Tuesday 23 June 2009

Book Reviews

Best Served Cold
Joe Abercrombie
Orion Books

There aren't many fantasy novels out there with a sense of humour. Much less a good sense of humour. Lets face it, even Terry Pratchett is a little "Dad-humour" at times. That's just one of the things that makes Joe Abercrombie so good. His sense of humour is amazing, he's one of the few authors I've read who can make slapstick work in a novel - and the rest of it is action and balls-out violence. His latest novel Best Served Cold is Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, with additional dialogue by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, directed by Takashi Miike. Interested? You should be.

Best Served Cold tells the story of Monza Murcatto, the most feared mercenary in Duke Orso's employ. Her victories have made her rich and very popular, a little too popular for her employer. Monza is betrayed, beaten and left for dead at the bottom of a mountain, with only the burning desire for revenge driving her onwards. Seven men must die, and with the help Shivers (a Northern barbarian), Friendly (an autistic psychopath), Morveer (a Machiavellian poisoner) and Day (his apprentice), Cosca (an aged mercenary) and Vitari (an assassin), Monza must face enemies more numerous than her meagre gang. And that is even before Duke Orso, her number one target, dispatches the most dangerous man in the land to finish her off.

The set-pieces and action sequences in the novel are amazingly cinematic, well-detailed, well-paced and managing to maintain a rather "Hollywoodised" mix of action and humour. For example, whilst attempting to escape a poisoning attempt, Morveer runs into this spot of bad luck:

"No detail overlooked." Morveer grinned as he produced the tiny vial from an inside pocket. "A few drops will burn through the knot some time after we have crossed. We need only wait at the far side and reel it in."
As far as could be ascertained by darkness, his assistant appeared unconvinced. "What if it burns more quickly than-"
"It will not."
"Seems like an awful chance, though."
"What do I never take, my dear?"
"Chances, but-"
"You go first, then, by all means."
"You can count on it." Day swung quickly under the rope and swarmed across, hand over hand. It took her no longer than a count of thirty to make it to the other side.
Morveer uncorked the little bottle and allowed a few drops to fall onto the knots. Considering it, he allowed a few more. He had no desire to wait until sunup for the cursed thing to come apart. He allowed the next patrol to pass below, then clambered over the parapet with, it had to be admitted, a good deal less grace than his assistant had displayed. Still, there was no need for undue haste. Caution first, always. He took the rope in his gloved hands, swung beneath it, hooked one shoe over the top, lifted the other -
There was a harsh ripping sound, and the wind blew suddenly cold about his knee.
Morveer peered down. His trouser leg had caught upon a spike bent upwards wells above the others, and torn almost as far as his rump. He thrashed his foot, trying to untangle it, but only succeeded in entrapping it more thoroughly.
"Damn it." Plainly this had not been part of the plan. Faint smoke was curling now from the balustrade around which the rope was knotted. It appeared the acid was acting more swiftly than anticipated.

All of the characters, whatever their importance to the main story, are fascinating. They're not necessarily likable characters, but you get an incredible sense of enjoyment from just watching them be. Friendly may be an autistic psychopath, but he's kind-of cute with it. Morveer is a scheming malicious bastard but he's an awesome bastard too.

At its core Best Served Cold is actually surprisingly dark, slowly underlining the point that vengeance is a dark and destructive destiny, as everyone's lives are altered as a result of their contact with Murcatto. The point isn't hammered home, however, but it's undeniably noticeable amidst all the one-liners, sword-fights and shagging.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
A fuckton. The opening scene is a woman being stabbed and hurled down the side of a mountain. More sword-fights, battles and murders than you would believe.
Sex/Nudity: Several highly explicit, yet realistic, sex scenes.
Swearing: Again, a fuckton. The word "fuck" or a permutation thereof appears on almost every page.
Summary: A truly great ride of a novel. Consistently hilarious, exciting, and riveting. Perhaps a little overlong, but you won't care too much come the end of it - 10/10

Magnificent Bastards
Rich Hall
Little, Brown Book Group

One of the things that struck me about this - comedian Rich Hall's latest collection of short stories - was how scarily close to real life these semi-surreal stories are. Sure, the subject matter may be rather surreal (a guy convinces a total stranger to euthanise him with a pistol when his cancer becomes too advanced, a young girl invites more than 2,000 MySpace friends for a house party, and the adventures of an obsessive compulsive werewolf who is frequently mistaken for Brian Blessed), but their meanings are eerily poignant; they deal with loneliness, environmentalist paranoia, and other flakes from the shit-stained arse of 21st century society.

When they did start coming around - limited to handfuls of twenty-five or thirty, tops - they seemed noticeably less threatening. Gone were the city kids with their straight teeth and rich bulldog faces. These kids moped about, cheerless waifs whose uniform hairstyle, jet black and pitched at a very severe angle - this being the sticks - gave way to a mullet at the back.
"What's with Rachel's new friends?" I said to the Wife one night. "They all look like Leonard Nimoy."
"Rachel's gone Emo." she replied.

Some sections had me in actual laughing fits, but it's a mash of highs and lows. When the stories are good, they're very good, and when they're bad they're pretty bad. Perhaps the problem is with the arrangement of the stories. Good ones and bad ones are clumped together in batches, rather than mixing them more thoroughly.

This isn't something I normally like to mention in a review, unless I think it's a major factor (and unfortunately, in this instance it is): the price. Magnificent Bastards as a retail price of £10.99, which is extortionate for a 212-page paperback. Naturally you can find it much cheaper on-line, but I'm not really sure what the publisher was hoping to achieve.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence: Some moderate. Some prairie dogs are catapulted at high speed.
Sex/Nudity: Some moderate references, used humorously.
Swearing: Some, but not a large amount.
Summary: There's some very funny stuff here, but it's way too short and way too overpriced. - 6/10

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