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Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold

This is one of those books I appreciated a little more after finishing it and reading other people’s takes on it. Last year I read Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, which I thought was generally awesome; it aimed to turn the conventions of epic fantasy on their head, and actually did. I know some people who were disappointed by it, but their disappointment seemed to lie largely in the fact that Abercrombie actually carried through on all his narrative threats rather than just teasing us with them and resolving everything in a standard epic fantasy way at the end. I did have two political issues with it, though: 1) torture is presented as being wildly effective in producing information, 24-style, and 2) there’s an scary infidel pseudo-Arabic nation that is practically a caricature of political incorrectness. Of course Abercrombie has the right to put stuff like this in his novels, but the fact that people can read this and comfortably see their own prejudices verified, even fictionally, makes me sad.

Anyway, Best Served Cold is a standalone novel taking place in the same world, and sharing a few characters, although to be honest my memory is so bad that I wasn’t even always sure which ones had shown up before. It’s a revenge novel, like The Count of Monte Cristo, and there are seven distinct people who have wronged the protagonist and need to get their just deserts, so this is a long book (over 600 pages). I think the length works against it; although the author does a pretty good job of managing some longer arcs, the episodic structure of the book forced on it by the plot does tend to induce an “okay, three down, four to go” mindset on the part of the reader. I kept on wanting the novel to take a wild left turn and it never really did, although certainly interesting things happen.

But the writing is good and the character development, now that I look back on it in retrospect, is a little more interesting than I gave it credit for at at the time (since I was busy ticking off victims). Still, I think this would be a better book with a couple fewer villains and a couple fewer main characters.

P.S. I don’t know if this was done specifically as a contrast with the trilogy, or in response to others’ reception of the torture thing there, but here there is a wildly ineffective torture scene. So although I would actually prefer my novels with no torture scenes at all thanks, it was sort of nice to see this one as a counterbalance.

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