Thursday, 22 October 2015

Review: 'Best Served Cold' by Joe Abercrombie

Springtime in Styria. And that means war.

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.

War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso's employ, it's a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular - a shade too popular for her employer's taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto's reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.

Her allies include Styria's least reliable drunkard, Styria's most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that's all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started...

Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.

Damn, but I’d forgotten how bloody awesome this book is. Darker, bloodier and even more entertaining than Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is the ultimate tale of revenge, a tale packed with pain, fury and absurdity from its spectacular opening sequence to its final poignant pages.
The story is of course set in the world of First Law, though several years after the events of the original trilogy. Here we are introduced to the ‘exotic’ land of Styria, a fractured continent hosting a decades-long civil war at a time commonly referred to as the Years of Blood. Although Best Served Cold could probably be read as a standalone story, the sheer amount of references to the original trilogy that it contains – not to mention cameo appearances from several characters – means that those already familiar with the events of First Law will likely enjoy it considerably more than those new to Abercrombie’s world.
The premise of Best Served Cold is simple: heroine is betrayed - heroine gets back up again - heroine sets out to get revenge. And at first it really is that simple. Monza Murcatto, the infamous Butcher of Caprile, sets her sights on seven enemies, and vows to do anything she needs to in order to see them all dead. Recruiting a merry band of thugs – including a poisoner, a Northman and a torturer – she embarks on her glorious mission. But perhaps revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps the people she trusts are the ones holding the knives . . . and perhaps Monza herself isn’t quite everything she appears to be.
Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s absurd and bloody take on the otherwise ordinary revenge trope: absurd because of its eclectic mix of characters, and bloody because of the chaos they cause. But it’s also an insanely fun and entertaining journey, with the plot taking something of a backseat to colourful characters who gradually reveal themselves to be so much more than the exaggerated caricatures they first appear to be. The world in which they live is equally colourful, with vicious politics and treacherous leaders continually influencing critical events. The settings in particular are fantastically vivid and immersive: even now I can clearly visualise every bloody sunset, picture every pane of glass in the roof of the Banking House of Valint and Balk, startle at the canal boats looming out of the fog in gloomy Sipani and wonder at the majesty of impregnable Fontezarmo. Though Styria is certainly not a place anyone in their right mind would choose to live, I found I could picture its various regions just as vividly as if I’d actually been there.
Although often dark and suffused with bleakness, Best Served Cold is also frequently hilarious, particularly those chapters told from the viewpoints of Nicomo Cosca and Castor Morveer. Ironic observations, humorous dialogue, self-deprecating comments and hilariously inappropriate remarks are particular specialties of Abercrombie’s, and Best Served Cold abounds with all of them. Abercrombie cleverly blends grit and gore with laughter and levity, all of which conspire to create a perfectly dark, gritty tale of revenge and ruin. This is Abercrombie at his absolute best.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Review: 'A Natural History of Dragons' by Marie Brennan

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.


I’ve got nothing against dragons, especially when they play such a vital part in so many awesome fantasy series. After all, dragons are integral to the whole mythos of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen; dragons feature prominently in such celebrated fantasy works as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle; and of course the entire plot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit couldn’t have existed without that most iconic of dragons: the mighty Smaug.

This is all well and good; I’ve no objection to a few dragons here and there so long as they’re serving some kind of function within the story, be it as an awesome plot device or as a way of setting the scene. But when their presence in a novel seems to serve no other purpose than just sort of existing . . . well, that’s when dragons start to feel kind of stale. And ‘stale’ is not a word that should be used when referring to giant flying monsters.

And this is where the first of the Memoirs by Lady Trent makes its grand entrance. Here, Marie Brennan has accomplished something extraordinary: she has made dragons fresh and exciting again, no easy feat in today’s competitive and draconian-saturated SFF market. Remember when you first discovered fantasy, and felt that awesome thrill of wonder and possibility? A Natural History of Dragons takes us back to that giddy moment through the wonderful character of Isabella, and the captivating tale of her childhood passion for dragons.

