Constance September 10th, 2009
It seems that the first day of autumn rolled in this morning. Since summer didn’t show up until August it does seem too soon. But then, we are going to be on a real campus this weekend (Yale– how classic is that?), so that I feel invigorated by the sense of snap in the air today is appropriately seasonal. A sharp contrast with yesterday, which was pillowed in the humidity pushed up from the south by another tropical storm.
Among yesterday’s many tasks, I had to return a book to the library, where I scored a winner — Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night on cd. Since finishing Donaghue’s late 18th C historical novel, Life Mask I had failed to find any audio book that worked for my work-outs. When I find one, I settle in for several hours for often several weeks — Life Mask was 19 discs that played for about 70 minutes each. It’s hard to transition out of the world that one’s workout has signaled entry into after so long. Finding the right workout book is not easy.
In any case, I followed Donaghue’s Life Mask on cd, with a print book, Joe Abercrombie’s 15th-century Italian flavored fantasy, Best Served Cold. Along with Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (also experienced via cd) and Treason’s Shore by Sherwood Smith, these were the novels that held my interest this summer.
Best Served Cold is signally composed with more originality and sharply limned characters than many Fantasies. This isn’t easy to do, since thousands of Fantasy works have been published, and published in ever more numbers every month since LOTR created this new publishing genre — and demographic audience.
What I liked most about Best Served Cold is the picture it provides of the terrible harm private mercenary armies are to everyone. They are fighting a war for their own profit. They collude with each other to drive up prices, throw battles and wars, betray each other and their employers, create wars where there are none. You have to think about Blackwater and, at last accounting, nearly 200 other private militias that are getting U.S. military contracts. If you ever thought privatizing a national military is a good idea, you should read this novel of Abercrombie’s, particularly p. 239. But surely there’s no one in these current real world militias who is a classic likeable rogue like the former merc General, Nicomo Cosca, in Best Served Cold.
Like Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Mercy (2008), and Sherwood Smith’s conclusion to her Inda series, Treason’s Shore (2009), Best Served Cold is a Fantasy novel that feels infused with current political events and catastrophes. But readers who read to escape the real world, never fear! Though this deep connection to contemporary events and conditions is successfully accomplished, none of these works will lose anything in depth or effectiveness as all these events disappear from our national attention deficit disordered mind.
This may be the first Fantasy novel that has a character of agency who is an autistic, just on the edge of functioning. Friendly has no bonds with other humans, or booty, or power. He’s not likely to commit betrayal. He counts things, anything. His dice are his comfort objects. He is happy and content in prison, where the rigid routine allows him to feel safe. He’s a splendid addition to any group of thugs or soldiers because he loves the dice, and he never miscounts. He’s a methodical killer in a fight or battle, counting, counting, counting. He’s a sudden savage killer when the numbers are wrong or someone has broken his comfort routines. Friendly provokes the reader into thinking about what the chances were back in such times and conditions of autistic persons surviving at all.
Morveer is the chemist/alchemist/master of poisons-for-hire. Morveer reminds one of certain portraits of Merlin, including TNH’s description of the “unreliable magician” in her current “Re-reading Sandman” here, and which others like Kit Kerr have also discussed at different times – Kit has also employed this specifically in her Deverry works. Most of all it is Morveer’s relationship with his apprentice that recall a twisted Merlin, a penetrating reading of that odd end of Merlin’s life with the entry of Viviene, she who wished to learn all his magic and secrets. The Merlin parallel feels most strong around p. 195. However, you will be surprised how this narrative strand plays out.
The two ‘primary’ characters are the peasant turned mercenary general, the ruthless and brilliant strategist-swordswoman, Monza Murcatto, and Caul Shivers, a Viking sort, who has foolishly followed advice proferred at home and come south to become a better man, rather than a killer and seeker after ephemeral booty. It’s seldom I see actors in the role of fictional characters, but I couldn’t get rid of the image of Shivers as Sex and the City’s Aiden: hunky, competent, unsizzling personality, dull of expression, and twice jilted by Carrie Bradshaw. There are many more characters than these, but these are the most successful, with the most page time. All of them betray each other and re-align frequently.
The structure of the novel includes a variety of time periods, a variety of charcters and multi-threaded narrative lines. These are written with an admirable deftness. Nor does the prose plod. The opening section is some brilliant satiric repartee by deeply knowing, profoundly cynical characters who know each other better than they want to, and have loyalty to nothing or anyone. At first you can’t believe what you are reading — you think this author is maybe an untalented sap and you’re going to close the book. But that’s not what is going on. It’s a brilliant bit. And something that’s included in this bit, is there, at the very end of the novel.
What was problematical for this reader concerning the novel was the name Abercrombie gave the featured region of his world-building — Styria. My eyes and brain insisted on seeing Syria every damned time, which threw me out of where we are. Nor did it feel like a name that would be found on the 15th Century latinum peninsula, of which this tale of warring city states is so reminiscent — as well as of Mario Puzo’s The Family (2001), featuring the Borgias, with historical characters including Niccolò Machiavelli.
This novel was just about perfect for this reader — see, in ‘my interests’: betrayal. It feels significantly superior to Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. This may be because the world is so emphatically modeled upon a historical time and place, and historical characters. There was more than one very strong female warrior in that period of the warring papal and city states.
Hopefully, Best Served Cold is the stand-alone work it appears to be.