Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
14 August 2009
Here's a scene from Joe Abercrombie's fourth novel, Best Served Cold, of a kind you find fairly often in genre fantasy novels. The characters are discussing a sculpture, a fine work of art in fact, that pays tribute to one of their world's military greats in a shining moment:
"Stolicus was the inspiration, I understand, ordering the famous charge at the Battle of Darmium."
Monza raised an eyebrow. "Leading a charge, eh? You'd have thought he'd have put some trousers on for work like that."
"It's called artistic licence," snapped Salier. It's a fantasy, one can do as one pleases."
Cosca frowned. "Really? I always felt a man makes more points worth making if he steers always close to the truth . . . " (p. 252)
I find myself with a few things to say about this exchange. First, its representation of character is typical of the rest of Best Served Cold, in that it evokes psychology and attitudes not alien to the contemporary Western world. Second, although such meta-commentary on the nature and value of fantasy is, as I say, not uncommon in genre fantasy novels, it is made to stand out by its positioning within this novel. Ten pages earlier, there is an impressively intense scene in which two of the main characters, despite being double-hard badasses, completely fail to resist torture, and break down sobbing, ready to tell their tormenters anything they want to hear. That is, you think, steering closer to the truth than much genre fantasy. But then, seven pages later, there is a scene of unashamedly cool ultraviolence in which the deadly assassin trailing our heroes shows his preternatural stuff, dealing with seven men in the time it takes a gold coin to be tossed, then snatching said coin out of the air and melting it with his bare hand. It is as well-done, in its way, as the torture scene, but you'd be hard-pressed to say that it stays as close to the truth, and not just (or even primarily) because magic is clearly involved. Reality is just not that neat; and it's certainly not that stylised. More generally, this is a novel in which realpolitik of a particularly cold and calculated kind co-exists with near-slapstick. (At one point, having just set a murderous trap, one character is crawling between rooftops along a rope that frays, then snaps, and has him swinging down towards a stone wall . . . only to fly through a window into a bedroom, where he discovers two of his comrades starkers.) So, third, I find myself having to ask: what kinds of truth does Best Served Cold steer close to; what points is it making?
I want to bring in, here, something Adam Roberts wrote in this venue with reference to Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind (2007):
. . . the author has not entered into the pre-industrial medieval mindset that his medieval pre-industrial world requires—to, for example, understand the crucial point that not guilt ("I looked as guilty as I felt") but shame was the key moral dynamic for the period. But to understand that would involve shifting about the psychological portraiture of the entire project; it would have meant writing characters less like, and therefore less appealing to, a 21st-century readership disinclined to make the effort to encounter the properly strange or unusual.
This speaks to a broader state of affairs in which style—the language and form of the novel—is seen as an unimportant adjunct to the "story." It is not. A bourgeois discursive style constructs a bourgeois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it necessarily mismatches what it describes, creating a milieu that is only an anachronism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming environment rather than an actual place. This degrades the ability of the book properly to evoke its fictional setting, and therefore denies the book the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise.
Actually, while I'm about it, have another quote. In February 1979 (bear with me, I am going somewhere with all this), Joanna Russ wrote a review column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in which she rather scathed several fantasy novels: "With orthodox heroic fantasy," she wrote, "one judges the quality not of books but of guided daydreams", going on to damn Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane as "ersatz tragedy" and Joy Chant's The Grey Mane of Morning as "ersatz history", and concluding that "both are stone dead" (The Country You Have Never Seen, p. 140). The response of reading fans to such astringent criticism was, of course, censure. (some things never change.) In response to numerous vitriolic letters, in the November 1979 issue Russ wrote a column I would put forward as one of the standard justifications of critical reviewing in the context of genre literature ("I didn't do it to be mean, honest"), and asserted that far from not understanding the seductiveness of fantasy, she finds it precisely the problem:
It isn't the realists who find life dreadful. It's the romancers. After all, which group is trying to escape from life? Reality is horrible and wonderful, disappointing and ecstatic, beautiful and ugly. Reality is everything. Reality is what there is. Only the hopelessly insensitive find reality so pleasant as to never want to get away from it, but painkillers can be bad for the health, and even if they were not, I am damned if anyone will make me say that the newest fad in analgesics is equivalent to the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide. (p. 170)
Russ's line of attack on fantasy is now, if perhaps not then, an obvious and familiar one, and essentially valid. But crucially it's valid for all fiction, not just fantasy—for, as some critics are all too ready to argue, any fiction creates a world that is not the world we live in—and the degree to which it is valid has no predictable relation to the fantastic content of the book. So you have to be honest. Any writer has to (and has the right to) decide how much "analgesic", or consolation, they want to provide with their fiction; for readers, the decision is how much to consume. I found that Best Served Cold's juxtapositions of brutality and comedy, coincidence and cruel logic, foregrounded these questions: to read the novel was indeed to consider how close it does, or should, steer to "truth".
