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The Many Adventures of Peter and Fi, Volume I: Homecoming by Kelvyn Fernandes

Apologies again for the delay, still working through some personal issues that I’m hoping can get on top of soon. And given the increased likelihood that more of us need to self-isolate in the coming weeks, what better opportunity to read more?
With regards to my latest book, I wasn’t sure how I’d find this, given that it looked to be aimed at a slightly younger audience than I was accustomed to, but given the generally high quality that I’ve gotten from my indie fantasy I was more than happy to see where it would go.

The Many Adventures of Peter and Fi: Homecoming follows the eponymous Peter, a magic user known as the Bubble Mage, and Fi, an illegal chimera, as they travel across several magic kingdoms in order to get Fi back home. On the way, they will have to deal with dangerous beasts, the fickle whims of nobility, and the daunting nature of their ultimate goals.
So we’ll start with the good parts, first of which are Peter and Fi themselves. Peter is a mage who appears to have a real talent for pissing off the people he works with, despite having the seemingly weak power of creating and manipulating bubbles. As such, he’s cunning and creative in order to get the absolute maximum out of his power set, which is a lot of fun. To contrast Peter’s caution, you also have Fi, who is by far the most entertaining of the cast. Combining cuteness with an aggressive streak a mile wide, she is the kind of chaotic live-wire that adds a much needed kick. Their personalities are just opposed enough that it adds complication without making their relationship non-stop fights.
The second thing that I really liked was what I saw of the worldbuilding. It was unusual enough that it stood out from a lot of traditional fantasy, but not so unusual thing that it required extensive infodumps to explain an element that may never come up again. For the most part, the explanations that were included were succinct summations of political situations and individual mages’ power sets. I especially liked the magic system, which appears to be more like divinely-appointed mutations than anything that can be taught. Volume I focused primarily on Peter’s power set, but I hope to see some other mages in more detail if the series is continued.
There was one thing that I wasn’t quite sure about, and that was that I’m still not sure which audience this was aimed at. So initially I assumed that The Many Adventures of Peter and Fi was aimed at a pre-teen audience given the kind of language used and the overall tone that it seemed to be going for in the early chapters. And then a man’s face was melted off in fairly graphic detail, which I feel might be a bit much for pre-teens. The problem is that similarly graphic and violent moments continue to pop up throughout the book, but the language never seems to change to suit an older audience. It felt off to say the least.

The Many Adventures of Peter and Fi, Volume I: Homecoming is an entertaining fantasy novel with a really interesting magic system that I would really like to see more of. The only real issue that I had with it was an uncertainty about what age group it was meant to be aimed at, given the largely pre-teen feel to the language versus the scenes of graphic violence. 3.5/5

Next review: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

Pirates! by Celia Rees

I have had Pirates! on my bookshelf for a long while, having originally read it when I was back in high school. I remember enjoying it at the time, and as I was feeling nostalgic I thought that I’d give it another read and see how it holds up against my older brain.

Pirates! follows Nancy Kington, the daughter of a sugar merchant, who is forced to move to her father’s plantation after a storm that simultaneously ruined her father’s health and fortunes. Dismayed by the treatment of the slaves that have funded her comfortable lifestyle until now and by how quickly her brothers are willing to marry her off to maintain their fortunes, she decides to run away and try to reunite with her sweetheart, William. Accompanied by one of her late father’s favourite slaves, Minerva, she joins a pirate crew to try and outrun those pursuing her, and to pursue her own fortune in kind.
Re-reading Pirates!, I can definitely see why I enjoyed it as a teenager. The main cast of characters are sympathetic and interesting, and there is a lot of swashbuckling adventure to be had. Nancy is a bit of a worrier and a bit prone to melancholy, but a decent enough sort to be stuck with as a first-person narrator. If I’m honest, I always stayed because of Minerva, the fearless slave-turned-Pirate Queen, who rocks a set of breeches like a pro. I’m pretty sure she may have set off my personal love of cross-dressing women just in time to be introduced to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and I will be forever grateful. There are a few other colourful characters to be found in the crew. There’s Broom, the roguishly charming, if a tad bit dense, pirate captain. There’s Graham, the morose doctor whose sensibilities are more suited for the damp of the British countryside than they are for a pirate ship roaming the Caribbean. And of course, there is the relentless antagonist, Bartholome the Brazilian, a mysterious figure who seems to have an almost satanic attunement with the sea and its treasures.
The main issue that I have found when re-reading this book as an adult is that it now seems to lack bite, and the romance seems a bit tacked on. While I found that the plot seems to hold up overall, I’ve since read and seen pirate stories that are more ruthless, more bloodthirsty and just overall more exciting. Reading Pirates! as an adult, I could see just how much the setting had been watered down for its audience. I don’t necessarily think that that’s a bad thing, considering the audience that the book is aimed at, but it was something that I hadn’t taken into consideration with this re-reading. I would definitely still recommend the book, but perhaps not to those whose tastes are more hardcore.

