Joe Abercrombie Book Review: Best Served Cold (spoiler free)


Why, oh why, have I only just got my hands on Joe Abercrombie.

One of his books that is, not the author himself.


Wandering into a local charity shop, I came across a copy of Best Served Cold. A thick tome, featuring a female warrior holding a sword and a quote from George R. R. Martin on the front stating ‘This is his best book yet’.

Since my fantasy withdrawal symptoms are sort of George’s fault – I’ve read (and reread) all of the A Game of Thrones books and am, like many fans, wondering if there’ll ever be a wrap-up book in the series before he, or we for that matter, expire – I figured Mr Martin owed me a good interim read.

So, I paid my dues (sorry Joe, charity shop=no royalties but now I’ve found you I may be persuaded to part with cold, hard cash that lines your authorial coffers for the next book of yours I read) and took the book home.

What’s it about? (No spoilers I promise, it’s on the back cover blurb).

The most feared and famous mercenary in Styria, Monzcarro Murcatto, has become a shade too popular for her employer, Grand Duke Orso’s, liking. Her brother is murdered and she is left for dead. Broken but alive, she burns for revenge. ‘Whatever the cost, however distasteful the allies required, seven men must die…’

This is epic fantasy, set in a large and vividly imagined world. It has a female heroine (if you can call her heroic) who is most definitely not a teenager or a Chosen One. She’s hard, bitter, focused, messed up and she has her reasons to chase vengeance.

Was it any good?

Was?? Hang on…I haven’t finished it yet! I’m three-quarters of the way through. But, yes, it’s good. I wouldn’t normally review a book without finishing it, so how do I know that without actually getting to the end? Lately, I’ve not had a lot of reading time. Mostly, last thing at night when I’m huddled under my duvet trying to keep warm on an English winter’s night. Then I might not pick up the book again for a day or so. This means I easily lose my place in the story and if a book isn’t all that, I tend to forget about it and start a different one. (For the record, I used to be a ‘to the bitter end, no matter what’ reader, but nowadays I don’t have time. If it doesn’t keep me interested, away it goes).

I’ve struggled to put Best Served Cold down. When I’ve lacked time to get back to it for a day or so, I’ve picked it up and been immersed straight back into the story. If the ending doesn’t quite come up to scratch, I’m already happy to forgive the author because I’ve loved everything else about the book.

Having done some research on Mr Abercrombie before starting this post, I now know this is a standalone novel set in a previous world he’s created. The world building is incredible and immersive and hooked me from the start. Some of the reviews by fans on Amazon say this isn’t his best book so I’m very keen to read his other works as I enjoyed it and disagreed with some of the negative points reviewers put across. Hopefully, his other books will live up to the reviewers’ hype.

It is pretty much a one-track story without any real subplots. It’s not as epically sprawling as A Game of Thrones or Robin Hobbs Farseer and The Liveship Traders Trilogies but it still kept a good pace for 700 odd pages. There’s only a touch of magic so it would probably come into the low fantasy genre – no elves, dwarves, orcs or wizards.

My favourite character is Caul Shivers, the barbarian Northman who fights alongside Murcatto. Abercrombie writes Shivers’ chapters in Shivers’ actual voice, although in the third person. For me, this worked brilliantly and brought the character straight off the page.

In summary

Like George R.R. Martin, Abercrombie puts his characters through the mill. You’re never quite sure who is going to make it to the end or meet a sticky end along the way. There are brutal war scenes, violence that should be gratuitous but wasn’t given we’re in the middle of all-out war, the occasional hardcore sex scene a la A Game of Thrones and I’m not sure any of the main characters are going to redeem themselves, so, on the whole, it’s dark stuff. It’s lightened by Abercrombie’s use of irony and his witty turn of dialogue which makes his characters spark well together.

If anyone has any good fantasy author recommendations let me know. I’m on the lookout for a good series.

In return, I highly recommend Robin Hobb, especially The Liveship Traders trilogy which sits between her two Farseer trilogies. It’s a bit of a slow starter but well worth sticking with and can be read as a standalone series if you can’t face nine books plus her newer Rainwild Chronicles which follows on from Liveships (but, seriously, who could turn down a nine book series??).




The Handmaid’s Tale: Cautionary Entertainment

handmaids tale

I’ve read a bit of Margaret Atwood in the past but somehow never The Handmaid’s Tale. Bit strange really as I love Sci-Fi and love dystopian tales even more and Handmaid is often touted as a cult feminist classic in those genres. I’m not sure how I avoided it for so long other than what I have read of Atwood’s hadn’t really grabbed me.

Offered a choice of books from a big box a colleague had acquired, I found The Handmaid’s Tale lurking so nabbed it quick and couldn’t wait to start it. The TV adaptation was floating about and I had planned to save it for the Christmas break and binge watch it. I always prefer to read the book first before watching a movie or TV adaptation so was stoked to find the book.

I enjoyed the first half of the book. It was a slow read, one to savour, because the prose is lyrical and a tad dense. I dipped in and out and took my time absorbing the world of Offred, the shocking nature of the sudden, violent changes she’s endured.

The explanations of how these changes came about are shown in flashback. Offred isn’t an entirely reliable narrator. Sometimes, she tells you stuff and then closes by saying that it never really happened. Her narrative is fractured, perhaps intentionally given all she’s undergone. To survive such catastrophe, the mind would find its ways to cope, maybe this was a reflection of hers.

By the middle of the book, I was struggling. I put it down for two weeks and forced myself to pick it up again and skip-hopped my way to a very ambiguous end that didn’t answer much at all about her future.

Attwood is a highly regarded author and successful, so who am I to criticise when I’m only just starting out with trying to get published and no idea if I’ll make it. But I was disappointed in the book, in the lack of characterisation, the dearth of information about why the world went the way it did. Given the heavy style of narrative voice, it feels the book should have been shorter somehow to be more effective.

I was too busy over Christmas to binge watch anything but I’m finally getting to watch the TV series. This is one of those rare times that I have to say the screen adaptation far surpasses the novel. The visuals are stunning, the acting by all the female cast stellar, the sets and costumes sumptuous and the world building visceral and horrific.

There’s more knowledge of how things changed in Offred’s world. Sometimes, these changes are happening in the background to the main action so you have to pay attention to what’s going on behind the action, especially in Offred and Moira’s scenes. I liked how this panned out because in the story Offred and Moira are missing the clues too and are caught out by the speed of the changes, even though the signs were there had they known to look for them.

Much has been made of the timing of the adaptation. Arguments over a woman’s rights to her body are high in the news: fetal abortion, rape clauses, the MeToo campaign, gender pay gaps, high profile, sexual misconduct scandals in both the UK and USA makes the cruel, misogynistic world of Gilead seem less improbable than it might have a few years back.

It’s being touted as a cautionary tale, a warning to women everywhere not to take anything for granted and to remember how hard-won our rights were not so many years ago. The Handmaid’s distinctive garments and cap have been used by some women during protests across the world. This is a  striking use of imagery. Women, clad in white and scarlet, often standing silent or with backs turned to represent their unheard voices.

I’m only on episode 4 of the TV series. It’s labelled as Season 1. I can’t help wondering if it will end as ambiguously as the book and whether there may be a Season 2 to take the world beyond its author’s imagining.

I’m off to google what Atwood makes of it all. Did you enjoy the book or series?

What do you think? Misappropriation of art, feminist overreaction or is the use of such visceral symbolism valid in the current climate?