The very thrust of the book—a quest for vengeance—reinforces this. Monzcarro Murcatto, famed and feared mercenary general, is stabbed and thrown off a mountainside by a boss nervous of her presumed ambition. (In fact she has no designs on his position.) Said boss forgets to check that she's dead, and thanks to the intervention of a mysterious healer, she survives. You can hear the creaks in these opening scenes, although one of the two contrivances is justified by the book's end, if not entirely satisfactorily. Like (as Kyra Smith has explored) the Bride in Kill Bill she sets out to kill her ex-boss's six key henchmen, then to kill said boss; to achieve this end, she gathers her own troupe of ne'er-do-wells, comprising a barbarian, a poisoner and his apprentice, an ex-con, a torturer, and a rogue. Best Served Cold is thus an episodic affair, barrelling through a series of capers, building up Monza's troupe as a family, then breaking it apart; building up the promise of resolution, then threatening to break that apart, too. It follows its formula very effectively at first (the section set in a besieged city is absolutely marvellous), then gets a little bogged down towards the end, as the ties to Abercrombie's earlier novels become harder to ignore, and Monza's personal quest starts (of course) to have ramifications for the entire region. Politics, in Styria, or at least in this Renaissance Italy-ish region of the world, appears to be war continued by other means, "a fatal game with few merciful players" (p. 203), and crude. But the point is that a reader can see the expected arc of the story in her head: can see the range of possible endings; can, again, anticipate which might be most satisfying, and which most true. Some of the characters can see it, too.
Back to Roberts. This attack on fantasy is valid, too, but only to a point. Abercrombie's characterisation certainly does have a contemporary flavour to it; and the world of Best Served Cold certainly is a sort of late-medieval/early-Renaissance place; and it is certainly not illegitimate to want, or to prefer, that fiction in such worlds evoke the psychological distance between their inhabitants and ours. (If that is what you want, a book that does it exceptionally well, I'd suggest, is Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters, published a few months ago.) But what Roberts does is assert that such evocation of strangeness is required, that any novel set in an obviously historically-influenced world that fails in such evocation necessarily becomes false in its worldbuilding, and consequently will be limited in what it can achieve. This I do not buy, and not just because Best Served Cold stands as part of an obvious, contemporary, perhaps predominantly British grouping of secondary-world fantasies that traffic in just such mismatches of style and setting—it would include Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War (2004), Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) and Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains (2008); and Fritz Leiber might be an ancestor—without a noticeable roar of complaints that they ring false. I do not buy it because, as China Mieville put it earlier this year, experiencing a subcreation is a strange and unique kind of reading, and I think more flexible than Roberts allows. To state the obvious, no matter how vivid and scrupulous, the worlds of fantasy fiction are not real worlds, and not representations of our past; they are always conceits, and I'd suggest that one possible measure of the success of a secondary-world fantasy—or at least, one measure of its potential for success at being more than mere analgesic—is the extent to which its author appears to remember this fact.