Thoroughly enjoyable and definitely worth a recommendation to any young teens that you may know. It may come across as a bit tame and safe if your tastes run to the more violent or bloodier end of the spectrum, but is still a fun enough romp if you have the time. 4/5

Next review: The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews

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Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Before we start, I should admit the main reason I was looking forward to reading the first in the Vampirates series. I saw the combination of vampire and pirates, and proceeded to giggle like a particularly excitable schoolchild. That combination had the potential to be metal album cover levels of dorky cool, so I was quite looking forward to it. And then my husband, who had previously read pretty much the whole series, described it as “an earlier version of Twilight, but moreish”. And I was instantly very conflicted.

Demons of the Ocean follows twins Grace and Connor Tempest, the oddly-talented children of an enigmatic lighthouse keeper. After their father’s death leaving them homeless and penniless, the twins decide to steal their father’s repossessed boat and take their chances out to sea. They are soon caught and separated in a storm, rescued by two separate ships. While Connor finds himself on the ship of an infamous pirate by the name of Molucco Wrathe, Grace wakes up on a ship where none but the captain walk upon the deck during daylight hours. Traumatised by their separation, the twins aim to reunite.
This is such a dumb book. I can see why my husband compares it to Twilight, as it does feel very much like fanfiction. The main issue that I have with the Vampirates series so far is that it seems very confused about what time period that it wants to be. So it’s supposed to be set in the 26th century, but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of attempt to capitalise on the kind of advanced technology that should be available. Instead, there seems to be a weird mix of mundane current-day technology like diver’s watches and an overwhelming amount of things that would fit better in the golden age of pirates, like swords, galleons and ridiculous amounts of booty. All I wanted was for the book to settle on a time period and stick to it. If everything had been set in piracy’s golden era, that would have been so much easier and wouldn’t have had to change a great deal.
Despite the weird time setting inconsistencies, it was surprisingly entertaining. It’s still incredibly dumb, but a fun kind of dumb, like a B-movie. It’s full to the brim with stupid concepts that just about made me cry with laughter. Pirate academy, anyone?

Not the smartest of books and could have benefited from just transposing everything into the golden era of piracy to simplify all of the weird time bullshit that it has going on. Despite that, it’s entertaining enough and will probably distract kids nicely. 3/5

Next review: Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

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True Grit by Charles Portis

I’d mainly heard of True Grit from my dad. See, he’s a big fan of both John Wayne and the Coen Brothers, so he was quite keen on both movie adaptations. When I got this as part of a bundle, I wasn’t sure how I’d find it, as until recently I hadn’t really read any westerns before Blood Meridian last month. I had heard good things about True Grit though, so I went in hopeful.

