revenge and dammed if anyone gets in her way, she unwittingly learns the most about her self. Shivers, on the other hand, probably learns the least. His journey is a fascinating portrayal of how one is a victim of circumstances and reacts to the everyday struggle to trying to be a better man.
The supporting cast are all well realised. My favourites of these are Cosca the loveable, mad rogue and Friendly, whose need for order is also quite amusing.
By the very nature of the plot, Abercrombie could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming a tad repetitive. Instead, he skilfully avoids this by bringing a different feel to each act of revenge. At times the book was reminiscent of Scott Lynch in the planning and deception that the characters carried out.
As always, the action sequences are extremely well handled as is the dialogue. In fact I am struggling to come up with a minor complaint about the book. At a push I would say that there is a scene between Morveer and Day that did not quite work for me in that it felt a bit amateurish but that is being picky. To refer to its exact location will spoil the book too much, but you will probably know what scene I mean.
I normally have a good break before going back to authors, but with Abercrombie on this kind of form, I may just pick up Heroes sooner rather than later.
on 30 December 2013
This is the first Joe Abercrombie novel I've read, and I wanted to like it, being a fan of gritty realistic fantasy like the Song of Ice and Fire series. However it didn't really work for me.
I certainly don't object to violence and dark themes in fiction, but here the relentless violence felt rather like a video game or a dumb action movie, with little plot otherwise, and no character development or emotional depth. After the first few chapters the violence lost its impact and was just boring and repetitive, and I found it difficult to care what happened next. The revenge motivation seemed cliched and predictable, and despite the choice of a female lead character, there seemed to be a strong and inexplicable male-default bias when it came to the other supporting and minor characters
The book is certainly competently written. I just didn't see the point of it. Not for me, I'm afraid.
on 4 August 2013
By this point its clear this series of books is grimly pleasurable, entertaining and in some cases entertainingly nasty characters in well written stories. The big flaw has been that the characters are presented as pawns in the games of the magi so everything has a rather pointless feel (nothing ever even threatens to get better).
This book has the same flaw but unfortunately the characters are all either 2D or completely unlikable so they can't make up for the other flaws. It also seems like a book you can skip without losing much in terms of the overall magi driven story, assuming that story is even going anywhere.
Anyone who uses a quote from Wrath of Khan as a book title must be really cool, and it appears that Joe Abercrombie in fact is - and he even gives us the real author of the quote, proving he knows stuff, too!
This is a sequel, of sorts, to the First Law trilogy, which was one of the best pieces of low fantasy of the last decade. David Eddings, of all people, came up with a line in his story - although I cant remember which version of the story - to the effect that "rather than good and evil, I prefer us and them. It clears away distractions and lets you focus on whats important". Joe Abercrombie finally delivered on that sentiment with First Law, and proves it all over again with Best Served Cold.
The book opens with Monza Murcatto, mercenary captain, stabbed, strangled, and thrown off a mountain by her employer. She survives only because she lands on the corpse of her beloved younger brother, who met with the same fate and died before her eyes. She swears vengeance on the 7 men who tried to kill her, and puts in motion plans to kill them all, one by one.
Despite this, to an extent to book starts traditionally, with Murcatto gathering a "magnificent seven" of offsiders to help her in her quest: Caul Shivers, a northman looking for redemption in all the wrong places; Friendly, a psychopathic mass murdered just looking for order; Nicomo Cosca, a drunken husk of the man he used to be; and others, including a Castor Morveer, venomous poisoner and his ambitious assistant Day; and Vitari, who remains mysterious if you have not read the First Law.
The first few murders go to plan...and then it all goes downhill fast.
There is plenty of violence, cruelty, swearing, and sex, but I think it all has a purpose. There is a superbly written sex scene - you cant in good conscience call it a "love scene", because it isn't - which contains a great, if perfectly logical, twist.
Nobody is quite who they seem, nobody trusts anyone else, and certainly there are no knights in shining armour here.
Having read the book, I decided that the book was not really about Monza's revenge, or even Caul Shivers' attempt to be a better man, but about Nicomo Cosca's redemption. Perhaps that's my sunny personality, but in the end I think he is real protangonist of the book, and Monza's machinations are just the background to it all.
Of course, if you have read the First Law, you see how Monza's actions will affect the world as a whole, which is really the last thing on anyone's mind at the time.
Abercrombie has done a superb job of writing here, with a dirty gritty tale that is great fun to read, providing you can handle violence, gore and sex. But here's the thing - none of it is gratutious. It all has a point and advances the story. Maybe its not a nice, clean story - and probably Abercrombie would protest that of course the sex and violence is gratutious, course that's how he rolls - but if you only like neat nice bloodless fairy tales, then this book is not, perhaps, for you.
If you like a full-throated adventure that grabs you by the throat and never lets up, and don't mind getting dirty, then this is just the book you have been looking for.
on 4 June 2013
Beautiful, ruthless and successful - Monza Murcatto is one of Duke Orso's greatest and most favoured generals. At least until he has her beaten savagely, run through, and disposed of by throwing her off his highest balcony. By a great miracle she survives her terrible injuries and sets off on a mission to kill the Duke and all those who participated in her "murder".
In "Best Served Cold" Abercrombie takes a "sword and sandal", feudal setting and uses it to present a very straightforward revenge thriller with very strong overtones of that classic Hollywood (et al) genre the "gang heist caper", typified by... Ocean's Eleven, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, The Italian Job, etc etc etc.
The writing is clean and competent, with a witty, relaxed style and occasionally lapsing into a mild vernacular "for effect". The plot is linear and simple, presenting no real twists and turns... well, there are a few twists, but no big surprises, making this a relatively enjoyable and undemanding read. The story is an "exciting" one, in as much as it trips along at a fair pace, throwing plenty of action, gore (torture and sundry sword-play) and a few fairly racy sex scenes.
On the other hand, that simplicity, the lack of complexity and surprise do render the plot a fairly bland. That would be more than acceptable were the characters to take up the slack. A good "gang" adventure is in large part defined by the leading characters and their interactions. Unfortunately Abercrombie's protagonists are a bit of a letdown. The mixed bag of criminals, murderers, torturers and barbarians in Murcatto's gang are oozing potential and, for sure, Abercrombie makes an effort to build some interesting and quirky characters (almost succeeding in a couple of case) out of this wholecloth. Unfortunately they still come across as a little flat, unfinished... almost two-dimensional*. Even Murcatto herself is disappointing. One could almost replace every reference to "her" with "him" and the story would barely suffer...
Again, all of this could be overcome if any of the characters were actually likeable but they're not. They all (including the leading lady) start the journey as a bunch of violent, cynical, greedy, self-serving thugs, unlikeable** and untouched by conscience and, as it turns out, irredeemable to a man/woman. Nevertheless, the story is big on the central moral; i.e. that revenge brings no rewards. And that moral bangs leadenly throughout this rather long novel like a loose door in the wind. Yeah yeah, I got the message in the first couple of chapters - no one wins! After that point, "Best Served Cold" is little more than revenge porn and, towards the final quarter, I was flagging, wishing that they'd all just kill each other and let me get on to a better book.
In the end, the story is perfectly readable, indeed is enjoyable and witty (if you have the persistence and stomach for it). It makes a fine enough holiday read next to the missus' Jackie Collins, but it lacks the vim needed to lift it above the common herd and earn it a fourth star.
* Contrast this with Dahlquists' Glass Books trilogy. Despite its many shortcomings, it presents three of the most vibrant, interesting and sympathetic protagonists I have encountered.
** For some reason Abercrombie has a small obsession with his characters' propensity to snort and spit rather more frequently than is quite reasonable.
on 23 September 2015
Best Served Cold is a stand-alone novel that takes place in the same world as Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series, to be precise, a few years after the end of Last Argument of Kings. It follows in the same style as the previous trilogy and with the author’s delightfully twisted mixture of noiresque plots and flawed characters, including even some second-string characters from The First Law. If you’ve read his previous books, you know what to expect of Best Served Cold and Joe Abercrombies particular brand of ‘Fantasy Noir’. The only question is, how good is this book?
Best Served Cold takes place in Styria, and follows Monza Murcatto. Amidst a backdrop of an already nineteen-year war and with one Grand Duke Orso locked in a vicious struggle with the League of Eight, Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna after seemingly getting too powerful are betrayed by Grand Duke Orso. Monza survives her brother, his death then leading her into a quest for revenge that will directly impact the outcome of this nineteen-year war.
The book is completely stand-alone, and this plot is brought to a close by its end. It is raw and gritty in every sense, and with the author’s typical dark humour. It drags the reader along on Monza’s revenge and all its repercussions, focusing on the characters as much as on the wider plot. Best Served Cold is beautifully crafted and with a fulfilling world which includes believable cultures and customs. The characters are deep and three dimensional, and all of their personal stories and tragedies are dealt with well and fit perfectly. They love and hate according to their pasts, and are oh so human. Something always great to see in the genre and perhaps expected of the author.
The book starts out excellently, and is a real page-turner. It isn’t neither too long nor too short, and though the revenge plot is hardly surprising in terms of originality, the excellent writing and characters make up for it. I loved the raw and gritty dialogue, the horrifying violence, and the darkness of it all. It was an excellent read, and it really grabbed me.
My only complaint, was that despite all of the great things about Best Served Cold the story and characters fell flat towards the end, and that towards the last pages the book was quite disappointing. Not in a really major way or enough to ruin the reading for me, but instead enough to notice it. It wasn’t bad by any means, just disappointing considering this was written by Joe Abercrombie and was set in the same world as The First Law. There didn’t seem to be any change at all for the characters, who seem to be stuck in who they were. Optimism is something one can have only in vain, and only Monza seems to change somewhat. The themes seem to make this book a more condensed version of The First Law, something which may cause some readers to dislike this book at least slightly.
Overall, and despite the negatives, I must say that I really enjoyed Best Served Cold. It generally lives up to The First Trilogy, and though I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as I did with the latter, it is truly excellent. The characters are beautifully crafted and the plot manages to be fascinating and dark. Though some readers will definitely not enjoy Joe Abercrombie’s brand of fantasy – a personal opinion on The First Law will serve for one to tell whether they’ll enjoy this book – it isn’t something to miss out if you enjoyed Abercrombie’s previous work. At the very least, Best Served Cold will thus be an entertaining read from cover to cover.