Best Served Cold
Author – Joe Abercrombie
Pages: 544 pages
Release Date: June 1st, 2009
You can say many things for Joe Abercrombie.
You can say he’s leading the way for no-holds-barred Fantasy. You can say he’s a great stylist, with satisfying, easy-to-read prose. You can give him credit for being adept at writing convincing, startling endings (a trait sadly lacking in the Fantasy genre). You can say his action scenes are among the best out there. You can say he loves to set the reader up, then pull the rug out from under them by subverting the tropes we all know and abhor/love.
You can say all these things about Joe Abercrombie, and they all certainly apply to Best Served Cold as surely as they did for his first trilogy, The First Law. I recognized all of these qualities while reading the novel, but the whole time I also couldn’t fight the feeling that something was off, that I wasn’t connecting to this Abercrombie novel as I had to previous ones. It took me a few days, and a couple of conversations with others who had read the book, to finally unearth the roots of this feeling.
To begin with, Abercrombie continues to flex his muscles in using narrative voice to help define his characters. Where most authors dealing with multiple Point of View characters use a standard voice (grammar, structure and vocabulary) across all viewpoints, Abercrombie joins the ranks of authors like George R.R. Martin in his ability to reveal pieces of their personality through the way they tell their story. Few authors do it so well as Abercrombie. A few examples:
An introspective Barbarian:
First thing Shivers noticed as the boat wallowed in towards the wharves, it was nothing like as warm as he’d been expecting. He’d heard the sun always shone in Styria. Like a nice bath, all year round. If Shivers had been offered a bath like this he’d have stayed dirty, and probably had a few sharp words to say besides. Talins huddled under grey skies, clouds bulging, a keen breeze off the sea, cold rain speckling his cheek from time to time and reminding him of home. And not in a good way. Still, he was set on looking at the sunny side of the case. Probably just a shitty day was all. You get ’em everywhere. (p. 20)
A border-line autistic killer, obsessed with numbers:
The dice came up six and one. The highest dice can roll and the lowest. A fitting judgement on Friendly’s life. The pit of horror to the heights of triumph. And back.
Six and one made seven. Seven years old, when Friendly committed his first crime. But six years later that he was first caught, and given his first sentence. When they first wrote his name in the big book, and he earned his first days in Safety. Stealing, he knew, but he could hardly remember what he stole. He certainly could not remember why. His parents had worked hard to give him all he needed. And yet he stole. Some men are born to do wrong, perhaps. The judges had told him so.
He scooped the dice up, rattled them in his fist, then let them free across the stones again, watched them as they tumbled. Always that same joy, that anticipation. Dice just thrown can be anything until they stop rolling. He watched them turning, chances, odds, his life and the life of the Northman. All the lives of the great city of Talins turning with them.
Six and one. (p. 48)
A pompous poisoner:
It was just the kind of afternoon that Morveer most enjoyed. Crisp, even chilly, but perfectly still, immaculately clear. The bright sun flashed through the bare black branches of the fruit trees, found rare gold among dull copper tripod, rods, and screws, struck priceless sparks from the tangle of misted glassware. There was nothing finer than working out of doors on a day like this, with the added advantage that any lethal vapours released would harmlessly dissipate. Persons in Morveer’s profession were all too frequently despatched by their own agents, after all, and he had no intention of becoming one of their number. Quite apart from anything else, his reputation would never recover. (p. 63)
All distinctly Abercrombie, but each with their own twist on language that gives an immediate resonance to their character. Morveer the poisoner is long winded and grandiose; Shivers the Northman speaks with simple, but often profound words, playing with an almost first-person level of introspection; Friendly the convict is number obsessed and has an almost clinical way of describing the characters and events surrounding him. And this is just a portion of the characters narrating the novel. Others include Monza and her more traditional narrative style, and Nicomo Cosca, whose sly wit is most pleasurable of all. This connection to the characters is both the strength and the ultimate weakness of the novel.
With The First Law, Abercrombie rose to prominence with his portrayal of a dark world full of grey, morally corrupt characters and even more morally ambiguous situations. You often weren’t sure who to root for, and it certainly wasn’t easy to define the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’, if such things exist in Abercrombie’s world. But, Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s attempt to out-Abercrombie himself and everything is meaner and bloodier than last time; even the shades of grey have been left behind in favour of blood spattered black.
Best Served Cold is a novel about revenge, but, unlike the best revenge stories, there is little room for redemption. Now, I’m not afraid of dark stories, ribald language or close-to-the-camera violence, but it all needs to have some sort of a payoff at the end, some sort of redemption for the characters. Best Served Cold is, if nothing else, a story about its characters. Some of these characters change, some of them end the novel no different than they began it (though perhaps six feet under the earth) and some, in the case of Shivers, go through a complete recession of character.
Take a look at that quote above, from the ‘introspective Barbarian’. These are the lines that open Shivers’ story. It is immediately obvious that his newfound optimism is going to be put through a gauntlet of misery, testing his faith to the very end. Shivers’ moral decay through the novel (reaching its peak at a truly startling scene near the middle) is heartbreaking and difficult, but never bears any fruit. Though this is essentially the point Abercrombie is trying to make (there is no redemption in revenge), this subversion of the typical good-turns-bad-turns-good-again story sapped my willingness to go back to Best Served Cold once I’d put it down. As the novel wore on, I became less connected with the characters, instead of growing more fond towards them, finding it more and more difficult to care about Monza’s plight. I kept hoping for her plans to be thrown awry, for some event of more magnitude to reveal itself, to shed new light on the events of the novel. But it never came. How does one care about characters who keep telling the reader that even if they succeed in their hopeless task, they’re still fucked once they come out the other end?
Best Served Cold took me a bloody month to read. At the time, I couldn’t put a finger on why it was taking so long. I recognized the many strong qualities inherent to Abercrombie’s novels – style and voice, action and subversion – but by the middle of the book I was going through the motions, chugging my way to the finish line with that hope in my heart that it wasn’t going to end exactly where I thought it was headed. Relentless, but ultimately frustrating, Best Served Cold showcases Abercrombie’s growth as a writer amid his difficult-to-appreciate decisions as a storyteller.