True Grit follows Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who travels to Fort Ross upon hearing that her father has been shot and killed by his hired hand, Tom Chaney. Determined to avenge her father’s death, she hires Rooster Cogburn, a deputy marshal known for his meanness and quick trigger finger, to help her find Tom Chaney and bring him to justice, either by the hangman’s noose or at the end of a gun.
True Grit would be a fairly straightforward revenge story if it weren’t for the fact that Mattie has such a distinct and interesting voice. For a 14-year-old, she is strong-willed and no-nonsense, with a particularly good mind for business. It’s refreshing to see a character that in any other book set in the era would be meek and timid, and they’re powering on ahead, taking absolutely no shit from anyone. It gets her in trouble, because of course it does, but she’s all the more interesting for taking this strength/weakness to its logical conclusion.
The setting is definitely less bleak than the one presented by Blood Meridian, but the violence depicted stands out a lot more comparatively. It comes as more of a surprise when it does come, highlighted in particular by Mattie’s comparative naivety. It ends up being a mid-point between the sort of heroic cowboy narrative that my dad grew up with and the unrelenting “humanity is scum” viewpoint that Blood Meridian settles on. There are clear distinctions between who is “good” and who is “bad”, but there’s a definite moral flexibility that can be seen in the characters, especially Mattie’s reluctant travelling companions.

Despite my initial concerns, I found myself falling almost instantly in love with Mattie and her no-nonsense attitude. I would definitely give True Grit a read if you’re looking to try out the Western genre, as it seems to be a nice middle ground between unrelentingly bleak and entirely ignoring the negative aspects of Reconstruction America. 4.5/5

Next review: K-ON! Volume 2 by kakifly

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

After the disappointment that was The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, I was in the mood for something familiar. I hadn’t read Treasure Island in years, and remembered really enjoying it when I was younger, so it seemed like the perfect book to revisit.

Treasure Island follows a young boy named Jim Hawkins. Helping his parents run their inn, the Admiral Benbow, he meets a cantankerous old sailor who is rather keen on avoiding other seamen. When he dies after his old crewmates turn up to harass him, Jim gets his hands on the old man’s sea-chest, with a treasure map inside. Joined by Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney, they embark on a journey to retrieve the treasure, gathered initially by the infamous Captain Flint. But all is not well, as their crew of honest hands has been infiltrated by former members of Flint’s crew, most notably the one-legged Long John Silver.
It might just be the innumerable film adaptations overriding my memories of the book, but I do not remember there being quite as much malaria in Treasure Island. I’d also managed to forget a whole chunk of the book in which Jim manages to steal back their ship, the Hispaniola, which is probably more worrying. Regardless, I still enjoyed it about as much as I did when I was a kid. There was a small part of my brain making things weird by thinking of my two favourite adaptations (the Muppet version and Disney’s weird but somehow still coherent Victoriana Space Opera version), but it does definitely still stand up by itself.
One thing that I will mention for those of you who haven’t read Treasure Island, but have seen a bunch of the adaptations is that Hollywood has a weird obsession with trying to make Long John Silver into a kind of weird father-figure for Jim. There isn’t really much of that in the actual book, with Silver being more or less a child-friendly depiction of a psychopath. Sure he switches sides towards the end, but not out of any genuine affection for Jim; considering that the alternative is dying on a malaria-ridden island with three former comrades who really aren’t satisfied with the way that his grand voyage has panned out, it’s a purely pragmatic decision. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just something that would stand out if you’ve only ever seen film versions before.

Treasure Island is a classic for a reason. The characters are great, the action is gripping and who doesn’t love pirates? If you’ve only ever seen the film versions before though, you might want to prepare yourself for a significantly less likeable Long John Silver. 4.5/5

Next review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

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Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ll admit, when I got the Humble ebook Bundle I didn’t have any idea of what I was getting into with Shards of Honor. I’d vaguely heard of the Vorkosigan Saga and generally they seemed good things, but I’d never really looked into the series enough to get a solid idea of what it was all about. I figured from the blurb that it would be military science-fiction of some sort, but not much beyond that. More or less completely blind going in. Nice.

Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a scientific survey crew who becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a man of sinister reputation and the former commander of the soldiers who attacked her crew. But despite the initial mistrust, the two find themselves growing unexpectedly attracted to one another, and must face the possibility of being forever parted when their planets threaten to go to war.
I honestly didn’t think I was going to like Shards of Honor when I first started reading it, as the narrative kind of throws the reader in at the deep end. I hadn’t gotten further than maybe the first couple of pages in and it’s throwing around new terms for planets and space-age weaponry with gay abandon. More than a little off-putting at first, not unlike trying to get your head around Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange for the first time. But like the aforementioned Nadsat, your head does manage to wrap itself around the more unusual terms with surprisingly little extra information.
Having adjusted myself to being thrust into the plot with a lot more speed than I am accustomed to, I realised that despite my initial reservations I was really enjoying myself. While the easiest way to describe the novel is military science-fiction with romance, Shards of Honor takes those base elements and does some really interesting things with them. So, first the military bit. I’m actually kind of surprised at how little fighting is actually shown directly. Possibly this is due to the main character being more or less a non-combatant, but the parts of war that are shown most often can be boiled down to internal politics and large scale battle strategy. Considering how much I love some politics and back-stabbing, I was totally in my element. Additionally, it was good to see that the sides aren’t easily delineated into purely good or malign. While the invading Barrayaran army is mostly in the wrong, it has a mix of Caligula types versus more noble types like Vorkosigan. Similarly, while there are perfectly reasonable people on the side of Escobar and Beta Colony like Cordelia, there are a surprising amount of people unwilling to look beyond basic propaganda messages. And no-one gets out of war unscathed, even or perhaps especially those who got what they wanted from the conflict. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about this world.
Second, the romance. I was pleasantly surprised that the novel focused on a middle age romance. While I’m a sucker for most kinds of romance, I don’t think I’ve really seen much in the genre where the people involved aren’t in their mid-twenties or younger (aside from the supernatural stuff, but even then no-one thinks or looks over thirty). It was refreshing to see the romance unfold with more maturity and a more thoughtful pace. It’s established pretty quickly that both Cordelia and Aral have been badly burned by their romantic attachments in the past, so their connection is less outwardly passionate, but no less powerful for it.

A bit of a slow burner at the start, but well worth the short period of confusion at the beginning. Shards of Honor is probably quite a good introduction to military science-fiction, if my reaction was anything to go by. I would definitely look into getting more of the Vorkosigan Saga as a result anyway. 4.5/5

Next review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,

An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

I first heard about the character Arsene Lupin when I was reading the manga detective series Case Closed. Included in the back of each volume was a recommendation from the author of other detectives that readers might be interested in. And amongst some of the first to be recommended was Arsene Lupin, a charismatic master thief and sometime detective, created in response to the success of Sherlock Holmes. Suitably intrigued, I tried finding whatever had been translated from the original French, only to discover that there doesn’t seem to be much available regardless of what Wikipedia says has been translated. As such, I’ve been rather looking forward to reading something complete, beyond the few scattered stories that I’ve managed to find previously.

