|Springtime in Styria. And that means war.There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll, and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.
War may be hell, but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employers taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.
A riveting tale of GRIMDARK, MAN, GRIMDAAAARK.
I dearly hope this book’s supposed to be a comedy, because there’s no way it can be seriously taken even remotely slightly. I have the suspicion, however, that I’m laughing at, not with, Abercrombie.
(Huge rape trigger in footnote.)
I’m guessing that Abercrombie took to heart criticism directed at his trilogy that his attempts at female characters–let’s not mince words–stank. So this time around, the Fellowship of Gritty Darkness includes not one or two, but three women, one of them Monza Murcatto, protagonist and Kill Bill knockoff mercenary general. She hires a band of misfits to assist in her quest: Shylo Vitari, torturer; Castor Morveer, poisoner, and his apprentice Day; Logen Ninefingers, introspective barbarian in search of redemption; Nicomo Casco, drunk, and Practical Frost, muscle.
You may notice there’s something slightly off with the dramatis personae. I assure you, nothing is wrong. Oh, to be fair Practical Frost came back with an all-new obsessive-compulsive disorder and possibly the author’s take on autism (oh god no, no don’t go there, oh fuck he went) and he’s not an albino anymore, and Logen Ninefingers has a new name. Essentially though, they’re still the same characters, and if you are expecting anything to their personalities beyond the above description you are going to be disappointed. Monza is obsessed with revenge; Day eats a lot; Morveer is a socially incompetent man with delusions of grandeur; Logen is trying to redeem himself but can’t because the grimdark, man, grimdark, and Nicomo is an alcoholic. If you’re the type to read a book for characterization, rejoice. I’ve spared you from reading 900 pages of it, or rather the lack of it. The characters are each defined by one single trait. There’s nothing more to them. That’s it, done. Some of them may be somewhat familiar to readers who’ve partaken of the First Law trilogy, but between you and me I can’t tell them apart. There are only two or three characters I can recall from the trilogy and the rest I genuinely can’t remember the names of–you know there’s this dude who during the course of the trilogy got crowned king? Yeah, him. He has a cameo, but as Abercrombie makes a point of not naming him, I can’t remember his name either. The only one I can remember well, Glokta, is absent and only mentioned in passing. The Logen clone might have been present in the trilogy, but again I can’t recall, just as I can’t recall any of the characters he alludes to.
So it goes. Abercrombie and his one-trick ponies. Some of them don’t even do any tricks.
The plot unfolds in what some reviewers call, charitably, “a succession of misdirections and wrong-turnings.” I call it a Niagara of random stupidity. Let me introduce you to some of the “plot twists”:
- He’s dead… wait, he’s not! Lo, he turns up at the last possible minute, saving Monza from a horrible death!
- That guy is the husband of this character! You’d never have suspected it! Who was he again?
- The same guy is in fact this guy from the beginning of the book, and now it turns out he’s not out to kill her, instead turning up in the nick of time to save Monza from a horrible death!
- The person she’s avenging turns out to be a treacherous, cowardly fuck! To… whose surprise again? I don’t know.
Then this one time, Monza goes up against a superior swordsman. She survives only because a statues falls on and impales him. I’m not making this up. She carries an illusion of being competent, but for the most part she takes terrible pratfalls and emerges alive by sheer dumb luck. Hell, she survives her fall down the mountain by sheer dumb luck, or rather other people’s stupidity–why didn’t Duke Orso think to kill her stone dead before flinging her body down his terrace? You tell me, and “if he did there wouldn’t be a story” isn’t a good reason. Sorry, Joe, you try a little too hard.
The rest of the novel is taken up by the Fellowship of Gritty Darkness doubting, suspecting, and preparing to betray or abandon each other. There’s a lurid almost-love story between Monza and the Logen clone and it’s as gross and unpleasant as the one between the original Logen and that albino girl. I swear, Abercrombie should never be allowed to write sex scenes, ever. I realize he’s probably trying to make them comical and a little repulsive but all this typed-out “Oh” and “Ah” just reads like cheap porn you find on smut fanfic archives. One of the characters, you will love to know, has a fetish for being pissed on. Oh, and just in case our GRIMDARK, MAN, GRIMDAAARK quota isn’t fulfilled yet, there’s incest to go along with it all. Just missing necrophilia and bestiality, eh? You’ll have to give R. Scott Bakker a call for the more XTREME GRIMDARK, and if nothing else Abercrombie isn’t into rape parades.1 Monza may be stabbed, beaten, and nearly crippled, but sexual assault didn’t enter the picture, though naturally one of her antagonists voices his desire to rape her before they fling her down the mountain. Very classy.