Best Served Cold gives every impression that its author never forgets it; indeed, more than with any of the other writers I've just mentioned, there is a sense that Abercrombie is eagerly embracing the artificiality of his creation. Everything I've mentioned so far—the tonal see-sawing, the awareness of formula plotting, the mismatch of language, psychology and setting—can be read as supporting this, but there is more. Even when Abercrombie's description is not being self-aware—"they could've had lamps," the narrator observes at one point, "but torches are that bit more sinister" (p. 241)—it has a dutifully reductive feel, breaking each vista down into tidy lists of its component parts; or, less charitably, throwing detail at the wall in the hope that some of it sticks. Here is a view over a city: "A jumble of mismatched roofs every shape and pitch stretched off all round—red tiles, grey slates, white lead, rotting thatch, bare rafter caked with moss, green copper streaked with dirt, patched with canvas and old leather. A tangle of leaning gables, gutters, garrets, beams, paint peeling and sprouting with weeds, dangling gutters and crooked drains ..." (p. 79). Here is a view over a valley: "autumn leaves pale green, burned orange, faded yellow, angry red, light glinting silver on fast-flowing water. To the east, the forest crumbled away into a patchwork of fields—squares of fallow green, rich black earth, and golden crop" (p. 9). And here is another city, shrouded in fog: "Bells tolling in the darkness, folk calling out, all kinds of voices. Prices. Offers. Warnings. Jokes and threats spilling over each other. Dogs barked, cats hissed, rats skittered, birds croaked. Snatches of music, lost in the mist" (p. 118). Some of these work better than others—I'm quite fond of that last one, actually—but the repetitive use of the same effect is a little wearying. Your tolerance may vary.
And there is the use of repetition. Frequently, characters' perceptions of a situation are compared or contrasted through the use of identical thoughts or observations. In one climactic fight, the same jokes are made by members of the party in different parts of the same building, for example. Monza and her first hire, Shivers, in particular, are prone to reflecting each other in this way, such as when they're each making good points in an argument—"hard to argue with most of that", they each think. One crucial line of dialogue is repeated, later in the novel, by Cosca: he is innocent of its context, but we are not. Such repetitions serve more than one purpose, of course: the fact that the novel begins and ends with the same description of a sunrise speaks to Best Served Cold's over-riding cynicism regarding the possibility of change. But whatever else they are, they are moments when you can remember that this tale is constructed.
What grounds the book, in the main, is character. Abercrombie's crop of gentlemen-and-women bastards are satisfyingly hard to love. I've mentioned Monza, who is in debt to but not entirely in the shadow of Mary Gentle's Ash (which is no small achievement): pragmatic, competent, driven, and self-contained, there is a clear sense that she is meaningfully damaged by her life, but not broken by it. Her pains hurt, even if she might have done things wrong enough to deserve them. I've also mentioned Shivers, who dances with Monza through a thoroughly believable and destructive anti-courtship, his determination to become a better man challenged at every step. There is Morveer, the poisoner and, he insists, scientist, a study in pathetic masculinity, self-aggrandizing, insecure, vicious, and occasionally pitiable. There is the predictably ironized Friendly, the ex-con, whose near-autistic obsession with numbers—to the point of being made to feel distinctly uneasy by stew portions containing different numbers of chunks of meat—means that he appears to others to have, in Abercrombie's rather good phrase, "all the emotion of a kitchen sink" (p. 189), but whose distanced perspective is well-used. And there is Nicomo Cosca, the drunken, melodramatic rogue; he is probably the least successful of the principals, being too obviously charismatic (though, again, ironized, in this case by the number of times he or the narrative introduces him as "famed soldier of fortune"), and burdened with the self-awareness and perceptiveness to be cast as the novel's truth-teller. His remark in the scene I quoted at the start of this review is no surprise.
"These are the Years of Blood," one of Monza's targets notes, referring to the context of sprawling and seemingly endless conflict that has shaped all the novel's characters. "Everyone is seeking revenge" (p. 204). And they are. This is, you sense, where the novel's theme and form should come together, for by the end of the book vengeance is only another kind of artifice: a narrative people choose to impose on their lives to give it some meaning, to find something to hold onto, but which is ultimately empty. But in fact there are so many betrayals and reversals and counter-betrayals in the last two hundred pages that it starts to approach the canonical problem with magic, that if anything can happen (or, in this instance, anyone can change their mind), then whatever does happen is of limited impact. This inevitably makes Best Served Cold something of a novel of parts—some very good, exhilarating or terrifying or amusing, but no more a coherent whole for that. The frenetic plot does, however, feed into a broader aesthetic of denial, even if it could have been more elegantly done; I couldn't help thinking of the more effective, because more parsimoniously deployed, betrayals towards the end of KJ Parker's The Company (2008). To borrow Roberts' phrase, and use it in a slightly different sense, Best Served Cold is a novel that can be understood to deliberately deny the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise, because it refuses to believe there are any. It believes the world is what it is; it believes in change, but no progress except the personal. It's a kind of artistic licence, but it's not in search of beauty, and I don't know how close it steers to the truth.