An Arsene Lupin Omnibus collects four of the volumes written by LeBlanc. Instead of going over plot and character aspects as I would normally would, I will instead focus on each volume individually.
First up is Arsene Lupin versus Holmlock Shears. This is the weakest of the four for me, for one reason that is perhaps more personal to me. As you can probably tell, this is a short novel detailing the intellectual battle between Lupin and a poorly disguised version of Sherlock Holmes, whose name couldn’t be used at the time of writing due to copyright infringement. The mystery is actually fairly solid, I didn’t really manage to guess anything before the big finales. My problem is that this is such a mean-spirited rendition of Holmes, and let’s not pretend that this Holmlock Shears is meant to be a character in his own right. While I have loved books with one abhorrent character, rarely was the narrative from their perspective and never was it using the character that I will probably always carry closest to my heart. To see him treating his Watson substitute with such callousness is galling. As I said though, the mystery is good enough and Lupin charming enough that I could tough it through.
The second volume in the omnibus is The Confessions of Arsene Lupin, a collection of short stories mostly focusing on Lupin as a master thief. This is one of the stronger collections in my opinion, because Lupin’s adventures are not long enough that they have time to grow old. An issue that the previous volume had as well was that as two longer cases, it does start to feel a bit like a waiting game as Lupin sets more and more obstacles in an investigation’s way until no more avenues of pursuit are available. With the short stories, it’s more succinct and punchy. They feel more fun when there isn’t the knowledge that your main character is running in circles. It’s much more interesting to see how carefully laid defences are circumvented when it isn’t the point of view character’s defences.
The third volume is another novel-length adventure, The Golden Triangle. In this volume, a dashing injured army captain and the beautiful nurse who tended to his injuries must defend against an unknown assailant whilst trying to figure out both where the nurse’s evil husband hid several tons of gold bullion and who has been aiming to bring the two of them together in matrimony since early childhood. This one works significantly better than the first of the long-form adventures, as it provides more meat with regards to its adventure. I won’t say mystery, because there’s one rather big spoiler, only revealed in the penultimate chapter, that I managed to guess by the halfway point. Hint, characters don’t do a 180 turn in allegiance during the course of a day, so it’s not hard to surmise from there. Aside from that, it’s great fun, with a lot of “lovers in peril” moments that I probably like a bit too much.
Last of all is The Eight Strokes of the Clock. This is kind of an interesting volume, as it’s in some ways both a novel and a collection of short stories. Posing as a gentleman by the name of Prince Serge Renine, Lupin approaches a woman by the name of Hortense Daniel, and manages to restore her financial independence. As payment, he offers that she become his companion in seven further adventures, thus providing the reader with a series of interlinked short stories. I had actually read a couple of the chapters before getting the omnibus, as a part of a “best of” collection, and I must say that their inclusion was spot on. While the introduction essentially asks the reader to think of Lupin as a French equivalent to Sherlock Holmes, nowhere in this omnibus does it fit as well as The Eight Strokes of the Clock, as here we have the consistency of an established partnership combined with the stand-alone nature of the short stories themselves. Honestly, it’s the best part of the omnibus, and had everything been of this standard I would have been supremely happy to give this a perfect score.

A thoroughly enjoyable collection, worth a look for The Eight Strokes of the Clock alone. As a Holmes fan I can’t quite bring myself to like Arsene Lupin versus Holmlock Shears, but I can appreciate a decent mystery when I see one; not necessarily enough to recommend it by itself though. The Golden Triangle is where long-form starts to suit Lupin, though it works more as an adventure than as a particularly airtight mystery. And The Confessions of Arsene Lupin are a decent starting point for some of the character’s less law-abiding adventures, with a lot of charm and action. 4.5/5

Next review: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

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The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

The last volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. After so much time spent overlooking the series, I was finally about to the read the last installment. I had some pretty decent hopes considering that I had thoroughly enjoyed the last three books that I had read of it. And the idea that the plot would be sparked by a false Aslan was too intriguing to pass up.

