And so we come to Best Served Cold, which is the last of these rereads I’ll be doing for the time being. The Heroes was pretty recent and I feel it’s still pretty firmly in mind, and the nominal aim of this exercise was to familiarise myself with past characters and events while finishing work on Red Country rather than only to heap glory upon myself. That said, Best Served Cold is fucking excellent, which is nice.
Huge Spoilers! Those who haven’t read Best Served Cold look away NOW! And indeed buy and read it NOW! Or at any rate buy it. Reading is optional.
Some background may be helpful. This was my fourth book, but in many ways my difficult second project, as Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings obviously continued with the same characters and plotlines as The Blade Itself. Plus it was the first book I started work on with books out there in the marketplace and therefore with (at least a little bit) of expectation from readers and critics. I’d written Last Argument of Kings in fourteen months, with relatively little blood, sweat and tears, and I expected this to be that little bit more straightforward again as I devoted more time to my writing, my craft improved and so forth. How wrong I was. Probably this was my most difficult book to write, I was crippled with doubts and worries about it pretty much from the start. It’s hard to put myself in that mindset now, but I think I considered giving up on it a couple of times. Certainly the challenge of coming up with new characters, new voices, new locations, a new style of storytelling approach, on a schedule and with people waiting, was vastly much more difficult and pressurised than I’d expected. In the end it took about 20 months to write, I think, and for a great deal of that time I was deeply worried that it would turn out … let’s say a little bit shit, and indeed that I’d never write anything as good as The First Law again. ’Well, not every book can be your best…’ said with a mournful shrug of the shoulders was a frequent refrain of that time, as I recall.
Partly I think that was entirely inevitable having, against any expectations, finished “that project I’d always dreamed of writing since a young lad”, and having used up a lot of the ideas I’d come up with during, well, my life (alright, stolen from other writers) in writing The First Law. Partly it was difficulties with making the central character, Monza, work. Even back then (I was starting to plan this book probably around the time Before They are Hanged came out) I was a little dissatisfied with what I’d done with the women in The First Law, and I wanted to try my hand at a woman in the lead role. One would desire that the writing of a female character should be identical to a male one (not necessarily that the characters should feel identical whether male or female, but that the writing process should be the same with the same aim of producing the most vivid, interesting, authentic, multi-dimensional character possible), but I think there are actually a whole range of factors that make writing women more difficult than writing men if you’re a man. There are elements of the female experience you’re always going to be slightly guessing at. Just as one example, you’re probably going to have a lot of direct experience of how groups of men behave, you’ll hopefully have at least some experience of how men and women behave around each other, but by definition you probably won’t know much directly about how groups of women behave. The likelihood is extremely high that you won’t personally have had to deal with sexism in the same way. Stuff like that. And then you’ve probably read, watched, absorbed a shit-load of male-centric media of one kind or another as well, and not a lot of female-centric. You can research, you can ask questions, but watching How to Make an American Quilt just ain’t much substitute for, you know, being a woman. Plus you’re probably aware that your women characters are going to be exposed to a kind of scrutiny your male ones probably won’t be. If you’re writing tight point of view that slight distance, that slight doubt, perhaps a tendency to over-think and over-worry, can amount to some significant trouble in making a female character effortlessly pop in perhaps the way your male ones do. I’m by no means saying that it’s not possible for men to write good women, but for me, at least, I think it adds a level of difficulty – it’s definitely been something I’ve had – and continue to have – to work at. Anyway, Monza was difficult, and there were a lot of exacerbating factors: she was a central character in a way that I hadn’t had before, Glokta, Logen and Jezal had pretty much equal screen time in The First Law but here Monza’s PoV accounted for not much less than half the whole book, so the stakes were high. She was entirely the driving force of the book as well – Glokta, Logen and Jezal had minimal agency, they tended to very much react to events being directed from elsewhere, whereas Monza’s quest for vengeance was the engine from which all the events in Best Served Cold had to flow. And she was fundamentally not particularly likeable, especially to begin with, she’s cold, tough, calculating, ruthless, ultra single-minded. It wasn’t until I got to the end of my first draft that I really felt she resolved in my own mind, and I got a handle on how to make her work, mostly through a lot of cutting and streamlining. I think she does work, but doesn’t necessarily offer that immediately likeable, relatable, vivid central thread that Logen, and maybe even Glokta, give you in The First Law.
Best Served Cold certainly got good reviews at the time, not least from GRRM who described it as “a kind of splatterpunk sword n’ sorcery Count of Monte Cristo,” tee hee, still pleased with that one three years later, but looking at reader sites it’s probably my least liked book. Or at any rate my most divisive one. The most often disliked. On Goodreads it scores 4.06 compared to an average for me of 4.14, on Librarything 3.98 compared to 4.15 overall, on Amazon UK 3.8 compared to 4.2 for The Blade Itself and, for instance, a whacking 4.5 for The Heroes. Not massively significant, but noticeable, I’d say. Out of 69 reviews on amazon UK, it has 10 three star, 10 two star, and 4 one star. The Heroes has 56 reviews, with just 3 three star, 1 two star, and no one star. Obviously how a book scores on amazon is far from the only method of assessing its success, but still interesting. Some common criticisms, then, and whether they struck a chord with me having reread:
It’s not book four of the First Law. Well duh.
