An interesting negative review of Best Served Cold from Elizabeth Vail at Green Man Review got me thinking a little bit t’other day, not only because it’s quite amusingly snarky, but also because it seems to coalesce some criticisms of the book I’ve seen a few times, and also hints at some interesting attitudes to what a fantasy story (and maybe just any story) should or should not contain to be successful.
SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS. There may well be spoilers ahead, so those who haven’t read Best Served Cold, I strongly advise you to purchase at least one copy immediately and read it (possibly, as Elizabeth suggests, with prozac and a teddy bear to hand, though probably not a copy of the Sound of Music, for its deeply unpleasant subtext of the rise of nazism may tip you over the edge) before returning. Let us begin at the beginning (roughly):
“The twist? Instead of making this an exciting tale of adventure and discovery and colourful world building — let’s make it nauseatingly violent, overwhelmingly bleak, relentlessly depressing, while coming this close to being utterly pointless.”
Youch. It’s a pretty bleak book, sure, but I’m not sure it’s quite so unrelentingly horrendous as she makes out. Still, even if it is – and ignoring the eye-searing (for me, at least) adjectives of nauseatingly, overwhelmingly, and relentlessly – is (the presumably) much preferable “exciting tale of adventure and discovery and colourful world building” fundamentally superior to a violent, depressing and bleak book. In what way is Best Served Cold utterly pointless?
“his novel is hampered by a lack of thematic conclusion. There’s too much build-up for too little narrative payoff. There is no point to his story of vengeance. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, because Best Served Cold is nothing but one big, long tunnel that comes to a dead stop at one end. Characters do not improve, and ultimately they do not change.”
I’d argue that some of the characters do change. Shivers undergoes a radical transformation. I mean it’s for the WORSE, but why is that objectively inferior to a change for the better, from the standpoint of whether a book is worthwhile or not?
“While the world of Styria experiences upheaval, it quickly settles back into bloody-mindedness again. Hope glimmers only to be snuffed out.”
Again, I’d say there are significant glimmers of hope within the context of it being a pretty dark story about some pretty dark characters – there’s every sign that Monza is a lot less ruthless than she pretends to be, and that she’ll make a much better ruler than what Styria has had so far – but even if not, why can hope glimmering only to be snuffed out not be a thematic conclusion? Why is that an inadequate narrative payoff? Why can that not be “the point”?
It interests me, this apparent distaste for a world that is as dark and messy at the end of the story as it was at the beginning. Epic fantasy is full of climactic battles with massive and enduring consequences, of epoch-making events and struggles after which nothing will ever be the same. It’s full of lasting victory and purposeful sacrifice. Experience seems to indicate the real world doesn’t particularly work that way. Great conflicts rarely change the world, and often carry within them the seeds of the next conflict. The Thirty Years war depopulated swathes of Germany and changed virtually nothing, even politically. The Napoleonic wars killed a lot of people and shifted a lot of big hats around, but one could hardly say Europe did not settle back into bloody-mindedness thereafter. The First World War led to the Second, the Second to the Cold War, and the ending of that ushered in a glorious era of peace, love, and an end to fear, right? Er… Well at least relations between the West and Russia are improving, right? Er… Hope constantly glimmers only to be snuffed out, it’s the normal cycle of life. Every victory is touted as the last, great one, and it never is. “An end to boom and bust.” Er… “Peace in our times.” Er… The declaration of victory and freedom in Iraq, let alone Afghanistan, proved to be a little premature. Sooner or later hope glimmers again. The world moves forward by tiny degrees. Clearly we are a lot better off in all kinds of ways than we were in a state of pre-Roman barbarism, but, you know, it takes a long time and progress, such as it is, seems always to be very painful. I don’t see reflecting that in a work of fantasy as overwhelmingly cynical, I see it as relatively realistic, and standing in contrast – by no means with all of epic fantasy – but with a lot of pretty schmaltzy stuff that has been and still is out there. Why should a cynical message be so unpalatable in a fantasy book?
Far from there being no point to the story, it seems to me that Vail got the point very thoroughly, she just really didn’t like the point, which is a slightly different argument. But let us continue…
“By novel’s end, Monza learns (surprise, surprise) that People Suck, War is Bad, and the World is a Bottomless Shithole. Oh, but maybe also that Revenge is Bad, too. A ridiculously tiny step in the character development of one person is the reward for more than six hundred pages of callous murder”
Again, perhaps I’m reading this wrong, but the implication seems to be that “the reward” for getting to the end of a story should be measured in the improvement of the characters, in what they learn. A little bit like the assessment of a government programme for the rehabilitation of offenders. How many prisoners became productive members of society? Hurrah! How many re-offended? Booo! I’ve put in my work by reading the book, now I want it payed off! I demand the world and characters be a better place, or at least a changed place!
Now again, I’m not saying she’s wrong and the book’s ace, or anything (you know I’d never do that), this isn’t intended to be a criticism of Vail or her well-written and considered review (cause you know I’m not like that), I’m just pondering here, because they’re criticisms I’ve seen from other people in other places and in other forms. Why should change in the characters, let alone improvement, be a requirement? Classic Epic Fantasy, again, is full of neat stories of growth and change. The coward who leanrs to be a hero. The weakling who finds his strength. The farmboy who becomes a king. The man of violence redeemed through love. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Is there something fundamentally superior or more satisfying about characters who change and improve to ones that don’t change, fail to change, change by tiny degrees, backslide to their original pitiful selves or simply get a lot worse? To me those options all seem equally, if not more, truthful than the option of neat improvement. Of course, any of those can be done well or badly, something can work for a reader or not, be hamfisted, rubbish, or crap, but she seems, in fact, to say that I’m not totally crap:
“as for his protagonist, Monza is a vivid character. She’s single-minded on vengeance without being underdeveloped, and mouths her “morals are for suckers” mantras even though it’s obvious she cares a lot more than other people think. This is part of what makes it so frustrating how little she learns from her experience.”
So she’s a good character, and that makes her refusal to change and learn just *so* frustrating. In this case, it would appear, the better the characters are, the worse the book becomes…
Is it a type of complaint you’d get outside of epic fantasy circles? (and forgive my ludicrously overblown examples drawn from the best the literary and televisual world have to offer) Would folks cuss The Great Gatsby because some of its characters are un
able to change or improve themselves? Are even doomed by it? Would folks cuss LA Confidential because Elroy’s LA is as dark and cynical at the end of the book as it is at the start? Is The Wire reduced because its central theme is that the world is grim and corrupt and its very, very difficult to change it? I don’t know, maybe they would. Maybe that’s why a lot more people watch CSI: Miami than The Wire.
One more time, I’m not criticising this particular review. I actually think it’s a pretty good review, and there are plenty of reasons why lots of people don’t like the book. Too long, too violent, too dark, too unsympathic, and so on. No one’s ever wrong about their own opinion, and there’s nothing wrong either with a preference for smoothly developing characters or worlds transformed for the better. The massive preponderance of stories of that type seem to indicate that it’s a pretty common preference. I’m by no means immune to it myself either – I found the bleakness of No Country for Old Men, its deliberate refusal to provide narrative payoff, and the fact that its central villain could kill with utter impunity, pretty hard to swallow. I’m just wondering how widespread this is – a distaste for the ragged and unchanging, especially when it’s also dark and unpleasant, and whether it’s something more common in epic fantasy than outside it.
“If fans of the First Law trilogy insist on reading this novel, this reviewer would like to suggest they take the necessary precautions. Remove all razors, painkillers, and lengths of rope from your house. Keep Prozac close to hand, along with a teddy bear and a copy of The Sound of Music. Maybe even a dog-eared copy of The Lord of the Rings, where the good guys actually win once in a while.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, by all means, but don’t the good guys nearly always win in everything? Are a couple of books in which – not even the bad guys win, necessarily, but the line between bad and good is kind of hazy and we’re not really sure who won – really so unpalatable you need to keep a happy ending on hand to wash away the hideous taste of cynicism?
Answers on a postcard, and remember, I don’t want to be affirmed, here, nor scorn heaped upon Ms. Vail’s head. I’m interested in discussing it…
EDIT: As an amusing postscript to this, Best Served Cold was just one-starred by an irate punter on amazon complaining that, “There was even a happy ending! Also, it wasn’t as gritty as the First Law.” Truly, you can please some of the people some of the time…