In The Last Battle, Jill and Eustace find themselves summoned again to Narnia to assist King Tirian against a false Aslan who has sold the Talking Animals to the Calormenes as slaves and cut down the Dryad forests. Facing odds never before seen in Narnia’s history, they must prepare themselves for a momentous battle in the darkest hour.
I wanted to like this so much, but The Last Battle just manages to fail in two ways that are massive dealbreakers for me.
First, I had kind of hoped that the racism thing might have been more or less contained within The Horse and His Boy, but oh boy was I wrong. Turns out that The Last Battle is the installment that decided that blackface was needed. When Tirian and the children decide to darken their skin to infiltrate the enemy forces at page 60, I knew with a sinking feeling that this would not be one of the Chronicles of Narnia that I would be able to recommend. Just everything involving the Calormenes felt so uncomfortable, because it’s the whole “evil dark people” bullshit without any real examination. They embody the worst parts of both heathens and non-believers in one set of characters, and I would be hard-pressed to think of a depiction of PoC characters that is worse than this without being created by the KKK. When the dwarves start insulting them and calling them “Darkies”, it was a startling reminder that this story is being told by someone who would be our equivalent of a bigoted older relative that you tolerate out of familial duty.
Second, there was the ending. The Last Battle has an ending that you know is meant to be the happiest of happy endings, but it just comes across as weird and wrong and utterly terrifying instead. So Narnia has its end of days after King Tirian makes a final doomed stand. While I will give kudos to Lewis for actually depicting Narnia’s apocalypse, it feels really wrong to read about a world that you’ve spent seven books in just get washed away. Then they travel to Aslan’s home, where they find that he has the best of all possible worlds all packed into one presumably non-euclidean space. And all but one of the children who had adventured in Narnia can now stay with Aslan forever because they died in a train accident. Yeah. Lewis just sort of jams that bombshell in on the last page, and the reaction is surprisingly calm. They all just sort of accept this right off the bat, none of them wondering how their surviving relatives are coping with this tragedy. I mean, they insult Susan to no end, but for her this is the day when all three of her siblings, both her parents, one of her cousins and the old man who looked after her during evacuation die in a tragic train accident. No-one asks after her. Apparently liking lipstick is enough to get you barred from heaven. And another thing. That’s a great lesson to teach kids: no matter how good life gets, once you get a glimpse of God’s graces you will never be truly satisfied until you’re dead. If that doesn’t creep you out, then you are obviously the audience that C. S. Lewis was aiming at.

A really disappointing end to the series. Unremittingly racist in tone and with a creepy bombshell ending, I can’t really find anything to recommend here. End the series with The Silver Chair, it only goes downhill from there. 1/5

Next review: A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Signing off,

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

With a string of installments that have been pretty strong more recently in the Chronicles of Narnia, I went into The Silver Chair with somewhat decent expectations. I mean, it didn’t include any of the Pevensies this time, but it was still continuing the part of the series that I’ve found most rewarding, so the verdict should be a pretty good one, right?

The Silver Chair starts off with our protagonists Eustace, introduced in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and his school-friend Jill as they try to hide from some bullies. Attempting to escape through a door in the schoolyard wall, they find themselves transported to Narnia. Charged by Aslan to find the missing son of King Caspian, they find themselves facing temptation on all sides as they attempt to stick to the strict instructions given to them.
Let me say before I continue that The Silver Chair is a perfectly enjoyable book. The characters are well-written and the adventure is very well-crafted with a fantastic final confrontation with the villain of the piece. With that in mind, I came to a realisation that is possibly true of the preceding installments in the Chronicles of Narnia, but is especially evident here. The humans really don’t do a great deal of good here. See, they’re given four instructions to carry out by Aslan, all of which will make their job of rescuing the prince that bit easier, but all Eustace and Jill really manage to do is get distracted by temptation whenever it turns out that this whole adventuring lark might get a bit unpleasant at points. Honestly, if it had just been the two of them, I don’t think they’d have even gotten started on their journey. As it was, I think the unsung hero of this book is Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle who is tasked with guiding them to their destination in the Wild Lands of the North. With his gleefully pessimistic demeanour and focus on how everything could go wrong at any time, he’s pretty much the only thing that keeps the party on track at all. While he’s no Reepicheep, he was a breath of fresh air compared to the bumblings that the human children bring to the proceedings. Now, while I reiterate that I still really like The Silver Chair, I now find myself questioning it. If the children brought to Narnia fail to contribute to the plot, then what purpose do they actually serve? I mean, I suppose the obvious answer would be that this is meant to be a narrative about how things that are clear in principle can be muddy when applied to real life, or about how easy it is to fall to temptation. And in theory I can accept that. But while I do accept that there’s probably a thematic reason for the children being so useless, there is a part of me wondering what it would be like to have a book with Reepicheep and Puddleglum as the main adventurers. Now that there is an absurd scenario that I would love to see.

