Monday, September 30, 2013

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie: A treatise on grim dark

Revenge is a dish we are all very familiar with – We have seen this in movies made immortal by Lee Marvin (Point Blank) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) – With a name such as “Best Served Cold”, Abercrombie makes no bones about what this book is going to be about. But heck, this is Joe Abercrombie we are talking about. 

The lord of grim dark, an entirely new sub-genre that he has breathed life into and carved himself a bloody throne out of. So when news comes out that Abercrombie is penning a revenge novel set in the cruel grim world as that of the First Law trilogy, you can’t help feel the goose-bumps break out all over your arms and you wait on a bed of nails until you can dive back into the gore-spattered, crazy dark world slick with blood, sweat and grime, where seasons may change but the only constant thing is death and treachery. 

While First Law was mostly Abercrombie’s attempt at skewering the standard fantasy tropes and introducing us to some of the finest anti-heroes of modern fantasy, Best Served is decidedly his tribute to the revenge drama. A straightforward story of bloody vengeance at heart slammed in tight with some fantastic side characters and uneven twists that will blow your minds. GRRM calls it a kind of splatterpunk sword ‘n sorcery COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, Dumas by way of Moorcock. Not enough justice in that. It’s far more than just a linear story with the body count hitting the stratosphere with each manner of execution topping the bar in how to kill someone. It’s surprisingly an in-depth look at the hopelessness of the collateral damage incurred by single-minded focus on revenge. There is nothing even remotely redeeming about the lead character – the woman who cheats death and now wants nothing more than to wipe off the seven men who had a hand in her attempted execution and her brother’s murder. 

Punctuated and underlined by the gut-wrenching violence and headlong pacing that rivals any slick action movie, Best Served is not just about revenge. It’s about moral transformations, dark back-stabbing treachery and a spiraling melt-down into the dark depths of human psyche. Well, a typical Joe Abercrombie you say? 

The basics, first: Monza Murcatto, the most successful mercenary commander that Styria has seen, also known as the Butcher of Caprile and the Snake of Talins, is marching back triumphant after having led a series of victories for her Duke, Osro. The celebrations however turn ugly, as Monza and her brother are lured into a trap by the Duke and his inner circle, six of them as deadly as the Snake of Talins herself. Her brother is killed and she herself is left for dead, tossed down the mountainside, stabbed and broken.

Monza survives against all odds and lives for nothing other than revenge. Nothing less than the gruesome murders of the seven men will suffice. For this, she binds herself with her own motley crew of cutthroats and vile murderers, the very scum of the earth: A barbarian from the North, out to seek for himself, a better way of living. A mass murderer who has an obsession with dice and counting. A torturer fallen to worse days of her life. An untrustworthy master poisoner and his apprentice. And the world’s worst ever mercenary with a perpetual drinking problem.  In the company of these social misfits, Monza decides to right some wrongs. And in the process, discovers how high the odds are stacked up against her. Including the most dangerous man in the Circle of the World sent out to hunt her down.

This being a revenge story, you of course know things will turn out and yet you are amped up by every enactment of the revenge. Going from seven to one. And Joe Abercrombie, who can spin perhaps the best ever action prose among the writers today, ups the bar of the style of execution with each count. The scenes of an execution in the middle of a besieged city are definitely one of the best ever! Taut on trip-wire as you traverse towards the second half, you realize the Abercrombie is also upping the stakes as he goes for the higher body count. It is no longer just personal – in spite of Monza, a single minded, brutally focused woman intent on exacting bloody revenge – the events spiral out to form a broader bigger canvas that involves the fate of the whole of Styria in this game. (“This is Styria. There is always a war here.”) War, the hopelessness mired in the blood-spattered black forms a major backdrop of this entire book. Here unlike the First Law trilogy, where Abercrombie keeps it unevenly grey, the characters are without redemption. A dark shade dipped in blood. That’s what they are. No remote lining of silver among the grey here. And that is precisely one of the points that the author is probably pushing for. That there is no hope in revenge. “Who is dead, will only continue to rot.”

What is a winner, as in the previous trilogy, is that book is grounded in its characterization and their evolutionary arc. Flawed memorable men and women who keep slipping into the quagmire, ragged limp dolls in the hands of fate, fashioned by hate. (“Love is a fine cushion to rest upon but only hate can make you a better person.”)

Monza is definitely up there, amongst the most bloodthirsty protagonists ever, who gets sucked into her own cesspool of fears and emotional imbalance. Broken bones, ugly scars and painful demons that is more than just physical and she turns her world inside out for a single minded goal: revenge. It’s frightening and scary to watch her go about her business and yet the thoughts and turmoil in her mind opens us to the vulnerable, scared female who really knows that there is no end or respite from all of this. Abercrombie works wonders with the narrative voice of hers, breaking down the walls and going deep inside her beyond that scar-lined face and broken deformed bones.

Or let’s take Caul Shivers, a northerner stuck in Styria, having come to look for his redemption, finds himself slipping in (blending in) to become more evil than ever. His rapid descent from a half decent man to half way to evil is a fascinating study in psychology (Gah!) but the point, I am making, is about how truly fascinating is Abercrombie’s ability to get inside such characters head and make them live on in our thoughts? We rant and chastise the descent of humanity and all the colorful characters of Best Served Cold deserve to be mentioned under the headings of “special thanks “here. They are just so flawed.

Friendly, a mass murderer with an obsession to be counting pretty much anything and has a long standing love affair with the dice, is one who flat out creeps you out. His rapid outbursts and scant regard for human life, makes him an unpredictable player and halfway through the narrative, you expect the wind to blow in the opposite direction. 

The one character that I truly enjoyed is Nicosa Cosca. He is just unbelievably endearing, in spite of being the lowest scum when it comes to matters of honor (“What use is honor? My piss is worth more. At least it can help grow nettles”) A soldier of fortune who switches loyalty with the direction of wind with even lesser inspirations, he gets some of the best black humor lines ever written in this genre. A rival to Steven Erikson’s famous Tehol and Bugg duo. Banter rancid with the blackest of humors, Cosca is a master and certainly one of the best characters drawn by Abercrombie. I will look forward to more of him.

A linear revenge story would have been boring. Unworthy of Abercrombie’s writing chops. So the side characters leave the room wide open with respect to seeds of doubts being sown midway through among the company and double-games start off. You would have guessed, put together a band of misfits, untrustworthy and ready to back-stab at the drop of a hat, this is bound to happen. But still, the twists that hit you trust me, will still be something you might have not seen coming.

Best Served Cold forms the perfect alighting point for those of you not familiar with Joe Abercrombie’s works. It’s got everything that Abercrombie has gone on to perfect. The grit, the gore and the grim dark. His showcase for his evolution as a writer, though, has no stars shining in the dark. It’s awash with unapologetic violence amped up to stratospheric levels and yet at the end of it all, it ain’t the gore or the execution styles that remain with you, the truly memorable characters are what shine. A revenge story plugged with complex characters that raise some pertinent questions on the uselessness of violence. 

Full five stars.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Cover Reveal : Orbit 2014 Titles

Orbit has always been one of my favorite fantasy publishing houses and the 2014 cover reveal of some of the most anticipated "to-read" titles in Science Fiction and Fantasy is a glorious spread of some of the most heart-achingly beautiful book-covers ever!

Below are a few which I, personally thought were absolutely bewitchingly mind-blowing (Add to that, the fact that these are some of the series or stand-alones written by the new reigning masters of this genre!!)

A Dance of Shadows by David Dalglish (Shadowcloaks # 4)

Haern is the King's Watcher, born an assassin only to become the city of Veldaren's protector against the thief guilds.
When Lord Victor Kane attacks the city, determined to stamp out all corruption, foreign gangs pour in amidst the chaos in an attempt to overthrow the current lords of the underworld.
And when a mysterious killer known as the Widow begins mutilating thieves, paranoia engulfs the city. Haern knows someone is behind the turmoil, pulling strings. If he doesn't find out who -- and soon -- his beloved city will burn.

Light or darkness: where will the line be drawn?
Fantasy author David Dalglish spins a tale of retribution and darkness, and an underworld reaching for ultimate power in this fourth novel of the Shadowdance series, previously released as Watcher's Blade.

series I have not read till now - but that has been generating rave reviews ever since it surfaced as a self-published title and later was snapped up by Orbit.

