Monday, 7 June 2010

Joe Abercrombie; Best Served Cold

When I was in my twenties I remember waiting anxiously for the next installment in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which is in retrospect quite sad, and for the third volume of John Varley's Gaia books. In my thirties, I waited anxiously for the next volume of David Gerrold's War against the Chtorr - like everyone else who was dumb enough to care, I'm still waiting and I imagine I'm as likely to see Duke Nukem Forever delivered by unicorns as I am ever to see what happens. In my forties, I waited for the next volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, and I'll be amazed if I actually see the damn thing this side of fifty.

Waiting can be a bit of a theme of your life, in other words, when you read certain kinds of genre fiction.

It used to be that you waited for the book to come out in hardback, and then you waited a bit longer and it would come out in paperback. But these days you wait for the book to come out, then you wait while it comes out in successively smaller sizes of paperback and finally, when you've nearly forgotten you had a passing interest in the the damn thing, the publishers unleash it in a size which can be read comfortably without a lectern. I have become accustomed to these waits. I have even become accustomed to cracking prematurely and buying the book before it's finally made the shift to comfy size.

Best Served Cold has been keeping me on tenterhooks for about a year. Yes, it was worth the wait.

I've mentioned before that I sort of gave up on Fantasy for a long time because it was all so damn samey and I wasn't all that interested. The great exception was George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire sequence, which I picked up in 2000 or so and got hooked on instantly. But that aside, I still wasn't that fussed about the genre. I think the book which tipped me over the edge was the first volume of KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy, which caught my attention with a very simple, very pedantic opening about the technicalities of swordfighting. All of Parker's work has a strong tinge of how-to book of it, and I find it irresistible, even though I suspect they're not actually very good as works of literature. Still, there's something I can't help warming to in an author who when asked what her ideal review would be, said "Technically accurate - Siege Engine Builders Monthly". This is someone who knows exactly what she's doing, for good or for ill. So I read Parker, and that led me into other things, and along the way I tripped over Abercrombie's First Law trilogy.

The First Law is a marvelous sprawling mess which takes every fantasy cliche and turns it on its head. The middle book even includes a quest across leagues and leagues of exotic countryside to find a super McGuffin which will save the world; gloriously, the McGuffin turns out to be entirely useless, and the whole journey completely pointless. I don't know why it took so long to think of doing that. Anyhow, Abercrombie's real strength is anti-heroes. All his viewpoint characters have real problems and highly dodgy motivation, and the chances of anyone surviving unmaimed and uncompromised from one end of a book to the other are pretty slight. The first book was brilliant, and I fully expected the second and third books to be terrible, but if anything they were better. Inquisitor Glokta begins the book crippled, sidelined and humiliated, and everything gets steadily worse the whole way through the next fifteen hundred pages, but the characters are sketched in so well, and with so little self pity, that as one disaster turns into another, it remains hugely entertaining. It helps that Abercrombie is a true oddity in fantasy - he can write amusing dialogue. The only other writer in the genre who comes close is Scott Lynch, whose Lies of Locke Lamora is one of my favourite books of the last decade.

And so to Best Served Cold, which is at its heart a simple enough tale of revenge taken to extremes. The plot is as complex as the theme is simple; the heroine is betrayed and left for dead, and then takes a bloody and increasingly chaotic revenge on everyone involved. This is older than dirt, but Abercrombie does a wonderful job of subverting expectations; the seven person gang of revengers should, of course, remain together from the beginning to the end, but instead falls apart for perfectly understandable reasons less than half way through the main action, and the plot for vengeance itself rapidly gets subsumed into much bigger games, which are only gradually revealed to be part of still bigger games - games which are never fully explained and which beg for further books to explain them.

The fun lies in the incidental characters. Abercrombie has had the brilliant and rather unusual idea of keeping his fantasy world and setting a completely different story in it. The First Law was dominated by existential conflict between The Union and its traditional enemies to the South and North; Best Served Cold is set in squabbling duchies in between, and the devastating although ultimately inconsequential infighting among them. It's all quite straightforwardly modeled on Renaissance Italy, including the utterly unreliable mercenaries and the utterly undeserving dukes who hire them, and it's none the worse for that. The cleverness lies in having it all link to the larger events of the earlier books but not to rely on them very much. The fun comes from the fact that many of the principal hirelings of the main cast have strayed in from more minor roles in The First Law, including degenerate mercenary Nicomo Costa (drunk, unreliable, but a cunning associate until the inevitable moment of weakness) Vitari, one of Glokta's associates in the First Law, Carlot den Eider, one of his opponents, and so on. Since they managed to survive the other books, you're kind of rooting for them to survive in this one too, which helps to keep the tension up and makes for a curiously warm feeling when, against the odds, some of them do actually make it out alive.

And there's the fun which comes from good writing. Abercrombie's got a good ear for a one liner, but unlike most writers who can toss in the sharp lines, his characters manage to retain distinct voices of their own, which makes the humour part of the character rather than part of the book's tone. The Master Poisoner Castor Morveer is beautifully done; he's a viewpoint character so we get to see the world as he sees it, but his constant self-aggrandisement is elegantly undercut at every turn. He's not a sympathetic character, exactly - or even at all - but he's somehow very human. There's a very well written stretch as Morveer realises that he has alienated yet another employer without intending to, which captures perfectly from the inside a type of person that everyone has met; the guy who just doesn't realise how annoying he is. The moment of genius comes from putting that personality into a role where he has the power of life and death over total strangers.

All in all, a book well worth waiting for. Now the wait starts for the next one.

No comments: