People Suck, War is Bad, and the World is a Bottomless Shithole

September 20th, 2009

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…

Posted in opinion, reviews by Joe Abercrombie on September 20th, 2009.

90 comments so far

  • Ripper says:

    Real life, real war, and real relationships are hazy, confusing, and inexplicable. I don't see a problem with exploring those parts of non-fiction within the context of fantasy.
    If anything, it allows us(well, me, anyway) to relate to the reality of the characters in a way that is more immediate than "the good guy wins" stories.
    I had cancer, it sucked, I spent a year in chemo. Then I got better, and still didn't know what to do with my life.
    College is hard, you spend a long time doing really difficult things for the pay off of…bills and the possibility of employment. Maybe.
    Life has no conclusions, convenient page breaks, or predictable plot arcs, and I don't see the problem with creating stories that talk about those things, and how we deal with them. Even if the events are "fantasy", those themes are real, and to me, the only things worth talking about.

  • Longasc says:

    I think she is quite right in this regard, it is quite unnerving that things often change and still end up as bad as before.

    But this is actually what was the cool and nice twist of "The First Law". You know, Jezahl becoming king and getting a lesbian and frigid wife while Glokta marries Ardee was quite awesome.

    The problem is that "Best Served Cold" is also predictable: Nobody who knows you would have guessed that there will be a "happy end". I guess most of your readers expect this twist to make good things bad from you by now.

    We had it a lot in Best Served Cold – the assistant betraying the master, Orso betraying Monza, for pitiful reasons.

    I actually liked it and do not share the more negative view of Mrs. Vail, but hey,

    1.) you are becoming predictable!
    2.) people seem to crave for and prefer a happy end

    I cannot help, but I cannot imagine you letting a story end with a perfect happy end. It is not necessary, it is just a bad habit that readers developed over the years. As you pointed out, the good guys always win.

    Please let them sometimes lose, sometimes win, and please stay unpredictable.

  • I'd also disagree with Vail – the bleakness is the message, and the theme works well.

    She seems to have missed a couple of points, though:-

    * the overarching story of the battle between Khazul and Bayaz, now shown to be not quite so duolithic, and nestled within that,
    * the not-unexplained nature of Eaters

    Perhaps she is trying to treat it merely as a stand-alone, but you can't really do that. I think it works best in conjunction with the First Law books.

  • I think there are two independent issues here: first of all, some people just expect something from the books they read that you're not willing to give them. I don't know how to call it exactly, it's not really simplistic "triumph of good over evil" but, still, some kind of moral which, by definition, is absent from the real life/history (otherwise it wouldn't be real, would it?). It seems that your reviewer is one of those people and judging from my attempts to make my friends/relatives read your books you don't have much hope of changing her mind 🙂 Of course, just as you do, I don't think there is anything nearly wrong with what you do and before you start thinking about increasing the number of your potential readers, consider that the same things that make my wife shudder at the thought of ever opening your books (after my extremely flattering summary of them!) are what make me crave them. And we really don't need another Terry Goodkind, do we?

    On the other hand, there is a second problem with the BSC which I do share with your reviewer: it is the lack of surprise at the end, overall. I do think that surprise is, or should be, the reward for the reader and while there certainly were a few twists in the book, they weren't nearly as unexpected to me, personally, as the ones in the First Law. Basically you almost know what to expect from the beginning and in this sense this book is indeed "relentless". It's fun, addictive and well-written — but just not that surprising in the end.

    Maybe it would have been different for me if I hadn't read The First Law first. I just loved it too much, I'm afraid, and BSC is not as good globally, even if it arguably better written and I do love the idea of a book in one volume for a change.

    To summarize, I think it's not unfair to expect some surprise at the end (beyond the by then expected central revelation of the story) and maybe the resentment of the reviewer was due to its lack. As for the attempt to pretend that this surprise was Monza's incredibly out of character (yes, she is not as bad as depicted, but this is by far not enough to be a good ruler) ability to govern, it fell completely flat with me. Can I really believe that her reign is going to be better or different? Especially with advisers/protectors like this? Hell no. And I'm surprised if you ever expected your readers to believe it.

  • SFcrowsnest says:

    Having read countless reviews of my own fantasy novels in everything from SFX to Amazon to the Guardian – both good reviews and bad – I have to say, I've come to the conclusion that some readers (and reviewers) will love your books, some will hate them, and some will just think they're so-so.

    I'm not sure that you can actually pick up meaningful hints on improving your work from a single review (if everyone comes up with the same crit. then maybe they might have a point).

    Your strength as a writer, Joe, is your bleak, bloody Pulp Fiction as Fantasy thang. Some people love it, some hate it, but given how well you always seem to do in the sales charts, I'd say you've not got too much to worry about…. Read more

    Green Man Review? Pah. Print out their web page for your toilet.


    PS – Since mid-2008 I’ve no longer read my own reviews. The only vote that counts comes in Waterstones and is usually supplied with a picture of Her Maj. on them.

  • Elena says:

    First, I find it interesting that she liked the end of the First Law better than BSC, that to her the end of the trilogy was less likely to require removal of all dangerous objects from the premises. I would disagree; BSC, to me, had an ending that was much more hopeful and where the characters I actually cared about seemed to have a brighter future than they'd had at the start of the novel.

    Second, I think what a lot of this type of criticisms boil down to is a discomfort with certain philosophies. Namely that good and evil don't exist in anything except our own personal moral compass; that righteous heroes are just disguising their Might Makes Right beliefs behind empty words (or maybe words they really believe but are nonetheless self-deceiving); that every man is a hero in his own eyes; that people will go to great and disturbing lengths to preserve their self-delusions or to get their own way. Moral relativity is not a philosophy that everyone subscribes to and that is in fact quite threatening to people who do not believe it. Once you have, obviously, there is no going back, but getting there is frightening. Most people resist it. I don't know whether those who read and review fantasy are uncomfortable with it themselves, in a way that perhaps the people who review things like The Road are not, or if their discomfort is about perceived "rules" of the fantasy genre. But that moral naivite (more kindly, innocence) and/or falsely imposed notion of what "can and cannot be done" in a particular genre seem to me to be at the root of this kind of criticism. But for me, I love your books because I think they are honest about humanity, if in a cynical way. I think the more valid criticism might be that you don't allow enough of the beautiful parts of humanity to come through; but, then, (1) this could be argued to BE the beautiful side of humanity, and (2) perhaps these characters are too steeped in their own darkness to experience the softer side of humanity. God knows there are plenty of real people in this world like that.

    Interesting post, interesting idea to discuss. I'm curious to see how everyone else comes down.

  • Chris says:

    I think a lot of it is escapism, as strange as that sounds. When you pick up a book and dive right in you tend to forget your surroundings, becoming immersed in the characters — all that wonderful, good stuff.

    When someone picks up a fantasy book it typically goes with the good guys winning again, a happy feeling and that sort of jazz. They might go through struggles, they might have loss — but ultimately, at the end of the day, things are great!

    If you have a pretty boring life, like most of us do, then this isn't a bad form of escapism. You explore someone else's world and take their characters and see "Oh wow, look at all this hope! Struggle always leads to proper victory!" Now, we all know that this isn't the case — but in this escapist fantasy world, it sure is.

    I think the majority of people fall into that mindset, so when a book comes about that doesn't end with something completely happy, they stare at it with a slack jaw and sort of boggle for a bit. Especially in a book like Best Served Cold that has a lot of bitter, "evil" things attached to it.

    And honestly… if you are being honest with your characters, should every single one -really- have this groundbreaking change in character for good? Should every character end up on the highest mountain with the sharpest sword? I… uhh.. well, you've got to be realistic.

    I think you can tell by the tone of this post that I liked the book (and the universe). I personally enjoy that gritty feel. When I picked up Best Served Cold (or any of the main trilogy) I fully knew that things might not end all happy-happy. I knew that the characters I thought were awesome might die, end up completely different or just get fucked over for 650 pages… and you know what? That's damn good reading. It's realistic.

    In short? People are used to happy fantasy and it's pretty good escapism, but it isn't realistic. Not that it is bad — we all enjoy that sort of stuff from time to time, it's just BSC, the Trilogy and whatnot are all a breath of fresh air.

    She does have a good point in there, though — the good guys -do- have to win sometimes, even small victories. I'm pretty sure that Shenkt won though, and he's not so bad of a dude. We can take some twisted hope from that.

  • Clambeard says:

    This may ultimately come down, as others have said, to a matter of taste, for which there is no accounting. However, I think we can draw meaningful distinctions between subgenres of fantasy.

    There is a counter-narrative to the classic Heroic Fantasy mode: good guys win, peace and order restored in the kingdom with the rightful king on the throne, etc (or ad nauseum…). In this mode, a tone of moral essentialism prevails. The good guys are good not as a matter of choice or socialization, but because they simply are good. Elves are good, orcs are bad. Case closed. This mode continues to dominate fantasy.

    But the counter-narrative, where moral essentialism is rejected, goes back at least as far as Moorcock's Elric stories and his legendary takedown of LOTR. Tad Williams redid the classic epic stripped of moral essentialism, GRRM works in that style, Jacqueline Carey rewrote LOTR from the 'bad guys' perspective, to cite a few. Joe's work is clearly in that counter-tradition.

    Either you like it or you don't, but I think it should be recognized as a fully legitimate approach to fantasy lit.

  • Clambeard says:

    And in response to the questions posed in the post's final paragraphs, I find the tropes of order restored and good triumphant to be the unpalatable ones.

  • James says:

    Perhaps for some readers it's an escapism issue – they read fantasy to get away from the troubles of the real world, so to find themselves in a secondary world equally as bleak and violent might not have suited them.

    I have no problem with the tone or the themes or the sheer bleakness and bloodiness in BSC. After all, fantasy is at its most potent and relevant when it mirrors the real world.

    I think for me I just wanted to see a little more…humanity from some of the characters. Just a touch, to make me engage more with them. For example, Glokta is a twisted, torturing bastard, but I found myself sympathising with him and wanting him to succeed as I could connect with the traces of humanity that lurked beneath his exterior. This just didn't happen with any of the figures from BSC.

    I don't think it's necessary for a world to change and be 'saved' by the end of an epic fantasy, but I do expect the major characters to change over the course of a story. Not necessarily dramatically, but enough to show the reader they've been affected by their experiences. Shivers is probably the best example of this from BSC, but as he changes for the worse, perhaps some readers found his character arc too depressing…

  • Bob Lock says:

    You cannot please everyone, Joe and Ms Vail just happens to be one that you can't.
    Perhaps, as she writes what looks like YA fantasy herself, she feels the need for the good guys to win out in the end, a sort of moral lesson that good always triumph over evil, hmm…
    Or could it be that she bought you a pint and you slipped out when it was your round again?

  • Patrick says:

    It seems that she doesn't like your books for the same reason I love them. They aren't cliche and things don't always resolve cleanly and happily.

    This was actually one of the reasons I had a problem with Cosca's survival.

    They're different and original and just plain good.

    I reviewed Best Served Cold if anyone is interested in my take.


  • Thanks all for the lengthy and interesting comments. Some specifics:

    Monza's incredibly out of character ability to govern? Why so out of character? She's clearly very capable as a military leader, and shown herself capable of a certain level of compassion (a minimal level, maybe, but that's better than most of Styria's leadership). She ain't going to be one for turning the other cheek, but as far as ruthless pragmatism and efficiency goes you couldn't find many better. I'm sure Machiavelli would have thoroughly approved of her methods. Monza + Shenkt seems as if it has a good chance of being a lot better than Orso + Bayaz, if you're asking me.

    I totally agree with you that there'll always be those who like your stuff and those who don't, and one shouldn't look for tips on how to improve your writing in reviews or alter your outlook in response to any particular opinion. I do find readers' responses to my books fascinating, though, and sometimes reviews (and especially negative ones) trigger some interesting insights. I could never look away, man.

    I'm with you on not finding it nearly as dark and hopeless as some seem to.

    "I do expect major characters to change over the course of a story." I guess my question would be why, per se? Aren't people sometimes just unaffected by their experiences? Addicts who repeat the same self-destructive behaviour, and so on?

    Thanks for the review. Fraid the next book has way more cameos than the last, though…

  • Mark says:

    re: "Aren't people sometimes just unaffected by their experiences? Addicts who repeat the same self-destructive behaviour, and so on?"

    Yup, but that's real life – just because "it happens", doesn't mean it deserves a place in a story, particularly a genre story set in a fantasy world.

    Fair enough if you're writing The Wire or a Ken Loach movie, but people will have certain expectations of a fantasy/adventure story – especially if they've read the likes of Vogler, Joseph Campbell etc (as most critics/writers will have). You have a hero, a quest, a mentor, villains, jeopardy and a conclusion where a truth is revealed – usually through character development.

    Now these are all well-worn cliches, and one of the reasons I enjoy your work is that you give them a solid kicking and leave to slowly bleed to death in a back alley… but people like your reviewer expect these beats and will be befuddled when they're not delivered in a traditionally satisfying way and will in turn get hot, bothered and cross.

    So, in short, write books about nice people from now on. Then the critics will surely be happy?

  • Anonymous says:

    Mr Abercrombie,

    I dont know if the appeal of your books is designed, but sometimes i think your books are dark enough that you could hide good people, good hopes, even good actions in them.

    The best thing about your books, and what really makes me think you're (Mr A) an optimist is that there is so much ambiguity and general confusion around your heroes and heroines that you give the "moral" (that isn't the right word… but meh) to the reader.

    I'll try and clarify:
    I think you write books that are open ended, if as a reader you want to see goodness in the heroes and heroines then you can find it. I know that in my mind Logen is my all time favorite hero, that Ferro is the best heroine, and that the ending of the first law trilogy gave (99%) everyone a happy ending. (if you doubt me I'd be happy to explain!)

    BSC was different though, instead of giving everyone what they wanted, it gave everyone what they needed.

    It lies in the hands (or the convoluted mind) of the reader to interpret Mr A's books as dark or hopeful. So to anyone who thinks these books are dark… well, read them again and try to look at things in a different light (that means you, reviewed lady!).

    These books have a flair of the 'old testament' to them, jezal wants to be king… and well, you know the rest. Logen wants to start anew, again, and we know how the first law ends. Ferro wants revenge, and sure enough it seems like shes accomplishing it (vague reference in BSC anyone?).

    First Law: People may not always get what they want HOW they want it, but everyone got what they wanted, in some form.

    BSC: I think the rolling stones have a song… "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might get what you need…"

    Sappy; probably, but it applies, Shivers learned something about life, he certainly seemed much more like the reformed bloody nine than the young (foolish?) man he was in first law. If you think I'm wrong i'd love to argue it with you, but this is the end of my (mightily abridged) reasoning.


  • gail says:

    Maybe it's the lingering effects of childhood fairy tales, but I think a lot of readers (and perhaps writers) are conditioned, for better or worse, to expect the Happily-Ever-After. That ending is a definitive characteristic of romance novels, and as you described, any number of epic fantasy stories. That is not, however, the reason that I read fantasy novels, and certainly not why I so enjoy your work. You have a gift in your ability to describe and depict the darker, amoral and more deeply submerged aspects of your characters' personalities. These characters and their struggles are no less interesting, and no less enlightening to me than the more stereotypical candidates for sainthood.

    So long as you create compelling worlds full of well-written characters that make me question their moral compass, you will have this reader on your side.

  • I must admit to only having read the 1st chapter of the book (I have since bought the book, but still need to finish the first three of Joe's books) – it was actually SO good, that I almost just reviewed that for my site!

    To refer to some of Elizabeth's comments – has she never read a medieval history book? Or a book about the Nazis, Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, etc., etc.?

    Fantasy (and also sci-fi and ordinary fiction) have always been used as vehicles for commentary on the real world, and today's world is pretty damn bleak by many standards. So, I think the new grittiness in fantasy is actually a BOON for us readers. For many years (well, pretty much my entire life until the release of "The First Law" and Joe's… comrades-in-writing, Scott Lynch and Alan Campbell) I felt fantasy was too safe, too neat and completely unrealistic. The current crop of "new fantasy" authors are doing the world a favour writing the stories they are.

    Having said that, I can see that some people want to read fantasy and sci-fi as pure escapism, and that is of course fine – I think it would be a terrible day indeed if the only things available in book stores were heavy tomes of social commentary and bleak expositions on the darker side of human nature. That's fine – for escapist fun we have things like Star Wars to entertain and not particularly stretch us.

    But, if you want something a bit heavier/meatier, then Joe's books are fantastic. That there aren't many clean-cut tie-ups of plot threads (again, haven't read the novel, yet) is sometimes annoying, but oftentimes good – I like that authors don't feel required to spoon-feed us EVERY LITTLE DETAIL of a story; think of how Bladerunner was weakened when it was made less ambiguous that he was a Replicant; or how bloody awful the epilogue to the Harry Potter series was, as she writes some stupid, soppy fairy-tale ending. (In fact, wouldn't it have been interesting if Joe, or Lynch, or Campbell, or Richard Morgan had been given the task of writing the final Potter book in their own style…?)

    Right, that was longer than anticipated. Read some history, and enjoy Joe's books, was really all I wanted to say.

  • franti says:

    I'm reading BSC at the moment, so I've got a pretty fresh take on a lot of the events of the book. I think I know where the reviewer was going with her review, honestly. I'm a huge fan of subversion of the usual fantasy tropes, because the moment I hear of a Ultimate Lord of Unstoppable Evil in the worldbuilding, or the hint of the Prophesied Hero, I'm about 4 seconds away from angrily roasting the book over a spit and cursing to the heavens that the Star Wars approach to fantasy catharsis has become pretty much the end-all standard. It's irritating to see the same group of plucky heroes meet the same group of determined, no-nonsense evil bad guys, dance around the issue for 3 or 4 or 5 or 7 books, only to have the exact same conclusion at the end.

    Part of why I liked The First Law was the cynical use of that very narrative structure. You subverted it, in the same sense that a city being sacked by barbarians is pleasantly called "subverting." And while it left a bleak, rather soul-crushing taste in my mouth, I came back for more, because I knew that a writer who had the balls to set every standard cliche on fire was a writer worth following.

    But there are some legitimate complaints. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but there are some part of BSC that I find to be almost off-putting in just how damn bleak they are. It's a world where -nobody- is trying to better themselves. Nobody is trying to do something for anything other than greed, or avarice, or any number of synonyms. It's hard to see a world like that. It's hard to even see a world where nobody is even pretending to toe an idealistic line, or to do anything outside of making themselves feel better, one way or another.

    I don't find it unrealistic, and I don't find it to be bad writing, not at all. But it defintely makes it a hard read. And it definitely makes me question just wtf the point of it all is, in the end. It fits, thematically, with the point of the book. But as a reader, and as a fan of fantasy, and an optimist, and even a guy who lists No Country for Old Men as one of his favorite movies, it leaves me feeling like I've been stabbed in the gut.

    And I'm not used to that.

  • I haven't read it yet so I had to do some careful skimming.

    We all like to see the good guys win or the little guy rise up and do something profound, but what's wrong with not giving the reader what they want occasionally, of doing something different? Piss them off a little instead of Disnefying it? Real people don't always change, no matter how long they live. Sometimes the bad guys do win.

    Suck it up.

  • Elfy says:

    I would think that anyone who has read your work, Joe, would go into it with their eyes wide open and not expect a standard once upon a time fantasy with a happy ending all tied up in a pretty pink bow. Obviously this reviewer didn't think so. I loved Best Served Cold and I thought it was courageous that you piled misery upon misery and still made it entertaining. Maybe I like anti heroes or maybe I'm sick of fantasy where I KNOW the hero is never going to be anything, but the HERO.
    Possibly it's that people see the word fantasy and immediately think: happy ending, only to feel somewhat cheated when it doesn't work out quite that way.
    Just as an aside you mentioned The Thirty Years War, BSC and the situation in Styria that was described in it seemed reminiscent of that conflict. Was that the basis at all?

  • Erik says:

    She's wrong. The book's ace.

    You can't please everyone, so worst thing to do is to try anyway.

  • Niall says:

    I think franti is nearly there. I'd disagree about whether there are characters in the novel who try to better themselves — Shivers does, for instance — but I can't immediately think of anyone whose ambitions go beyond that, and moreover I think the novel gives the impression that Styria is a place where any such ambition is doomed to fail.

    Now, clearly there are times and places in the world where that is true; and equally, the characters this story focuses on are not characters who would be expected to have such ambitions. But this is a sense in which Styria didn't feel like a full society to me. That is: I'm not sure that a near-total absence of idealism and societal progress is any more realistic than the tidy narratives of change and growth you set Best Served Cold up as opposing. Yes, progress is incremental; yes, each conflict sows the seeds of the next; and yet, the world still changes, and some of those changes are for the better. Between World War I and World War II, for instance, the vote was finally extended to all women in Britain on the same terms as men.

    The comparison that comes to mind is — broad story-shape spoiler coming up — David Anthony Durham's Acacia, which sets up a horrific world and really makes a point of underlining how difficult systemic change is (how it can easily be for the worse), how much individuals end up subordinate to the system they live under, and so on. But the novel does convey a sense that the world can change, even if it doesn't this time; that that change can be for the better, even if it isn't this time; and that there are people who are willing to try for that change, even if they fail this time. I didn't get that sense from Best Served Cold and, as I say, it struck me as an absence that made a point effectively, but seemed somewhat artificial. Put another way: Monza may more efficient than the alternative, but I'm not sure life under her will be any more pleasant for the average citizen, if only because the forces shaping conditions for the average citizen don't seem to enter her thoughts, or anyone else's.

  • JDP says:

    I like dark, twisted, ambiguous endings myself. The aftertaste might be bitter, but it lasts longer than the overtly saccharine.

    I'd echo James' thought that some people aren't looking for a dark moral representation of the 'real' world when they pick up a fantasy book. They're looking for a happy ending; a farmboy coming good; a world dragged from the brink of Doom; an orgy of braid-tugging and descriptions of dresses. It's horses for courses I guess.

    Personally I like dark, ugly tales that neither conform to genre tropes nor turn them hilariously on their head. Interesting characters doing interesting things for legitimate reasons being put in situations where their backs are against the wall.

    As for whether characters should change their fundamental nature as they 'develop' throughout a novel: I'd say if they change, that should say something. If they don't change, that should say something. As long as it's not all just nauseating, overwhelming, relentless apathy on the part of the author, it's all gravy.

  • Harvey Quinn says:

    I actually love the realism of your stories, not the subject matter of course but the bigger picture and underlying moral themes.

    I love a ballsy end to a story, for instance if you watch The Mist (the recent Stephen King adaptation) it has probably one of the most shocking/harrowing endings i've ever seen (that wasnt actually in the book) but it's still incredible in my eyes.

  • Oh yes: after watching The Mist I had to go and see Wall-E the next day just to compensate.

    I have to say, though, that BSC represents a profoundly optimistic coda to the trilogy – the mere existence of Shenkt gives me (unwise) hope that things may end up better. That's not to mention that we still have other factors such as Ferro and (potentially) Yulwei and Tolomei alive and troublesome.

  • koshr says:

    first off, i loved this book.and when nicomo got back to drinking in the end..well it put a big smile on my face

  • Marco says:

    Joe, stop reading this blog and get back to writing! Feb. 2011 is too long to wait for my fix 😉

    In my humble opinion she's missed a miryad of points, perhaps too many to go over in detail, but most significantly, I think she's mostly piqued by your supposed pollution of the chrystalline waters of fantasy, with some much needed murk.

    Also, let me congratulate you on your Verturian tactics – far from sullying your own reputation by savaging Mz Vale, I admire the way you have simply released the hounds to do the work for you – quite right too.

    Woof, woof, Grrrrr!! 🙂


  • Susanne says:

    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?

    Nope. That's why I, personally, like them so much, and it would appear I'm not the only one by far. Reviews like Ms Vail's clearly point to the reviewer's expectations of a fantasy novel. Good vs Evil; plus good guys with an "acceptable" moral code to root for, and a happy ending, possibly with unicorns.

    I think Ms Vail can't have read The First Law trilogy, to jump into BSC with expectations of… But what is she expecting, exactly? "[…]an exciting tale of adventure and discovery and colourful world building", apparently, and she feels she didn't get that. I'd argue the opposite. It sure was exciting, and your world building still blows me away (for all the perceived bleakness and darkness and the blood).

    I also agree with other posters here that BSC actually ends on a much brighter, more optimistic note than LAoK: Cosca is off on new adventures, Monza has achieved what she set out to achieve and now finds herself in a position where she can effect change in Styria, if she so desires, Shivers has come to the conclusion that he might be better off home… And then there's Shenkt, of course! I wonder what other "point" Ms Vail was waiting for when calling BSC "pointless".

    Elena makes an excellent, er, point (I hate repetition but I can't think of a better word right now). I agree that deviant moral codes and a lack of clarity as to what constitutes the "good guys" make some readers uncomfortable, because they render them unable to identify with/root for any of the characters in the same way as they would cheer on a clearly defined Good Hero.

    But this again boils down to a reader's expectations. Some folks just don't like their expectations subverted. Others enjoy that very subversion very much.

    I'd like to add that I think escapism and realism in fiction aren't mutually exclusive. We can has both, as you have proven.

  • skottk says:

    Loved First Law and BSC, loved First Law more. A couple of people have come close to what I feel is the difference, but I think I can nail it: It's the list. The list is a linear and simplistic driver that First Law didn't need and couldn't have fit.
    Monza starts out with a list of people to kill and winds up killing everyone on it. The beauty of First Law was that literally nothing turned out as I expected in the entire series. Maybe I sound inconsistent, because I was actually shocked and disappointed, in the end, that Monza finished her list. I expected something magnificent and surprising to happen instead.
    I haven't reread BSC yet, but I couldn't escape the impression at the end that you could have made it shorter, had you wanted to, by leaving out one of the people who helped try to kill Monza at the beginning. You could also have made it longer by putting another person in the room. Overall, I guess I found the separate, serial vengeances a little too, ah, detachable.

  • SpaceSword says:

    My problem with Best Served Cold was not the bleakness or anything, but I just honestly found it very boring, and was quite disappointed that it seemed so straight compared to The First Law Books – barely even a shadow of funniness….hoping very much I'll find the next one a LOT more entertaining.

  • SpaceSword says:

    Hmmm…trying to be a bit more useful and analysis WHY I found BSC so boring. Probably in fact because everyone's motivations were so straightforward, which is a problem I have with the revenge genre in general. I mean, I really like lots of violence and killing, but not when its so inevitable I guess. The bits in BSC I liked the best where the ones with Cosco, as he was probably the most complex character (as well as the funniest, which helped).

    Its difficult to have so complex a plot as TFL in a standalone book, but making it a revenge book really cut down on any possible complexities, and the characters as a whole were not very self-aware, which is one of the things that made TFL so very good.

  • enjai says:

    From a storytelling point of view it's always important that the characters or world are different at the end from the beginning. If there's no change it's hard to see where the story can come from.

    In your case I'd argue that there was a lot of change in BSC, styria has new rulers, Cosca is back in charge, Shivers is a bastard etc etc. Overall the world is maybe still a shit place to be in but changes hace occurred still.
    Monza goes from being a cold hearted bitch obsessed with revenge to realising her brother was a dick and that there's maybe more than revenge. Cosca looks like he's heading straight back into alcoholism at the end but that's still character development in that he is weak willed and ultimately cannot change for the better.

    You're example of the wire is a good one in that the characters develop/change but overall everything is exactly the same but with people filling out different roles

  • Anthrophile says:

    I would certainly not call "Lord of the Rings" my go-to book for a happy-ending fix. Jeeze.

    At any rate, I was already more than half-convinced to buy this book before I discovered this blog. That hasn't changed.

  • Davinrad (Annoying Guy) says:

    She went too bloody deep, quite simply. BSC could have been a detailed account of a Vendetta in Italy, in my opinion. It's obvious you based it in the time of Condotierri (Though I want LONGBOWMEN, DAMNIT! WE'RE ENGLISH! – Yes, I'm a B.Cornwell Fan.)
    You've done a very good job of making a fantasy story believable. To do that required the dirt, shit, muck and general backstabbery of the Italian Era. The First Law was your Magnum Opus; Glokta beats Tyrion Lannister hands down (much as it pains me to say) and I doubt you'll ever write a character so brilliant again.
    But BSC is a nice follow-up. Because it reads alot like a History Book FROM your world, albeit with enough diary entries to choke a Kestrel (Damn you, Frankie Boyle!)
    If Madam Vali doesn't like that – Meh. There will always be some people who think your style is too dark. Why? Because writers such as you, Le Grande GRRM and Richard Morgan differ greatly from Tolkien in one respect; The Good Guys don't always win, and the Bad Guys aren't always terrible obvious. (Bayaz, anyone?)
    We've been raised on various Tolkien spin-offs; ranging from The Summoner by Gail.Z.Martin to the slightly more domestic Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Now, you daring pioneers of literature are breaking down stereotypes, tearing out their throats and dancing upon their corpses like the savages you are. Keep it up. Now. Yes, stop reading, get back to writing!

    Still working on those 6000 Pages of Fan Fiction


  • If we're going to add authors to this New Bleak genre, I'm going to give a shout out to Peter Watts over on the SF side of things.

  • Terry says:

    I will skip the review and just say that you are my favorite "new" author.

  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting debate. I think many like their fantasy to sit within an easy pidgeon-hole, like a comfort blanket. Fantasy is just literature set in a world of make believe, from that point it becomes open season and most authors go down an entertaining and set route, usually involving a battle against evil, a quest, etc etc. What actually stands out are stories that are different (Magicians is a recent good example as has been discussed here) and characters that are memorable.
    What makes your writing stand out for me is the lack of traditional heroes and the dark depths of the characters.
    Her article is interesting but fails to understand the joy of variety in fantasy.

  • oteckre says:

    "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?"

    i never thought that you could write such nonsense…

  • MarkCN says:

    I think Kurt Vonnegut said it best:

    "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."

  • Nice discussion.

    Care to be a little more specific?

  • oteckre said…
    "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?"

    i never thought that you could write such nonsense…

    My name is oteckre and I am one of millions of millions of SHEEP around the globe who can't think for themselves and who live everyday in there own fantasy world where everything is just Great and the media always tells the truth.

  • JenMo says:

    I've been thinking about this for a couple days now. Joe, I was pissed right off, because of what you did to Shivers. I liked Shivers, but you forced him to realize he hated his brother, hated his father, and hated the idea that he had to live his life trying to make up for what was done to them. So while I hate that you burned out his eye, and turned him into a crazy sour bastard, I totally got it. I don't hate Shivers, I just felt bad for him. No one likes to be kicked in the face with what they're trying to ignore.

    My favorite character in the book was Friendly. He was completely and totally unchanging. At no point did he get swept up into what was going on, he just did what he was told. He was just looking for safety, and a set of rules he could follow. Isn't that true for most of humanity?

    I won't compare BSC to the First Law, they both rocked. But I'll compare BSC to another dark revenge tale: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. I'd say BSC is darker, but Lynch kills off damn near everyone in TLoLL. That was hard to take, cause love or hate characters, I think you become attatched. I was glad Monza never got killed, though at times I thought she really had it coming. And Monza not changing, isn't the same as saying she didn't see what was happening. About half way through her list, she realized she didn't like what she was doing, didn't want to do it, knew nothing good would come of it…. she just didn't know what else to do with herself. Even had she known her brother was the ultimate cause of what happened to her, she probably still would have gone on her revenge treck, it's simply what she knew.

    Characters and worlds don't need to be fundamentally shifted for a good story to be told. To say that evolution of characters is a key element in fantasy, is putting shackles on the genre that make it dull and predictable. Thanks for breaking the chains Joe.

  • harvb says:

    Whilst I'm not the most eloquent writer out here, I'd like to add my own two copper pieces, simply to, I don't know, add fuel to the fire? Salve the wounds? You can be the judge.

    (I'm also going to assume that it's okay to put in spoilers; let's face it if you're commenting on BSC you've most likely read it, otherwise what's the flippin' point, eh?)

    I loved the First Law trilogy. I mean loved them. Loved them to bits. I loved the ending too, it seemed… appropriate. You might like to know my favourite Star Wars film is the Empire Strikes Back and my favourite ending to a TV show is the last ever episode of Blakes Seven. That ought to tell you why I like "The good guys don't always win" stories.

    When BSC came out I bought and read it in a few seconds, it felt like. Initially I felt disappointed and cheated, primarily because I just didn't like the way Shivers turned out or Cosca come to that. Betrayal yes, fine, I got that, people are bastards, yes yes, I'm grown up I get that too. But Cosca and Shivers just seemed to flip too easily to the other side for my liking. It felt, and to a degree still feels, wrong. I just didn't like the way it worked.

    Having said that I loved Monza and I loved the way the group interacted. Their relationship developed up until the midway point how I would have expected, even considering this is an Abercrombie book where there are more twists and turns than a twisty turny thing, and it all seemed to be fun and frolicks. The end was in sight and I thought it was going to be a great ending.

    For me, it wasn't. For me. That's just me. I can see the book is a great one and I can see how it's a fantastic part of a great whole and will be even better when viewed later as a chapter of the unfolding world.

    On re-reading I didn't mind the backstabbing quite so much. Okay I expected it but I just didn't mind it quite so much when going back into the book with a different angle, a fresh perspective. Hindsight, I suppose.

    It still feels a little wrong, I still don't like how Cosca and Shivers switched and stitched Monza up, not because "people are baad, mmkay?" but because it just jars and feels out of place in the book to me.

    I wish I had a point to convey really, but I suppose I'm just trying to say that a reviewer has to tell it how it is but also has a duty to portray something in the right light. Joe's world is really, really not pink and fluffy. His fans know and expect that. I think a reviewer should bear that in mind.

  • Davinrad says:

    I think what Oteckre is trying to say is that Great Wars do a helluva lot. The American War of Independence created a new state that is today the World's Superpower (Though they only won because of the French (But it did bankrupt them ala French Revolution)) The Napoleonic Wars ended in the deaths of around a fifth of the population of Europe at the time, ended British involvement with the continent, set the French INDUSTRIAL Revolution back 50 years, tore down and then built up Prussian pride while severely weakening the German States, beautifully paving the way for the state we now know as Germany.
    I could do a very long list. But that's not the point I think you're getting at here; that there's a cycle.
    Well, not anymore. WW2 proudly changed Warfare forever; a major power can no longer declare War upon another. No more Hundred Years Wars (Proudly interpreted in the Simpsons by an arrow being shot at each other (But the English ones were far more accurate)), no more Seven Years Wars, none of it. The Korean War was the last great war, and only because it was an interventionist war, with lots of countries throwing in copious amounts of troops.

    The War Cycle has probably ended. To be replaced by Minor Powers duking it out, commiting genocide and countless atrocities and everyone who can stop it not doing so because it's financially inefficient…

    Off Topic. Very off topic. But I'm just sliding in an argument


  • Davinrad,
    I did say RARELY change the world. Of course wars can have far ranging industrial, cultural, political effects. But a lot of those aren't lasting, especially before the industrial era. Looking at your example of the Hundred Years War, after Agincourt Henry V seemed pre-eminent in France. Within a few years the English had lost it all and were mired in the Wars of the Roses, a cycle of violence that would last for years and achieve, er…

    "…beautifully paving the way for the state we now know as Germany."

    And the Franco-Prussian war, the humiliation of France and the rise of German military power, escalating tensions between Germany and Britain, with the Boer war a rung on the ladder, leading up to…

    Plus ca change…

    Epic fantasy very frequently treats its wars as epoch changing. It tends to stop at the point of Bush on the aircraft carrier declaring victory, if you like. Wooh! Hurray for us! It doesn't tend to look at where things go afterward.

    Looking at the example of Best Served Cold, there certainly are political effects of the Years of Blood in Styria – the collapse of the League of Eight and Orso's ambitions, the fragmentation of the country, the frustration of Union ambitions. Indications that Monza may well be a new driving force in due course. Hope doesn't suddenly flare eternal, though, that's for sure. Why should it have to?

    Even if, as you say, the cycle of great wars has ended, I think you'd have to concede it went on for a very long time, and the cycle of little wars still seems to be going pretty strong.

  • One could also make a strong argument that the kind of changes you're talking about are more the result of seismic social and economic factors than of wars themselves. The American Civil war had vast and long lasting social effects but one could argue that those changes had been coming, and the war created that pressure necessary for them to happen.

    Has the second world war made great wars unthinkable? They seemed pretty thinkable during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis for example? Or has the far greater and ever increasing level of economic interdependence between major powers made the cost unthinkable?

    Wars certainly serve as catalysts and vital tipping points, but without underlying social, cultural, economic factors the changes they cause don't tend to last. As Lincoln had it, "force is all conquering, but its victories are short lived."

    Man, that guy was pithy.

  • Davinrad says:

    It's a very philosophical issue, one of which I'm surprised to find myself in with an accomplished author (Now THIS is feedback.)

    Well, proudly, I've got just above fuck-all to say to that, due to your last point.
    "Wars certainly serve as catalysts and vital tipping points, but without underlying social, cultural, economic factors the changes they cause don't tend to last."
    I think I've misunderstood you here (FFS, I'm arguing SOMEONE ELSE'S point!)
    I thought you were essentially saying that Wars are just another turn in the endless washing machine in Human History. What I THINK you're saying here is that they're key-moments, mostly the result of said factors, and have little effect if not supported AFTER by said effects.

    I disagree. Wars tend to do to History what they do in life. Start, roll through a Civilization, leaving pain, turmoil and destruction in it's wake, and then the effects are there for us to pick up the pieces. On your example of the Cuban Missile Crisis; do you really think JFK would have held back invading Cuba if Russia couldn't have blown his entire nation into a rocky skidmark? The Second World War is the ultimate deterrent, because it has reverberated throughout history for a reason; with the push of the button, World Leaders can end it. All.
    The Cold War was an economic, social and technological arms-race. It was highlighted by two Guerilla Wars, Vietnam and Afghanistan, that stand out as brilliant Military Examples of a simple credo: Just because he's little, doesn't mean he can't stab you in the back.
    But you've conceded Great Wars have gone (No refunds!)

    In Best Served Cold, you've damn well implied that the Cycle is going to start all over anew. But that's moot, simply because I'm on rocky ground there, and you invented the bloody place!

    Epic Fantasy is…bunged full of cliches for a reason, mainly because they are designed to allow an escape; but the key themes tend to be heavily influenced by real life.
    I'll unashamedly compliment a combatant by saying you do a damn good job of portraying the aftermath of a Medieval War; it's technicalities, injustice and decent, loyal men getting hung because they obeyed their orders. You do an admirable job of subverting a Trope, but the thing about me is I like to think I've been through something momentous when I read it. Like I've born witness to an epoch-changing event; it's a sense of self-importance.
    Epoch-changing Wars aren't bad. Neither are cyclical wars. But, if there's dozens of Cyclical, repetitive Wars…Why are we focussing on this one?

    And yes, Lincoln was pithy. But did you see that beard? Gotta give a guy points for style.

  • enjai says:

    Seeming though we are now discussing war, I think most people didn't think there'd be a second world war after the horrors of the first one.

    Claiming "big" wars wont happen any more is more a matter of time than anything else. I guess those pesky nukes are a detterrent but so were the european alliances that were meant to prevent any further wars in europe pre 1914.

  • I thought the point of the Novel was to reveal the character of Monza, not whether she grew or not.
    At the end, there is a 180degree reversal of what we know about her.

  • Richard Morgan actually weighs in on the issue of "noir fantasy" in the following interview, here:

  • oteckre says:

    ok joe and readers, the time i wrote my comment it was late at night and i was simply appalled by your short omniscient summary of european and world history.

    i fully understood your argument in the context of great epic fantasy and the questionable review from dear Elizabeth. And i know that it wasn´t your intention to write a summary of history. But if some idiot rips your sentences out of the context like i did they leave a sour taste: You´d think that you believe that the european struggle for nationalism and the subsequent world wars were all but for naught. But if i had read further on i would have realised that this is not what you wanted to say. Now my mind is clear and i apologize for my precipitous comment. At least we got something to discuss…

    ghostinchains, you great wolf, eh? go somewhere else and houl your dream of a world full of sheeps.

  • Max says:

    You know, guys, it's really not just "happy endings" conditioning. Endings don't have to be happily-ever-after ride-into-the-sunset stuff. Really.

    How about Matt Stover? HEROES DIE and BLADE OF TYSHALLE are very gritty books. People–often, the ones who didn't deserve it–die in brutal ways. Hell, in BLADE, the protagonist–whose primary motivation is to *save his wife*–fails at that task. The book manages not to be utterly depressing anyway.

    Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of bittersweet. There are only a couple of his books which I can read without tearing up (often, several times). But that's just it–it's *bittersweet*. It's not all good or all bad.

    People aren't reacting so negatively to an ending that's *not all good*. They're reacting that way to one that's *all bad*.

    I admit to liking the first First Law book a lot more than I did the last one. It just feels too GRIM and DARK (and pointless). Heck, the way Jezal's wife, out of the blue, is forced to pretend to enjoy rape every night just feels like the author going "hahaha! Look, guys! Life sucks! Get it?" And yes, I'm aware that women in the real world still have to endure that or similar (or worse). That's not really a reason to include it.

  • Alex says:

    I don't think that a sad ending necessarily makes a story "edgy", nor does it make a story "pointless". My only preference is that the author is not careless with his/her characters.

    For example, does anyone read the Fables comics? The storylines are often whimsical, and the violence looks cartoonish. There is even an amnesiac character who wears a frog hat. Then, in one of the side stories, the authors reveal that the frog hat character lost his memory after watching his wife and daughter being gang raped and murdered. That subject matter could have been handled gracelessly, but instead it put the whole series in context; you now appreciate that these characters are war survivors.

    In contrast, I tried to read Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy, but I had to stop after the first book. Characters are thrown away too casually and rape themes seem unnecessarily abundant (like in the Sword of Truth series). Parts of the series reminded me of a scene from a hilarious Danielle Steele movie, in which the main character's depression was explained in a 10 second clip of her husband and son blowing up with a plane.

    There's a fine line between incorporating and exploiting dark subject material. So far, Abercrombie's ironic humor and tight storylines have produced some of the best fantasy stories I've ever read.

  • Taylor says:

    I've wondered for the last 25 years of my life (since I started reading fantasy books), "When will someone write a well-written novel that breaks the mold of Joseph Campbell's hero. Yes, I know those books are comforting, blah, blah, but thank you, JA, for writing an outstanding group of books where the predictability of heroes that change for the better is not taken for granted. Loved BSC!

    P.S. Good to see that a great fantasy wirter can bring a sense of closure to a book or trilogy while still allowing fro its continuity. Keeps the fans wanting more, but not irate that an unnecessary part 11 is coming out 20 plus years after the debut novel.

  • Alex says:

    I think you were quite bang on there Joe. But i think a LOT of people (including this reviewer it seems) look to books, films, TV, as escapism and wish to be uplifted and made to feel happy. Most people know the world is fairly screwed up, and get fatigued with constant news reports of suffering etc, and therefore would rather forget about it when unwinding with a book/film.

    I personally thought no country for old men was great and origional, but most people I watched it with were put off by its subversion of story traditions, which most of them vocalised as "it had a shit ending". Perhaps as I was familiar with McCarthy's books I was prepared for something a bit different. One of his other books, The Road, is incredibly bleak and upsetting, but also incredibly moving as it contains a ray of hope at the end, which perhaps creates more of an impact than pure doom and gloom.

    I think your book has enough hope at the end to be "worthwhile" for people who demand some positivity…and generally "they all lived happily ever after" stories just dont ring true to anyone above the age of 8. Plus there's nothing like a bit of epic misery to remind oneself how awesome life in a priviledged, wealthy, stable-ish society actually is, and how bad things aren't, if you take my meaning.

  • Thunderfoot. says:

    that. is. all.

  • I just finished BSC and find myself disagreeing with the review, but then that probably was going to happen. Not much I can add here except that how wonderfully Machiavellian the story was and I'm sorry the reviewer couldn't appreciate it for what it was and couldn't pick up on the theme of revenge where there are no real winners.

    There was one or two comments on the ending, which I actually loved, because it put me in mind of the ending of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove – not at all a happy ending, but an ending of the tale that was being told.

    I really wish there were more author's like JA out there, who would take chances with their characters and their stories and not have to worry about happy endings to soothe a crowd who might feel they're owed it for having put their efforts into reading 600ish pages.

  • Stephen Deas says:

    Here's a theory for you, born of a long discussion at fantasycon and the occasional similar complaint levelled against The Adamantine Palace:

    The heart of any (traditional, shall we say) fantasy story is a world that is simple. It may not always seem it, but compared to the real world, it is. The good people are good, the bad people are bad, there is right and there is wrong. This is one thing. Another is that anyone in a fantasy story can be the hero. Rich or poor, weak or strong, black or white. Why do people like this? Because the real world is big and complicated and very grey and much harder to tell right and wrong apart. Because the real world is full of things we think could be better, things we want to change but can't. Sometimes we can't change them because we don't have the power. Sometimes we can’t change things because we simply don't know how. Fantasy, and only fantasy, is an escape from this. An escape to a world where we can understand and we can have the power and we can fight for what we believe in and we can be the hero and what's more we can win! It's good for us too. Maybe the best fantasy stories inspire us to be more than think we are, something few other stories can do.

    If some people feel that, and feel it's being taken away from them, I guess I can understand why they get upset.

  • Noah Bro says:

    I think more than anything, Vail just misses the point of BSC.

    People can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the brilliant thing about Joe's books (a quality he shares with George Martin and R. Scott Bakker, in my view) is that you, the reader, get to decide whom to root for. The idea that the world is split into three warring factions, none of which are pure good or evil, achieves a level of creative art that is sorely lacking in most other literature, film, and television. Maybe some people like Monza and Shenkt, the newcomers to the power game; we now have Ishri, who gives the Gurkish a more accessible face; I, for one, will continue to root for Bayaz and Yoru, the universe's most likeable cannibal. That's what's so great about this world, though, as opposed to the others in fantasy books where good and evil are so neatly marked out. No one is perfect in this world, and it's impossible to achieve anything without going somewhere dark to do it. That premise leaves it up to the reader to decide who deserves the crown, ultimately.
    I think Shivers' arc illustrates this the best of anyone, since he tries to be better and that only brings him pain. When he ends up "everyone's worst enemy instead of his own" (as I butcher Joe's prose – sorry for that), there's a part of me that's said for that, but I can't deny that he's now much better suited to life in the Circle of the World. It's both fitting and ironic that a refusal to kill Logen at the end of TFL started him on that path. After all, Logen came to some similar realizations in the last series.

    As I said at the beginning, Vail just misses the point that what Joe does for the reader is leave it up to him or her to make value judgments about whose way is the best. As an author, you can't do that if you have predictable, squeaky clean character arcs.

  • Yoru, likeable?!

    Only in the same way as Bayaz; they seem like the Good Guys at first, but their hypocrisy and corruption are awful.

    And let's face it, quite a lot of the Eaters seen so far have seemed personable.

  • Boudica says:

    Thanks for opening up the discussion. I initially started to reply in Facebook but it got a little long winded so it turned into a blog post

    In a nutshell, I think there should be the possibility for change, a realisation that change can be good or bad, a variety of character responses to change, and an acknowledgement that a complex world leads to moral relativity. Shades of grey are always more interesting.

  • Noah Bro says:

    What hypocrisy and corruption? Is Bayaz any more corrupt or hypocritical than anyone else – Murcatto? Hardly…she's just less powerful so maybe it is more palatable. Shivers? Don't think so, he tried to murder his employer, after all. Logen? He tries pretty hard when he's not the bloody nine, but I think one of the main points of this universe is that intentions are pretty much worthless as the murder of Tul Duru and estrangement from Ferro show. I guess you could say Shenkt isn't a hypocrite, but we don't know much about him yet other than his opposition to Bayaz.

    Anyway, I guess I'm mistaken if Bayaz is supposed to be the arch villain of this universe, but I see it as a situation where there is a large scale war going on between two sides-neither of whom cares about the survival of the little man as much as his own ultimate victory. Thus far, while we have certainly seen that Bayaz is by no means meek or benign, it hasn't become clear that the circle of the world would be better off without him…to me anyway. Rosy can you show that it would?

  • We'll see what details I can remember here; I fear some of it might be fuzzy.

    Of the two main sides here, the original and obvious presentation was Bayaz=Good and Khalul=Bad.

    Over the course of the trilogy it became clear that much, if not all, of Bayaz's justifications are lies that cover up his own misdeeds, e.g. the murder (or attempted) of Tolomie and perhaps even Juvens. In the end, he breaks every Law he holds Khalul accountable for (he's created at least two Eaters: Yoro and Shenkt) and admits that all he cares about is power. Given that power, he prevents any positive change that might erode it.

    Khalul still seems to be Bad, but Bayaz has almost certainly darkened his reputation for his own ends. True, he's created his own Eaters (many of whom seem regretful of wat they must do, and possibly even sincere and well-meaning). He acts in opposition to Bayaz, so his external motivations and character aren't really known.

    If we can say that neither of the above are a bad thing, and that Skenkt opposes them both, then he may be the only one who comes close to being a good guy. He does bad stuff, yes, but it seems with a degree of regret. His motivation appears to be based upon hatred of being a subservient pawn in others' games ('I no longer kneel'), and he extends this independence to his… 'faction'.

    So, yes, at the moment I'm rooting for Shenkt, and Ferro, and Tolomei, and the other 3rd parties that might be able to effect change. Oh, and Yulwei, because he might realise the truth about Bayaz.

  • "If we can say that neither of the above are a bad thing"

    Ooops. Change 'neither' to 'either' or 'bad' to 'good'!

  • Noah Bro says:

    I think you may be missing my point, too. In this universe, no one is "good" in the traditional fantasy sense (a la Fitz or Verity in the Farseer Trilogy). Everyone has flaws.

    My argument is that Bayaz only seems worse because he's more powerful and so his flaws affect a greater number of people through his actions to keep the World going in the direction he wants. You can think what you want about that direction – pleased, worried, ambivalent . . . but YOU get to decide, and that's what I think is so great about these books as opposed to so many others. It's also one thing the review by Vail clearly didn't understand.

    As for Shenkt being "better" than the rest, he does kill to solve his problems and eat people to keep his powers . . . let's not get carried away with his virtues.

    Interestingly, he says towards the end of BSC that he learned the notion of killing to save lives from an old master . . . Bayaz, I presume?

    All I'm saying is things are more relative here than you're making them.

  • Chardvignon says:

    Having read both Ms. Vail's review in full, I am left to wonder quite honestly what she thought of perhaps the pinnacle of revenge stories: Hamlet.

    You remember Hamlet? Also written by a British author, I think?

    Hamlet's got it all – a major soliloquy to suicide that (I must say) is both more depressing and better written than most of Best Served Cold, a single-minded antihero who kills doesn't seem to learn much about who and why he's choosing to kill and destroy his own kingdom; and an ending that is at best tenuous – certainly for the people of Denmark.

    So. I assume Ms. Vail must have just hated it; indeed, what positive points could she glean from this world of despair, despite that Hamlet is perhaps the most popular and enduring of all of Shakespeare's plays?

    Rather than find Best Served Cold as depressing, I see it instead as an excellent successor to Hamlet, and to find in it many Shakespearean passages and themes (and perhaps Marlowe, as well).

    Monza – as much as Prince Hamlet – is motivated by revenge almost to abstraction. Yet at the end of the novel, there are hints that she, unlike the prince, has been thinking about the question – so what do I do now, go to Disneyworld? Shivers comes to the southlands trying to become "civilized"; he leaves a much better barbarian that the North was making him. (At least that's a better end than Laertes.) Some of the other characters, too, have at least a different pattern of choices ahead of them (i.e., Friendly).

    Joe will probably hate the fact that I think him a worthy heir of Shakespeare and Marlowe, rather than of some fantasy writer, but the fact is that good stories are genreless. A good story is a good story, no matter where the acerbic critic attempts to pigeonhole it. I don't see that JA is dealing with themes in BSC (and earlier in the FLT) that are taken from stock fantasy; rather, they are part of the real motivations for most of the wars that have plagued the continent of Europe for the past 1,000 years or so. There are human elements in each of these tragedies (and comedies, and histories) that are both compelling today – in the ways that good storytelling is always compelling – and that also do allow us to hold up a mirror to ourselves and society.

    Often, that mirror-holding doesn't lead us to a conclusion, and possibly not even to a direction. But it's worth it, nonetheless.

    People will always find things they like and don't like about stories, but I find it disheartening that people seem to be searching solely for simply Bildundgsroman or hero-quests where good always wins; evil always loses; and the fair princess is always married to the fair prince at the end. Real life teaches us on a rather daily basis that things don't end this way; a cursory glance at the Police Blotter in your local newspaper should reveal that.

    I guess this is a lengthy way of saying that in my fantasy, I'll take a heavy dose of reality, thank you very much. And no flippin' elves.

  • Steve says:

    Please do not take this review to heart and attempt to cater to the masses by throwing in happy endings with the good guys winning.

    I love that the good guys don't always win in your books. When I play a fantasy RPG like Neverwinter Nights or Knights of the Old Republic I ALWAYS play the bad guy… because… lets face it… they are just more interesting and more badass, and more human.

    The one thing that I will agree with though is that the book was predictable. within the first 50 pages, we knew that some Monza chick was going to go on a rampage and kill 7 people… and guess what happened? Monza went on a rampage and killed 7 people.

    I think it was the premise of the book was the issue. You didn't leave yourself a whole lot of room to have an exciting or twist ending, because we knew what was going to happen all along. The twists and turns throughout the book were original and exciting and great, but at the end we ended up right where we knew we would – Monza got her revenge and took Orso's place.

    In the First Law, the ending was phenominal. Who would have guessed that Bayaz wasn't really the good guy, or the bad guy, but just a guy? That Glotka would end up where he did? There were so many awesome endings to story arcs in the First Law that made it really badass.

  • WitchKing says:

    I found "Best Served Cold" to be gripping reading. You can find about 4 gazillion copies of LOTR-retreads at any book store or library. I think Joe's writing is fresh, it's realistic, and hell, I love the fact that he doesn't shy away from the fact that swords cut off limbs quite violently, and magic spells can burst blood all over the place. Keep doing what you're doing, Joe. I have enough sugar-coated fantasy from all the Tolkien-wannabes. I want to see you successful enough that we start to see more Abercrombie-wannabes, because dark and gritty is a great place to take the fantasy genre.

  • Andy S says:

    Having had a similar experience myself recently (albeit in a different genre), readers bring expecations to their, um reading table. If you are going to mess with them, you have to prepare them first. To a large exentent, and this goes double for fantasy, reading is escapist, entertainment. People want to be taken to place filled with empowered, wish fulfilment. The great thing about your books is that they are prepared to shake things up. However, since fantasy has been acting like reconstituted Lord of the Rings comfort food for a long time now, people will be in for a bit of shock after an Abercrombie outing. The work comes in preparing readers when ushering them into to your den.

  • I saw the beginnings of this on my recently deceased facebook account and realized I should give it a read before continuing on (Thanks for the spoiler warning).

    I can say that this critic's review was helpful, in a sense. Certain people look through the fantasy section and want fairy tale romance, epic heroism… all that. Which is fine! I like it too, I just don't think it should be the standard upon which good fiction is based. But if I did, I'd be grateful to have read that review.

    HOWEVER, fan of the politics and culture of Renaissance Italy that I am, the trials and tribulations of the Styrian elite; soldiers, dictators and aristocrats alike; struck me as the exact kind of tale The Bard would tell were he to have access to today's lexicon of ascerbicism.

    And that is the problem with this review. "Fantasy" is only a technical term for the brick and mortar bookstore shelf. It has no bearing on the quality of content and does little to capture the book buyer's imagination of what to expect. I'd liken Best Served Cold closer to a classic moral or political drama than some pulp icon fantasy, covered in neatly airbrushed dragon artwork.

    If someone hadn't gifted The Blade Itself, I might never have discovered this work. People shopping for fantasy would have a hard time picking out on the shelf. Obviously, it was just a bit too much for a few critics of considerably lean palettes.

    I liked it though. =)

  • Anonymous says:

    Sounds to me like she's selling your book for you!

    I am heartily sick of the nice-guys-finish-first stories so pervasive in fastasy books. All you need is a good heart (and the looks, and the sword of destiny/truth/whatever…) for your adventure to turn out alright? Yeah.

    In the real world, nice people get walked all over, killed in wars, manipulated and stuck in their defined little boxes. It IS very difficult to make a difference in the world, especially on a big scale.

    Now,I don't want every single book I read to be all doom and gloom, but I really like the balance of black humour, great characters and interweaving storylines you achieve. The realism of how the characters progress, specifically Monza and Shivers, is excellent. I love the fact that Shivers realsies he is changing, and changing for the worse, but feels every time he tries to address that problem he is bashed down in some new, unpleasant way. In the end he gives up trying and I totally relate to that! It's refreshing to see someone struggling with the things they do and the things that are done to them – and not exactly failing to rise to the occasion, but DECIDING "f**k this". Maybe Shivers will get better, maybe he won't. That isn't the point I take from this particular story. Who says we HAVE to know in order to make the book worthwhile?

    Personally, I did prefer "The First Law" trilogy because the plot all came togther so well in the end. Also Glokta and Logen are charcaters unsurpassed by anything else I have read recently. But I still loved "Served" and the great writing style you inject into the genre.


    Hannah 🙂

  • barfly says:

    try this for a few unwelcome contributions:
    (a) your books are fine, dark and dirty is good, carry on up the Kyber old boy!
    (b) Americans prefer 'happy' endings. they're hard-wired for it and will itch and scratch until they get that 'good guys win' ending they so desperately feel they need. happily we're not all Americans — even all Americans aren't really 'Americans' — so their taste isn't necessarily good for everyone else.
    (c) epic fantasy _is_ somewhat wired toward the big prezzy at the end — yes there is a general feeling that if i've read 1000 pages of your stuff you better give me bon-bons at the end of it — BUT a goodly amount of the best epic fantasy has no such pay off (Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, etc etc). these may not be the most popular examples but tough toodles, they're among the best of the genre and damn fair examples to follow.
    (d) 'up' endings on epic fantasy is really the underlying desire by many readers to have it all turn into (contemprary) children's stories 'cause those are safer and less threatening.
    (e) dark — real dark, not 'toy-boy vampire with kisses' pseudo-dark — is unpopular in most creative fiction. who is writing 'The Sheep Look Up' or 'Crash' these days? no one that i know of. we've become pablum fed wimps when it comes to our popular fiction and woe to the SOB who messes with the program. that said 'messing with the program' is both what we _really_ need in epic fantasy these days and why i keep reading the good Mr. Abercrombie.
    (f) one of the best ways to seal the fate of fiction is to write the rewards and endings that readers say they want. excuse me but the customer is not always right. the customer may have a say in whether you eat tomorrow but they don't have a lot of input on whether you'll be remembered once your books drop off the print list. writing something that matters means writing something that is about the human condition. this, as you obviously well know, is not at all the same thing as writing for the comfort of the humans doing the reading.
    (g) at the risk of belabouring the point, your books are fine, dark and gritty is good, even necessary. carry on!

  • Anonymous says:

    I loved the book as a filler between two trilogies. The story arc was flat, but it really didn't bother me, because it made the life of the characters more realistic. The singleminded pursuit of vengeance without getting any satisfaction out of it was a bit bleak, but who said evil characters should get to live happily ever after. I've loved your books, but my wife has issues with the constant snarling, scowling and clenching of fists. You seem to be a very visual person describing events as you see them and this can lead to repetition and a movie-like feel to the books. Thanks!

  • Anonymous says:

    For my taste the end of the book is very well solved, it gives answers to some quest plots, is somehow still believable and suprised me with its open ending, which now gives room for a lot of speculating on how things will develop from there.

    I enjoed reading the book very much. I especially liked the cross references to the triology, it was not so a standalone book as one would have thought in advance.

    Thank you for a wonderful read I am certainly looking forward for more 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    I've found that fantasy as a genre has been stifled because of the epic sagas which, while good, serve to only pigeonhole what is good and bad in a fantasy novel.

    Lord of the Rings. The Belgariad. All them and more are convenient epics which, while good, have the "good always wins" mantra, and its constant retelling left me bored almost to death with the genre. Which is why I liked the First Law so much.

    To me it was refreshing. There ultimatly were no winners, nor losers. They were stuck in the purgatory of complete unhappiness. And I liked that.

    In every fantasy novel everything works out all right, and the evil tyrant is vanquished with a magic piece of weaponry. But life is not like that. From the day you breathe to the day you gasp your last, life is one hard slog. There are no neat outcomes where everyone is happy, no predictable twists where everything is resolved, and very little (if actual) development in a persons character throughout their lives.

    So even if the terms thrown at books like "make-believe" and "fantasy" are fake, many of the themed books like the First Law/Best Served Cold still satisfyed me more than "everyones happy" ones, because it was refreshing and, above all, not to the formula that for so long wrecked many a fantasy novel for me.

  • J. Moufawad-Paul says:

    I'm tired of reviews that slag the grittier fantasy simply because they want their high/epic fantasy to remain innocent and unreal stories about good vs. evil, boy kings, and exciting feudal worlds that never (and could never) exist. It seems to me that this fantasy subgenre is being dragged away from its childish (and often reactionary) Tolkien roots and this Green Man review is simply another example of an epic fantasy fan who is angry that her favourite type of books are starting to actually interrogate real-world issues.

    I enjoyed the "Chan-wook Park Vengeance Trilogy meets fantasy land" feeling of *Best Served Cold*, just as I've enjoyed all of this "gritty" or "edgy" epic fantasy that many believe is simply a fad. Well, I hope it becomes more than just a fad; I could do without much of the Tolkien-derivative escapist crap (that is so often, as is the case with someone like Terry Goodkind, proto-fascist). I hope that fantasy continues to follow the trend best represented by books like *Best Served Cold*.

  • Anonymous says:

    Please Joe, don't ever change. There are shitloads of books where the humble farmboy goes on a magical quest to destroy the dark lord, then becomes the king and marries the elf princess. Your detractors can fuck off and read those, frankly. You're one of the few writers the rest of us have.

  • Enna says:

    This is a little late – but here goes. I enjoyed BSC. I LIKE fun, violent, gritty books. BUT its unrelenting nihilistic anti-morality did take some of the fun out.

    The moral realities of the book's universe (haven't read first law – thought it best to try out Abercrombie first in a stand alone) remind me of nonfiction accounts of what it was like to be in the holocaust. Ever read Night by Eli Weisel or Maus by Art Spiegelman? (Both beyond excellent – especially Maus, which is a graphic novel depiction of the author's father's experiences.) Both relay some of that "no good deed goes unpunished" reality that Abercrombie uses fictionally. Weisel in particular writes that all truly good people died in the camps, and Maus makes it clear that a certain amount of ruthlessness (and cleverness and strength and luck) were needed to survive.

    The thing that makes those accounts different from BSC is that, even with all that happening (and they are both far grimmer than BSC and really happened) good isn't pointless in them. Good deeds were punished, no question. But they made a huge difference. They saved lives. In real life, people who were good during the holocaust (who were not blameless epic fantasy fantasies) made a difference. Their mercy was NOT cowardice – it was the bravest bravery I ever read about, and it really happened.

    So, the level of cynicism in BSC rubbed me the wrong way, because the book didn't seem to allow for or acknowledge that even in the very worst situations, good isn't pointless.

    (BTW, I love the Wire, too, but the thing about the Wire is, people try. Even in the face of insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles and their own moral failings, they try. Maybe people are shallow, but I think most people have a need to hear stories about people trying, even if they fail. Shivers gave up trying, and that worked for me for a while. On the other hand, him never trying again, through hundreds of pages – that wore me down.)

  • Stabs says:

    I've just finished BSC and I thoroughly enjoyed it, many thanks for writing it.

    Elizabeth Vail's review is interesting because I think it highlights a valid question: who owns fantasy?

    Is fantasy just a genre for escapists? Are real world analogies and issues inappropriate?

    I started reading fantasy for the escapism (Conan stories mostly) but as I read deeper in the genre and as the genre itself evolved over the last 30 years I've come to open out my expectations.

    I read each book with an open mind. Had BSC been a sword-swinging epic of heroism and derring-do I'm quite sure I would have loved it. But I also loved it as the gritty nihilistic work it is.

    I can see that a lot of readers want stuff pigeonholed, that fits neatly into categories. Romantic novels in particular – well you'd be a brave writer to write a romantic novel where the heroine gets dumped and told she's fat at the end of the story.

    I remember watching an episode of The Sweeney when I was about ten. The villains out-smart the police all through then board a plane to Brazil and fly off with the loot just as a swearing sweating Regan gets to Heathrow.

    I was gobsmacked. How was that even possible in a TV cop show? I was stunned. I was impressed from head down to my toes.

    So keep on as you are Joe it's just your style, some will like it some won't but enough of us like it to pay your bills.

    Thanks again for a most enjoyable read.

  • Anonymous says:

    1 point on people going on about plot twists. Why does there have to be a twist? With books it's the journey not the destination that matters.

  • Mart says:

    I loved the First Law books and Best Served Cold BECAUSE of the the fact that they seemed so realistic despite belonging in the fantasy realm. These "hard" truths about life made the books feel like historical fiction rather than some bedside fairy tales!

    Awesome books! I loved them! The ending to Best Served Cold was unbelievably creative! Genius!

  • Kameron Hurley says:

    This reviewer is on crack.

    It's clear within the first 8 pages what kind of book this is going to be – if you expected something else, you're… on crack. Have I mentioned the crack?

    Best Served Cold was easily one of the best books I read last year.

  • ColinJ says:

    I finished BEST SERVED COLD not long ago and I admit that I was quite surprised at how it ended.

    By then end of it I liked these characters so much that Joe could have ended it with Shivers and Monza riding off into the sunset towards further adventures and I would have closed the book with a big grin on my face.

    But I admire the fact that he chose to close the book more realistically, and dare leave the reader with a sense of consequence and uncertainty of the future of these characters we’ve just spent nearly 600 pages with.

    The world isn’t suddenly all happy and peaceful the moment the enemy is vanguished like in most ‘magical’ fantasy fiction. It’s a bold move and one that lingers long after the last page is turned.

    Monza gets the Michael Corleone ending of “Well, if someone’s gotta rule it may as well be me.” Yet she seems to have taken to the job with aplomb.

    I’d love nothing more than another rip-roaring Monza Murcatto adventure, but where we left off with her I kind of NEED to know if she really does settle into the life of the new tyrant of Styria.

    Overall, for a book of flippant, often-crass humour and blissful gore-letting BEST SERVED COLD pack a surprising amount of emotional and thematic weight in its conclusion. And I loved every page of it.

  • Trey says:

    Fuck her! This book was probably the best fantasy I’ve ever read. Keep it up Joe!

  • Steve M. Salazar says:

    Joe Abercrombie joins the ranks of the new guard in the magical realms of the fantasy, sword, and sorcery kingdoms of writing. His cinematic writing is equal to and in some ways towers above the masters of this genre. Robert E. Howard comes to mind, but I’m dating myself. (is that narcissistic?) What the late great Frank Frazetta was to fantasy artwork, Joe Abercrombie is to fantasy writing. Both able to produce indescribable masterpieces, capturing their audience and whisking them through portals of imagination and magical wonderment. Enjoy the ride and try not to get your fruits in a bunch, because Joe is at the controls of this rollercoaster of raucous realms of ribald revelry, romance and ruin.

  • Sitting on a Fence says:

    “I’m just wondering how widespread this is..”
    I’m totally speculating here, and surely you have the sales figures from your publisher, but Amazon sales rankings show that ‘Best served cold’ sales have been significantly lower compared to the First Law books… is it fair to speculate that x number of readers were turned off by the end of the trilogy and therefore did not purchase ‘Best served cold’?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Sitting on a Fence,
    Best Served Cold was way my most successful book out of the gate, which you’d probably expect as hopefully readerships build over time. Longer term sales have been roughly of a piece with previous titles, at least in the UK. In the US Best Served Cold is in Hardcover and Mass Market while the first law is in trade paperback only, which makes like for like comparisons much more difficult, but again BSC did strongly in hardcover. But then if lots of people don’t like Best Served Cold it’s more likely to be sales of the Heroes which suffer, right? So we’ll see.

    As for target audiences, I don’t really think about things that way. I call it as I see it. It’s up to readers to decide whether what I write hits their target.

  • TheChubby41 says:

    “There was even a happy ending! Also, it wasn’t as gritty as the First Law.”
    Seriously? Wanted more grittiness but with a happy ending? I can see why Jay and Silent Bob went around looking up all their internet critics to kick their asses lol.

  • TheChubby41 says:

    OH nm he wanted an unhappy ending with more grittiness. OK, he gets off the list. 😉
    Sounds like another GRRM fan looking for a new home!

  • eh says:

    “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?”

    I urge you to go one step further. Create a good guy who is unequivocally on the side of the angels, and make him lose. Bring his world come crashing down around him.

    I would read that book.

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