Cibola Burn by James S A Corey

 Written by one of my recent favorite authors, Daniel Abraham who forms one half of that James S A Corey along with Frank Ty, The Expanse is a sci-fi series that I have enjoyed the heck out of , at least part one was such a riot !! A return to form in the inter-galactic sci-fi based on times when humanity is still exploring the fringes of our solar system. The first book, Leviathan wakes was such a delight to read. A glorious cover and they have consistently managed to keep the feel of the book-covers. Explosions mid-space and that over-arching feel of dread of what happens if something goes wrong in it!

Broken Eye by Brent Weeks

Another one that has been on my radar for so long, the Light Bringer series - Brent Weeks made himself quite the name with the Night Angel trilogy but I wasn't too impressed with the Shadow Angel, Book One. With this one, he's been riding the waves and the cover is quite an impressive one! Have to check this series out now.

The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

The blurb from N K Jemisin's blog:

The Fifth Season is set in a world which has suffered frequent, repeated Extinction Level Events for millions of years, and all life (and magic) in this world has adapted to it. Hundreds of years might pass between these events—easy, plentiful years in which great cities rise, and people have the leisure for art and science and rapid advancement—but then, again and again, the cities fall. The world is littered with the detritus of these times of plenty, and this cover hints at them: past ages of decadence, now decaying; stone that endures beneath flaking gilt...

N K Jemisin is a powerhouse of talent and a hugely popular figure in the fantasy genre scene - multiple awards are testimony to her immense talent and soaring imagination. Already 2 series behind her, this I think is a stand-alone work. Intriguing cover and an even more intriguing blurb...I am hooked.

The Window House by Daniel Abraham

The Dagger and Coin series has the potential to be the BEST ever Fantasy series and I stand by that claim of mine. Here's the first book, review. Daniel Abraham shows off his prolific writing chops and flexes those wonderful creative muscles in the process of giving us one of the finest works in contemporary fantasy genre. Take it away, Book # 4, The Window's House. Ah! Absolutely mesmerizing cover-art !! That splash of blood on the metallic shield inscribed with mythic runes and symbols against teh back drop of an angry lashing sea...Goosebumps!!!

Need more you say ? Here's the link to Orbit:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A study in contrast : Thomas Cale vs. Buddha

I would like to do this more often – pick up two contenders, books that I read and put forth a study in contrast. Today we will spend some time getting under the skin of a fourteen year old assassin called Thomas Cale and compare him against the peerless Buddha, the Enlightened One.

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman and Buddha 8-part series by Osamu Tezuka: Probably an odd choice of books to compare but an excellent choice of books to contrast. Two series that I’m currently reading through present an excellent dichotomy in the styles of epic fantasy that deserves a discussion.
Both the books, while couched in a larger gamut of “epic” fantasy [And don’t get me wrong – they are most decidedly E-P-I-C, simply in the staggering scope of characters and intermingling plots], I think they are a strange fit on that bookshelf. Both series deal with the matter of faith and absolution in completely different opposing manners and yet, manages to charm and wriggle their way into the “Best Fantasy” book-lists based on faith. 

Religion has often been the backdrop of massive conflicts in many a fantasy novel – Take R Scott Bakker’s trilogies, the Prince of Nothing – a full dark, no stars reveal based on two opposing faiths clashing and the rise of one man as the prophet of God who then goes mad with power and his own visions. The classic Dune series by Frank Herbert, a towering work that defies any slotting unto Fantasy or Science Fiction (according to me) and yet is still counted as one of the most masterful works of imagination, speculative fiction (for lack of a better term!) recounts the tale of a desert planet and the rise of a new religion led by this all powerful man, who defies his destiny and goes on ( yet again to become God –like himself!) But am digressing and I hark back to the strange and intriguing Thomas Cale – the Left Hand of God, destined to be God’s Angel of Death  and Sidhartha or Buddha, the Blessed One who through suffering and intense hardships, attains enlightenment and wishes to rid humanity of its curse of suffering and travails.

