Home > Books > Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

If, in an idle moment, you reach for the dictionary— sometimes the need to read something, anything, requires desperate measures — your eye might fall on Rubenesque, a word used to describe the full-bodied women most often painted by Peter Paul (but not Mary) Rubens. It’s an interesting insight into early cultures to see portraiture in service to the need to prove wealth. Most paintings of this era are full of the icons signifying wealth from the furnishing to the women who, at that time, were chattels owned by their husbands. The reason for their lack of clothes was to show the world the men could consistently afford to put enough food on the tables to produce this level of fat. While the ordinary citizens scrimped and saved, struggling to amount to more than a bag of bones, the rich could boastfully feast themselves into obesity.

Reading Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie forcefully reminded me of this word. As I have been living in a hermetically sealed container over the last decade, I had missed the emergence of this phenom called Abercrombie. His first three works came and went into the hands of the modern first dealers who, as they are wont to say, have made a killing. My life went on untroubled. Yet, in some distant nagging way, my instincts told me I was missing something. I vaguely quested. I am missing something? I asked. And, in that, with-a-slight-shrug-of–the–shoulders way, there were a chorus of mutters listing all the things that I might have missed. When the second person diffidently asked whether I had tried Abercrombie, I knew I was on to something big. Indeed, when I tried to pick up the book, muscles in the wrists and arms trembled with the effort. In the end, I propped it on my desk and used a small team of elephants to pull open the covers (actually, that would be better as “a team of small elephants” — realism is everything in reviewing).

As with Rubens’ women, so this is a sprawling book that gives us a lot more information than is good for us about a sister’s campaign for vengeance. The local up-and-coming warlord has done in her brother, so he and his minions must pay. With treasure easily to hand, she gathers together a team of useful bodies and sets off on her quest. More than 600 pages later, we have a happy conclusion. Happy in the sense we don’t have to read any more.

This is the ultimate slow-motion train wreck. You can find the inevitability of the crash bizarrely fascinating as the body-count inexorably mounts, but that does not make it entertainment. It might have been an interesting experiment when Sam Peckinpah filmed death in slow motion. The Wild Bunch is considered a classic. But, as a cinematic and television device, slow motion has been done to death. So it is, I fear, that Abercrombie has done the same for the novelisation of the revenge trope. Told economically, revenge shows the best and the worst of human nature at war. Those of us who have been victimised can try to strike back. If we succeed, it often leaves us dissatisfied. If we fail, we can deceitfully take some moral credit in having failed to carry through.

I suppose I might be feeling better disposed to the book if I found the hard core of the primary characters even remotely sympathetic. But everyone in this world goes through the kill-or-be-killed school of life and emerges without practical scruples. The more intelligent can dispassionately wonder whether they should give compassion a try. When one shows mercy, it does not work out well. Even a potentially “innocent” person whose intellect is shackled by an obsession with numbers, kills without compunction. The rest are variously a torturer, a master poisoner and his assistant, a Northern mercenary and a former leader of mercenaries who has embraced the demon drink rather than building on memories of his former glories. And Murcatto, the leader of this happy bunch, has never been in the slightest worried by collateral damage in civilian deaths — she’s not unhappy with her nickname of Butcher. In her defence, she’s a traumatised girl inducted into military service through force of circumstances with her brother, Benna, who proved the less honourable sibling. He was cowardly and monomaniacal in the pursuit of power and wealth, the two hallmarks of success in this mediaeval world, and dragged his sister along with him, exploiting her strategic talents. Had they been less driven, they would not have been seen as a threat and so marked for death. Having survived, she becomes even more cold-bloodedly obsessed with the elimination of those responsible.

And, of course, as her survival and quest for revenge becomes known, the task of killing the killers becomes that much more difficult. In the best fight-fire-with-fire tradition, the original killers send out lesser killers to kill the would-be killers, and little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum as feuds are created and renewed. There are moments as the plot unwinds when conscience rears its head, but what is that but a excuse for inaction when action is required for survival. What price loyalty in all this? Well, for those who are useful but burdened with principles, the price is always higher. And then, of course, there’s the wider context. As a previous leader of a key force of mercenaries, she can still be a political player. Indeed, the fact she has survived can become a rallying cry to previous employers and enemies alike.

A prison is only the walls inside your own head. Society can feel itself trapped in a never-ending cycle of wars. As a context, think of the Hanseatic League trying to operate an economic system in a political framework driven by the wars between local city and regional European states. Mutual survival depends on achieving a balance between trade and power. To pay the troops, states need money. Without trade, there is no money. So states seek to control trade routes and the merchants try to buy their freedom. And from outside, an Ottoman Empire might be interested in stabilising or destabilising the warring parties.

We have the benefit of hindsight and can see that, over time, there were progressive reforms and the quality of life improved for all. But, at the time, the possibility of change seemed unrealistic — too far in the future to influence events affecting immediate survival. If there is hope, it must perforce be rooted in the hypothetical. Societies cannot escape their intellectual prisons until enough of the people believe escape is possible. And, even then, what are people escaping to? The fact there may be a paradigm shift simply replaces the old with a new construct. Looking around the world today, we still have the same balancing between trade and political power. It may appear more civilised but, at its heart, it’s just as ruthless as ever.

So here’s a sad shake of the head to the two who vaguely thought I might be missing Abercrombie in my life. This book is a litany of depressing cruelty and death. Whatever is triggering this undefinable angst in my own life, it’s not going to be resolved by overblown fantasy like this. I prefer more escapist fiction.

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