I would say something about her nemeses being monodimensional caricatures, but then who isn’t in this 900-page saga of random stupidity? It’s not so much that they’re black-and-white–we are in Gritty Darkness Fantasia, remember?–but that despite Abercrombie’s abortive fumbling attempts at moral ambiguity, they’re all still no more complex than your average David Eddings stereotype. It’s just that they’re kind of vomit-colored instead of black or white or even gray. On which note, fecal matter and vomit come up with determined frequency. It’s just as Arthur B of FerretBrain says: “It’s far too easy for any tinpot third-rate fantasy author to create a fantasy novel infused with enriched grittiness (achieved by throwing lots of rape and blood and shit into an otherwise standard fantasy novel).” Truer words never said, and that The Steel Remains review is worth reading too.
That’s not to say Best Served Cold isn’t enjoyable. It offers, on occasion, amusing if desperately self-congratulatory narrative and dialogue. It’s good for cheap laughs, thanks to most of the jokes revolving around cunts, cocks, and going to the loo. Yeah. 900 pages is a lot of pages for potty humor, but that seems to be all Abercrombie’s capable of. Oh, and a statue impaling the novel’s one gay character with a sword, of course. Ho ho ho. This is my belly laugh.
Oh and in case you wondering, the novel’s message is that, yes, revenge is empty and futile. Exactly the same message behind 4536537 other revenge stories. Grimdark is evidently not synonymous with “original,” eh?
: but is R. Scott Bakker ever. You read The Darkness that Comes Before and you’ll find the protagonist raped in his boyhood within the first few pages, and repeatedly too. Then there’s a lovely one from, I think, The Judging Eye which I will quote here for your displeasure:
“Valrissa!” Aengelas screamed. “Valrissssaa!” Holding her by the throat, the thing languorously picked her clothes away, like the skin of a rotten peach. As her breasts fell free with soft-pink nipples, a sheet of sunlight flickered across the horizon and illuminated her lithe curves . . . But the hunger that held her from behind remained shadowy—like glistening smoke.
Animal violence overcame Aengelas, and he strained at his leash and gagged inarticulate fury.
And a husky voice in his soul said: We are a race of lovers, manling.
“Pleaaassee!” Aengelas wept. “I don’t knoooowww . . .” The thing’s free hand traced a thread of blood between her legs across the plane of her shuddering belly. Valrissa’s eyes regarded Aengelas, thick with something impossible. She moaned and parted hanging legs to greet the abomination’s hand. A race of lovers . . .
“I don’t know! I don’t! I don’t! Pleaase stop! Pleaasse!” The thing screeched like a thousand falcons as it plunged into her. Glass thunder. Shivering sky.
She bent back her head, her face contracted in pain and bliss. She convulsed and groaned, arched to meet the creature’s thrusts. And when she climaxed, Aengelas crumpled, grasped his head between his hands, beat his face against the turf. The cold felt good against his broken lips.
With an inhuman gasp, the thing pressed its bruised prick up across her stomach and washed her sunlit breasts with black seed. Another thunderous screech, woven by the thin human wail of a woman.
And again it asked the question.
I don’t know . . .
These things make you weak, it said, tossing her like a sack to cold grasses. With a look, it gave her to the Sranc—to their licentious fury. Once again, it asked the question.
The abomination then gave his weeping son—sweet, innocent Bengulla—to the Sranc, and once again asked the question.
I don’t know what you mean . . .
And when the Sranc made a womb of Aengelas himself, it asked—with each raper’s thrust, it asked . . .
Until the gagging shrieks of his wife and child became the question. Until his own deranged howls became the question . . .
His wife and child were dead. Sacks of penetrated flesh with faces that he loved, and still . . . they did things.
So yeah, the alien winged thing rapes his wife, then his son, and then him too. In loving details. GRITTY DARKNESS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS, KIDS. I understand this sort of thing is par for the course in Bakker’s books. Very mature. Not sure what’s going on with the “make a womb” thing. Is Angelos here under the impression he penetrated his wife’s uterus back when they made sweet, tender love? Dude needs an anatomy text.