Thomas Cale and the Redeemers are a strange “cult” – cult is probably a loose word here that does not justify the zany characterization that Hoffman pours into them. A dark, strange set of priests who believe that just being born unto this earth is a sin by itself and we can only attain God’s blessings in the afterlife after we have cleaned and purified ourselves by “burning in hell’s fires” – for them, an “Act of Faith” is the execution of “acolytes” who have broken cardinal rules set within the walls of their sanctuary. The book is seething with intrigue and mysteries that crackle in the backdrop as we race through the narrative, mostly told from a third party POV – mainly following the antics of Thomas Cale, the chosen one. Hoffman builds up the suspense pretty strongly in the first half of the book as we are stuck, claustrophobic and blind with fear, inside the walls of the Redeemer Sanctuary where escape in unimaginable. And yet there is hope as Cale strikes up friendship and we are slowly exposed to Cale’s strange thoughts – he has been planning on escape for a long time now and secret hordes of materials needed to escape this jail are revealed. The faint spark in that tunnel vision narrative lights up and very soon, we are hurtling through tunnels unexplored as Cale and his friends, stumble upon a terrible secret within the sanctuary and have to flee outside.

Sadly from here on, the narrative falls through some ditch. Uninteresting side characters tag onto the story, Thomas Cale – the chosen angel of God – actually gets smitten and falls in love! The strangeness in this story set in some inexplicable timeline on earth, however, was the one thing that kept me going and I badly wanted to find out where Cale ends up. Frankly, I haven’t yet reached the end of this boy’s story so I wouldn’t give up on him just yet. I will be starting book#2, The Last Four Things soon enough and I will have more meat to add to this one.

Buddha on the other hand, is a series I recommend. Wholeheartedly and unabashedly to any fan of 
fantasy or graphic novels. It’s quite a splash – a riot of plotlines that loop around and twist among each other, a never ending array of characters that have seared their place into my heart and brains both and some fantastical imagination that draws up BC (Before Christ, the timelines) India like never before. Irreverent, poignant and absolutely mesmerizing, we follow the central character of Buddha through all his trials and tribulations till he achieves enlightenment and then goes on to preach to spread that knowledge gained to the rest of the humanity.  I probably sound like a fan-boy-frothing-at-the-mouth and screaming incoherently about this being the BEST work of Graphic art ever -  And it IS ! Read it for all its worth and you will love the experience where you are floated away to another India – that only existed in the fringes of your imagination but has burst out in full glory under the masterful art of Tezuka. Tezuka full flexes his world building muscles throughout the series and every new book in the series takes us way from the central Kapilavastu where Buddha was born as Prince Sidhartha and introduces us to more enchanting kingdoms, warring states, conniving princes and seductive princesses. 

In sharp contrast to Left Hand of God, the Buddha series perhaps, is about a philosophy that Buddha has been pursuing for a lifetime as opposed to rigid beliefs of faith and religion that Cale has been indoctrinated with and which forces him to rebel. Both are rebels in their own ways – Buddha having given up his cozy comforts of the palace, a wife and kid and some truly awesome friends in search of Truth and answers. Cale, flees his childhood sanctuary – the sanctuary that has understood his purpose and has trained him in everything he knows – in search of …well, truths about himself in a way. Its fascinating how na├»ve he turns out to be in the real world simply because in spite of being trained to be the worlds best assassin, Cale is still a boy and a vulnerable one at that. Hoffman without being preachy about it, actually brings to light the horrendous concept of child soldiers and uses it as an effective foil to give us an engrossing story. Tezuka gives us not one, but three or four child perspectives – the most fascinating being Tatta, the boy wonder who could assume the souls of animals and who grows up to be Bandit and also biggest friend and follower of Buddha. The others are equally well crafted and beautifully illustrated – Devadasa, the orphan who grows up in the wild with wolves, Ananda another orphan who gets molded and protected by Mara, the Devil as the ultimate weapon against Buddha are some gems that shine out.

