*Best Served Cold* *2009). Orbit

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 Sandmanhere, 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.

4 Responses to “*Best Served Cold* *2009). Orbit”

  1. green_knighton 11 Sep 2009 at 3:30 am

    ‘Styria’ would throw me for something closer at home – it’s the very real name of an area in Austria better known as ‘Steiermark’.

  2. Tim of Angleon 11 Sep 2009 at 9:09 am

    “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.”

    Well, not really. Miltary contractors aren’t “private mercenary armies”, they’re people who are hired to do a specific job that a government needs done and that it cannot do out of its own resources. And the reason for that is that modern warfare is a complex and highly skilled business, and the people who are best at it aren’t paid shit — so they quit and go where they’ll be fairly compensated. When you consider the the worst military atrocities in history were committed by “official government forces”, not “private mercenary armies” (especially “create wars where there are none”), you might possibly consider that a lot of what you know ain’t so.

    When you get to Yale, be sure to visit the Durfee Sweet Shop. It’s conveniently located on the Old Campus, and any student can tell you where it is.

  3. Constanceon 11 Sep 2009 at 9:29 am

    Tim — Have you read Jeremy Scahill’s book on Blackwater?

    There are other books also that have researched the roles played by the privately contracted militias like Blackwater in our latest catastrophes, as well as the mercenaries in Africa, as well as other parts of the globe. The future implications from their behavior in New Orleans post-Katrina was frightening.

    Not to mention the private militias on the other side(s).

    History has taught us many lessons about mercenaries.

  4. cedunkleyon 11 Sep 2009 at 2:56 pm

    I’ll be waiting for this to come out in paperback but that wait won’t be easy. I’ve read the first book of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy (and plan on reading the next 2 very soon) and thought his characterization in particular was excellent. He, along with George R. R. Martin and Karen Miller, has a knack for POVs with very strong, unique voices.

    As far as the whole mercenary discussion, companies like Blackwater aren’t technically mercenaries, in the sense of how they are defined in international rules of warefare and conduct treaties. They’re essentially a new classification that the international community has yet to come to grips with, legally. In one sense they seem to fall on the mercenary side in that they are fighting a war for profit, but since they are a legal company with contracts to participate in conflicts in specific ways, they don’t fit into the Geneva Convention’s view of a mercenary.

    This is one of many difficult issues that has arisen from the war on terror, and highlights some of the shortsightedness of the existing conventions.

    I don’t know enough to know what actions such groups have carried out in places like Iraq and many others, but I imagine the good they might accomplish gets little to no notice. That said, their downside may far outweigh the positive. I’m not well read enough to know.

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