Monza isn’t likeable. As detailed above, there’s certainly some truth to this, but the degree of her unlikeability, as well as whether an unlikeable protagonist is necessarily a big problem, is going to depend on the reader. I actually found her pretty likable this time, or certainly relatable. She’s strong to a fault, savage even, but as the story unfolds we see she’s less evil than she seems, or even than she thinks, and not without her weaknesses, failings, guilt, occasional tendencies towards mercy for all they never do her any good. I actually think the little flashbacks that precede each part work really well, not only in breaking up the story into episodes, but in drip-feeding the reader a different interpretation of the past, one she can never present to others, or perhaps even to herself, she’s so trapped behind her own image of ruthlessness. It’s not necessarily that she improves so much as we come to see her differently as the story goes on. She gets no better than ambiguous, I guess, but she does at least get that far. More subtle than the way I usually tend to do these things, and asking more of the reader to rehabilitate an unlikeable character than to make them doubt a likeable one, but I still liked her and, much more importantly for me, since I’d much rather find a character interesting than likeable, found her deep and relatively convincing. I guess you could say she’s very masculine, fitting unapologetically into the hole that an ultra-macho male lead could occupy in this kind of story. She’s tough, self-reliant, hard-headed, ruthless, single-minded, decisive, arrogant, risk-taking, suspicious, manipulative, prone to verbal and physical violence, dominant in pretty much all her relationships. A man with tits, I think I’ve seen her described as, but that’s always seemed a really strange criticism to me, as though there’s only a certain range of behaviour within which a female character can be convincing. So Monza not likeable? I’m not that arsed.
It’s too bleak and nasty. Well, you can’t expect me to take this one too seriously, can you? I mean, yeah, it’s dark. The body count, certainly in the supporting characters, is way high, if not to say comprehensive. It’s savage. There’s a lot of intense violence and a fair bit of explicit sex and none of that is particularly … loving. Nothing is sugar-coated, that’s for sure. The scene with the eye may well be the most uncompromisingly nasty I’ve written, and Shivers’ plotline and descent into careless evil is, well, pretty horrible. Certainly I think it’s fair to say that there’s not a lot of warm human emotion going on – everyone is treacherous, everyone’s after revenge, most relationships are ones of necessity between desperate people and end in disappointment. But, you know, it’s about war, treachery and revenge. What do you expect? I actually think the ending is a good deal more positive than the First Law. There’s every indication that Monza is going to be pretty damn successful as a ruler. She ain’t touchy feely, but she’s pretty damn ruthlessly competent, that’s for sure. Related is an occasional complaint that this book lacks the sense of humour of the trilogy, and I must say I don’t see that at all. Cosca has some great lines but there’s also what I consider to be some funny stuff from Rogont, from Morveer, even from Shivers and Friendly, and Monza herself, though you wouldn’t call her jolly, can produce some acid laughs. Overall I thought the timing had only improved. So too bleak and nasty? Nah, just bleak and nasty enough.
It’s too long. I suspect this one somewhat depends. If you’re loving it you might think it was too short. The treatment had predicted a length of 150-175,000 words and the first two parts came in at around 25,000 words each, so had things stayed that way I would have hit the target with seven parts. As I introduced other points of view, though, especially Cosca, and the murders became more convoluted and bound up in larger plots, the parts (perhaps predictably) started to expand. In the end the book came in just a little shorter than Last Argument of Kings, somewhere around 228,000 words. It might well have been better to go for six, or maybe five men to be killed and therefore five parts, perhaps trimming one or two of the points of view, but I’d have had to make that decision pretty early on. Certainly I think, having gone with seven and worked out what the locations and content would be for each, I had to stick to the plan and let the book be the length it needed to be. I certainly don’t feel it’s bloated myself, it feels tight in the writing. I guess you could say that there’s always going to be a fundamental similarity between the parts – a man to kill, a plan to do it, the execution of it, onto the next, but it’s hard to see which part you’d cut – I made an effort to give each ‘episode’ a different tone, a different target, a different approach, a different backdrop, plus the broadening of the scale to finally bring in the whole politics of Styria works nicely, and the changing (or perhaps disintegrating) relationships within Monza’s dysfunctional fellowship move at the right pace. So, yeah, maybe could have been that little bit shorter, but no huge regrets from me here, except of course that I could’ve been paid the same for less work, curse it…
Generally speaking, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The writing felt nice and tight. A slight tendency toward listiness in some of the descriptions but overall I thought the settings came across vividly – worldbuilding ain’t especially my thing but I think I did reasonably well at it here, the cities are distinct and there are some very memorable scenes. I also noticed, or perhaps was reminded of, a few neat tricks of writing that I’d forgotten about – the seven men to be killed all have an animal with which they’re metaphorically associated – Mauthis a vulture, Gobba a pig, Faithful an old hound and so on – then the different parts all have a different style of imagery that keeps coming up – Visserine is full of painterly or sculptural metaphors, Westport of financial ones, and so on. Perhaps the first half of the book is a little stronger and more focused than the second, but I noticed nowhere where things really started to flag. The sequences in and around Cardotti’s House of Leisure I think are some of my best, really good use of alternating PoV, nice building of tension, nice description, nice shocks and surprises. That scene in which Cosca and Shivers select entertainers for the party I really enjoyed – funny, nimble, quick, delivering loads of information about the principals and their relationship while providing laughs and advancing the plot. Cracking multiple action sequence at the end as well, and I felt in general the action was varied and punchy enough to keep interest where it slightly flagged at times in Last Argument. Good pacing in this book, the seven episode structure worked well, there was a constant feel of cutting to the chase, the plot unfolds neatly and delivers surprises, the complimentary arcs of Shivers’ decline and Monza’s rehabilitation worked well for me, and there are some able supporting performances from Cosca, Friendly, Shenkt, Morveer, Vitari and others. The dialogue really sings at times. Of the four books I’d say I enjoyed it and Before They are Hanged the most. Probably this one I came closest to simply reading as, well, a reader would. I even felt that slightly mournful feeling when I finished it this morning. Ooooh, though, I wish he’d write another….