Some schools of thought say that you should select a theme when writing a novel and build on it. Joe Abercrombie took to that piece of advice with gusto. Best Served Cold showcases a few solid themes and pulls every iota of plot out of them. The themes that I identified were: Are mercy and cowardice the same? Can revenge ever solve anything or will vengeance be doomed to spark more vengeance?
As a tragedy, this novel is incredibly fascinating as it picks apart the brutality of blood feuds, the futility of politics as old mistakes are repeated, the spreading corruption where hate and pain breed more of the same, and the psychological strains caused by such issues. The novel pits the characters against each other in a seemingly impossible paradox: loyalty is rewarded with suspicion which causes retaliation which leads to vengeance, hate, and the loss of a loyal comrade; while disloyalty can also lead back to vengeance, albeit on a straighter path. If you aren't suspicious enough, you will likely be betrayed, but suspicion itself can lead to treachery.
His characters are complex and driven and the book is a good read simply to see how a drunkard, a Master Poisoner, a Poisoner's assistant, a torturer, an ex-convict murderer, a mercenary, and a soldier all manage to justify their actions. Each believes that their own values are right and, though they may sometimes feel uncertain, and their world views can be shaken, generally they continue to justify their own actions as they stumble along. Often by forcing their expectations of the world adapt to the actions they are forced to undertake. One of the characters does this more than the others and its his terrible slide into tragic monster that really sets this book apart from most others. By helping us understand these people through their thought patterns and complexity, Joe Abercrombie engenders our sympathy simply through fascination. The characters truly are morbid specimens to watch.
Joe Abercrombie also manages to create a female mercenary character who is bitter and vindictive (yet sympathetic), who is actually comfortable in a masculine world (by ignoring masculine / feminine norms rather than railing against the feminine), and who is tough without being boring. There are enough subtle nuances, enough nods to the fact that she is a woman in a man's world, to keep her from just being a bloke with long hair and a girly name (well, sorta girly - Monza Murcatto isn't all that feminine in my book). Nor is she that stereotypical, groan-worthy, eye-roll-inducing macho bull-busting warrior women.
In truth, I think part of the trick was to make her rather nonchalant about a lot of things. Sex and violence are just part of the daily living. Women and men are evaluated as to their use to her. She keeps a tight lid on her feelings but they're certainly still there and when they do rise up and overwhelm her they do it in a way that is uniquely her. They manifest, generally, in physical terms with exhaustion, hunger for drugs, and palpable feelings reminiscent of barely restrained panic (trembling, weakness) rather than weeping or ranting.
This novel is quite unremittingly dark and bleak (which admittedly does fit the subject matter) and the ending left me dissatisfied because of it (which admittedly also fits with the theme - vengeance never brings satisfaction). The fight scenes were superbly described (as were the rather explicit sex scenes) but after awhile I grew bored with the fight scenes. They were too many, and went on for too long, for my tastes at least. Still, his skill in writing them is admirable.
The only other issue I had is a note of caution regarding pacing. Towards the end, the pace moved me so quickly that I started skim reading all the fighting / descriptions, etc. in my desperation to find out what happened next. This ended up reducing my satisfaction as I started stepping out of the scene and more into reader mode. Yes, it's a naughty habit of mine but it is a good point. If the tension goes up too high, you're going to have to write everything at a very quick and brief pace or else the reader will start skipping along.
So, in summary, read Best Served Cold to learn how to write a believable female soldier / warrior; explicit sex scenes; intense fight scenes; novels written solidly around a theme; well-described locations; and believable justifications for atrocities.
For those who have read this novel, what did you think? What techniques did you get out of it?
Oh, and feel free to review my review. Is this method of analysis useful to you? Is it too broad? Too vague? Should I pick one technique in particular and analyse that?
I'm always open to suggestions.