Another thoroughly solid fantasy adventure. Puddleglum is another gem of a Narnian, even though he doesn’t quite match up to the majesty that was Reepicheep. The children are more or less useless in terms of actually focusing and getting stuff done in the narrative, but if you consider The Silver Chair as more a contemplation of temptation then it does feel a bit more understandable. 4/5

Next review: Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Signing off,

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie is one of those authors that I had heard a lot of very good things about over the years, so when I found Best Served Cold at a secondhand book stall, I thought that this would be as good a place as any to try out some of his work. While technically part of his wider First Law series, it was touted as a standalone novel, so should theoretically make sense for someone with no other knowledge of the series. Figured that if it worked as a standalone, then the rest of the series would be good to check out.

Best Served Cold follows Monza Murcatto, the general of a mercenary army and a woman who has carved out a name for herself by being harder and more feared than anyone else. Her exploits have made a powerful man out of her employer, the Grand Duke Orso of Talins, and turned her into an extremely popular figure with his subjects. Unfortunately, this popularity is a shade too far for her employer, who fears the day when she will turn and betray him. Forced to watch her brother die, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Monza decides that the only course left to her is to take revenge on all of those present at the murder of her brother. To do so, she gathers together a motley and mercenary crew: a barbarian who wants to become a better man, a convict obsessed with numbers, the most talented and treacherous poisoner in Styria, a world-weary lady torturer, and the flamboyant drunkard who was her predecessor amongst the mercenaries she once led.
Sweet Jesus, I am so sorry that I didn’t get to Abercrombie’s work sooner. While I’m fond of most fantasy, I find my tastes naturally gravitating more towards worlds that are perhaps a little bloodier, a bit more backstabbing in nature. Honourable knights are all very well and good, but I do like a good bit of treachery every once in a while. And what can be more entertainingly gory than a good tale of revenge? Abercrombie certainly knows how to deliver on this score.
The most important part of this is probably the characters. Firstly, everyone who has a major part in Best Served Cold is really fleshed-out and vivid. It doesn’t take long for the reader to identify who the point of view character is in any one section because, despite having an overall cynical outlook, each has a very distinctive voice. In particular, I found myself falling a little bit in love with Friendly, the aforementioned convict, simply because his voice sounded so familiar to me and made so much sense. There’s something wonderful about finding a character so obviously autistic who isn’t in a position where he can be pitied, to the point that I could have forgiven Abercrombie for a sizeable number of errors (had he made them anyway). Secondly, the character arcs are well-paced and never stray into the ridiculous, regardless of their comparative levels of drama. For example, there’s Shivers, the barbarian who only wants to be a good man, and the way that he copes with the immoral actions that he finds himself assisting in; that one is the most obvious alteration over the course of the novel, as much because he initially prides himself on being a moral person. Comparatively, Monza’s attitude towards her quest for revenge and the dead brother who inspired it is a much more low key affair, but it is no less affecting for that. I think if it had been a similar sort of intensity as Shivers’ was, it would be melodramatic, but instead it suits her no-nonsense style personality.
In regards to whether Best Served Cold is a good starting point for readers looking to read Joe Abercrombie’s work, I find myself a little torn. On the one hand, Best Served Cold is a self-contained narrative and there wasn’t anything that I really struggled to understand because of not reading the First Law trilogy before this. On the other hand, there were plot elements brought up, especially towards the end, that would obviously have more significance with the added context of further reading. So while I could more or less glean that figures like the Cripple and whoever runs the bank of Valint and Balk were important, I feel that mentioning them is kind of wasted for new readers. The setting is interesting and complex enough that I would be more than happy to read more into the world of First Law.

For fantasy readers who like their worlds bloody and unforgiving, I don’t think that you can really get much better than this. A decent starting point for those new to Abercrombie’s work, although the significance of some characters is lessened by lack of context from the earlier books. Really though, I think Best Served Cold works because of the fantastic character building and interaction. I actually can’t think of anything that I really disliked about it. 5/5

Next review: The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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