Review of Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold is Joe Abercrombie’s best, and worst, book.

In case you don’t know Abercrombie, the best part of his books are his characters. Best Served Cold has some of the best characters he’s ever written, like Friendly, the cleaver-wielding cook who gets along with everyone, unless they insult his dice. There’s my personal favorite, the depressed poisoner, obsessed with poisons and getting people to like him. And of course there’s the strong female main character, Monza, the Butcher, the Snake of Talins. Favorites from previous books also make an appearance.

Abercrombie forces his seven characters together with wildly different motivations. Sex, money, revenge, the antidote.. Then he makes them hate each other, revealed through murderously philosophical dialogue. I hung on to every unrealistic word. He ratchets up the tension to unbearable heights (or lows), and at times I had to put down the book and remind myself not too get too attached because you know someone is going to die (which doesn’t happen how you think it will).

And oh, the fight scenes! Abercrombie does some amazing fight scenes, and the plot of Best Served Cold – revenge on seven powerful men – gives him a chance to write not one, not two, but seven action packed fights to the death.

Now for the bad. This is Abercrombie’s first book after his hugely successful First Law trilogy. He’s experimenting, and he makes everything extreme. It works with the characters and dialogue, but other parts are borderline unreadable. I admire Abercrombie’s clinical precision in describing fights and injuries. No unimaginative screaming from his characters. But in Best Served Cold, he goes on for pages and pages of this stuff, how ‘the silky smooth sword penetrates the flesh’, bones, blood, yada yada. Pages of the stuff.

There’s torture scenes. They do have a purpose, to provide motivation or show the evilness of a character, but to spend several pages on them, while you the reader wince at every detail, it’s just too much. You wonder if he enjoys writing this. In the dedication to Best Served Cold, Abercrombie warns us that we will read this book and worry about him.

And then there is the mandatory sex scene. He doesn’t do just one, but three or four. Again, he goes too far, and pushes it from borderline rated-R to blatantly X-rated. I don’t want to read about a guy’s cock. (Does anyone??)

Abercrombie also throws in some weird supernatural elements, supposedly foreshadowing events of future books, but it just comes across as forced, out-of-place. Best Served Cold lacks the polish and precision of all his other books.

My advice? Read the prologue, the first ten pages or so. It’s the best scene in the book, second only to when Friendly avenges his dice. If you are hooked, then keep reading. If you find yourself wincing once too often, then skip Best Served Cold.

Review of Otherland by Tad Williams

Most science fiction/fantasy books are simple. One or two main characters, an evil villain, and stuff happens. But every now and then comes along a work of fantasy or science fiction that approaches something resembling literature. Otherland by Tad Williams is such a book. It features not one, not two, but five main characters, each with their sidekicks, backgrounds, families, motivations and environment. An African professor and her zulu ‘bushman’ sidekick. An online barbarian, invincible in virtual combat but is suffering from progeria and about to die in the real world. A serial killer with the power to disrupt electronics. A wheelchair-bound hacker whose story is told through the eyes of a five-year old girl. And the character who dominates the book, Jonah, who is permanently lost in the belly of a virtual reality based on literary classics.

Each chapter of the book jumps between these characters. Each character has their own plot, and as a reader you feel like you are reading five different books where nothing happens. Eventually things start happening to each of them. One’s brother falls into a strange coma. Another experiences online visions. Another finds out about this mysterious virtual reality called ‘Otherland’, the hacker seduces a little girl, and Jonas, the lost one with amnesia, well, I just started skipping all his chapters once I figured out the author was just using those chapters to recreate literary classics such as Through the Looking Glass, The Odyssey, Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz, Aesops Fables, and more surreal adventure-type books.

By the end of the book the characters come together and you manage to piece together the plot: A bunch of bad guys have discovered a way to trap people in virtual reality while their real body falls into a coma. They plan to build their own virtual reality, called Otherland, one where they can alter reality. They plan to trap humanity in Otherland and become gods. The only one who can stop them is the guy with amnesia, Jonas. We’re not sure how yet.

So the main characters and their sidekicks – a British vampire; a kid who only talks in annoying techno-babble; a faithful archer; an almost-sentient robot – nine in total, just like The Fellowship of the Ring – set out to traverse the depths of this crazy virtual Otherland, find Jonas, and save the world. Oh, and one of them – you don’t know which – is hacked by the serial killer, who is planning to kill them all and seize the god-like powers for himself, waiting to strike at any moment.

The book is an epic setup of a thousand pages. It’s complicated, requires patience, and is not for the casual reader. I’m looking forward to book two.