You may always argue that Tezuka had eight books in which to build the story of Buddha’s experiments with life and truths and his struggle for salvation while Hoffman has had to cram it in just three where Cale is trying to come to terms with his exalted or doomed position as the Left Hand of God. Whatever be the case, reading both the books form a superlative exercise for contrasting how the pursuit of truth and adherence of faith and religion has been pursued in completely contrasting manners. I recommend both a definite one time reads! The Buddha is more delightful pool that you will come back to dive in more often and I know, you will. But Cale is a hard unforgiving teenager, bred for violence and trying hard not to be a pawn in the hands of fate and am sure has a great tale to tell as well!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Your Weekend Dose of Horror: The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop is Nick Cutter’s homage to Stephen King and Scott Smith –He openly acknowledges and candidly admits to “Carrie” being a big inspiration that propelled him to write in this genre – a horror novel that is said to be the cross between Lord of the Flies and The Ruins. 

I got an ARC from the publisher on NetGalley and was sold on the mouthwatering premise on offer. A book that has spooked even Stephen King?  I mean, c’mon that guy is the grandfather of horror itself right? So the byte-sized back-of-the-book summary: A troop of boy scouts go camping on a far-away island off the coast of Canada for a stormy weekend. But the cheer soon turns to spine-chilling horror when they encounter a haggard stranger dragging himself up the beach – infected with a horrific affliction that turns him into skin and bones within hours – a biogenetic horror mutation that will spread like crazy. Stranded on the island without any lines of communication and their only boat sabotaged, the troop has to learn about more than just merit badges and campfire stories – visceral fear. Battling a horror straight out of their worst nightmares, the troop has to survive against not just the fear that eats through them but the elements that turn hostile and eventually, one another.

The Troop is not a book for the faint-hearted. Nick Cutter puts in pretty much everything he’s got in his arsenal to spook you out and succeeds to a fair extent. Definitely not your run-of-the-mill horror story. What it does and does well, is push the boundaries of gruesome, disquieting and disturbing. At certain points of the book, I wanted to skip the gore. The horrific details are explained in painstakingly glorious visceral super-adjective-studded prose that is over the top. While some of us may love the detail, I honestly felt it distracted the readers a bit too much – nausea, disgust, creeping horror. Some of the things right up on my mind as I went through the motion. But don’t get me wrong, Nick Cutter’s prose gets under your skin, tingles and scratches you making you feel more than just a little uncomfortable. It’s real. It’s visceral and burns…nay…sears the horrific images straight into your brains. So that way, a horror book very well executed and achieves the purpose truly enough.

But to draw parallels with the master of the genre, would be unfair. Unlike Stephen King, the character evolution arc was perhaps a tad bit too hurried. Nick spends a fair amount of pages trying to invest you with each of the four main characters – the four boys. Max, the do-gooder and the quiet one who is painted up to be easily the better of all four. Kent, the high school bully who believes might is right but at heart, is a coward. Ephraim, the boy with the big heart but has anger management issues. Newton, the overweight nerd who loves books and pen pals. Shelley, the mysteriously quiet one with creepy habits. Sadly as the book proceeds and the horror unfolds, all four of them quickly fall into cookie-cutter stereotype molds so fast, it’s disappointing. 

However its still worth sticking through just to find out the devolution of these characters. The End of boyhood. Welcome to the jungle. Or emmm…the island? Needing to reach deep within their resolve, resorting to more primeval instincts than one bred by the Laws of Boy Scout America, how these boys turn on each other as authority flies out of the window and they are left to face not just an external horror but their internal demons that feed on fear and uncertainty. That way, the book is a great inspiration from the Lord of Flies – a true classic that explores of the psyche of boys left to fend for themselves stranded on an island and how baser instincts of survival molds their mental make up to be cruel and heartless. The breakdown and the ensuing chaos is pretty well wrought out by Nick’s beautiful prose.

It’s in no way up their among the classics of this genre but Nick Cutter ( Oh by the way, is the pen name for Craig Davidson) proves his horror mettle competently enough. It does pretty much everything you expect a horror novel to do – make you squirm and look over the back of your shoulders and think twice about entering dark wet tunnels. But I repeat, if you don’t like your novels peppered with viscerally gross descriptions of gore, this one will definitely put you off your food for sometime. Iron wall your stomachs, readers. I bequeath you a spine-chilling novel that burrows under your skins laying bare the degeneration of young minds faced with their worst primal fears. Get ready to squirm. Scream. Or squeal. (Depending on the constitution of your stomach, I say)

It’s a good read. And I would give this a solid three stars. But I don’t say I enjoyed the book much. Maybe hardcore horror novel fans would?