Unlike so many modern female fantasy protagonists – who are often termed ‘strong’ characters as a result of their skills in either weaponry or manipulation – Isabella is strong in that she remains true to her own nature in the face of her male-dominated surroundings. Despite her outwardly ‘outrageous’ behaviour, Isabella retains her girlish charm and naïveté; she never compromises her femininity, in spite of her ongoing struggle against the social restrictions of a strictly patriarchal society; and most importantly of all, she continues to cling to her lifelong passion – the study of dragons – even when the pursuit of this passion seems like an impossible dream. She is, quite simply, a hugely likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Furthermore, Brennan’s narrative voice is beautifully elegant and consistently engaging. In fact, the entire novel is suffused with the observant wit and wry humour of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, with the fantastical subject matter providing an intriguing vehicle through which the author probes issues of class, gender and morality – though it never once sounds preachy.

Add to all this a delightful cast of secondary characters, continually subtle yet vivid settings – particularly the eastern-European-esque wilderness of Vystrana - and frequent injections of self-deprecating humour, and you have the essence of Marie Brennan’s wonderful tale. A Natural History of Dragons is always engaging and entirely charming, and abounds with moments of tension, humour and emotion. Isabella may just be my new hero, and the Memoirs by Lady Trent my new favourite series.



Saturday, 3 October 2015

Review: 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' by J.K. Rowling

The summer holidays are dragging on and Harry Potter can't wait for the start of the school year. It is his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and there are spells to be learnt and (unluckily) Potions and Divination lessons to be attended. But Harry can't know that the atmosphere is darkening around him, and his worst enemy is preparing a fate that it seems will be inescapable...

As I opened my oft-read, yellowed and rather battered hardback copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I felt a thrill of excitement. As testified by its well-read condition (the corners are dog-eared, and the cover is held together with liberal amounts of sticky tape) this was one of my favourite books as a teenager. In fact, the only book I liked better back then was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So it was with much excitement – and some trepidation – that I returned to it now. Would it be as good as I remembered? Or would it disappoint me like its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?

Reading Goblet of Fire felt like sinking down into a cosy and long-forgotten armchair, one that is loved for its familiarly threadbare exterior as much as for its comfort. From the first page until the very last I was enveloped in nostalgia, and charmed anew by the easy prose and lightly humorous tone that suffuses so much of this entire series. Furthermore, Goblet of Fire is the first Potter book to really start to explore social issues like class and racism (it’s been so long since I read the book I’d almost totally forgotten about S.P.E.W!), and also to introduce lots of new characters and concepts. After reading Prisoner of Azkaban I realised that that the series was beginning to feel kind of stale – after all, how much can you really do with just classrooms and Quidditch? – but this is remedied in Goblet of Fire, which is simply packed with tons of new stuff: foreign wizards, new students, exciting events, and more. From the very first chapter it feels different from the previous books: the Quidditch World Cup is not only fun to read about but also grants us an extended change of scenery from the usual Privet Drive/Hogwarts fare. The pacing is also new and different, with the Triwizard tasks providing exciting mini-climaxes at key points in the story. The whole book just feels fresh, yet also much more mature than each of the previous instalments.

Much as I loved Goblet of Fire I have to say I felt it outstayed its welcome towards the end, largely due to the pages and pages (and pages) of anticlimactic exposition. I found myself skimming the long, wordy monologues in the final few chapters, wherein certain characters take the opportunity to drone on about what feels like their entire life story. The last few chapters are essentially one long infodump, which is a real shame considering that the previous events are so exciting. Still, the actual main event is just as chillingly awesome as I remembered, and it’s quite possible that it’s only my total over-familiarity with the story that made the explanations seem dull.

Re-reading the books as an adult is something of an exercise in cynicism. All the way through Goblet of Fire I found myself asking questions such as: why does Harry *have* to compete in the Triwizard Tournament? What will happen if he doesn’t? And what exactly do the students from the other schools do during the months between tasks? Why couldn’t they go home and just come back again when they need to? Would Krum really miss Hermione more than his own parents? Really? And if Moody can see Harry’s socks through his robes, doesn’t that mean he can also see . . . everything else? (Parvati’s got a point: “that eye shouldn’t be allowed!”) Why isn’t Veritaserum used at criminal trials? How the hell was Karkaroff allowed to become headmaster of a school? Don’t they have a wizarding equivalent of a CRB check? Oh yeah, and how did they swap the dragons over so quickly during the first task? And what was the point of having everyone watching the second task when it was entirely underwater? Why can wizards arrive at Hogwarts via Portkey when they’re unable to use other methods like Apparition? And why on earth would that Portkey have been enchanted to return to Hogwarts? And most of all, why doesn’t any of this stuff stop me from thoroughly enjoying these books???