Currently alternating between reading Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and Joan Aiken’s Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Tales.
Abercrombie is one of the hot new names when it comes to fat fantasy epics (so I’ve been told), and a quarter of the way through the book he’s living up to the buzz. Our heroine is Monza Murcatto, a bad-ass mercenary whose employer betrays her and murders her brother. (He tries to kill her, too, but it doesn’t take.) That’s just the prologue: the real story is Murcatto seeking vengeance by killing the seven people responsible for her brother’s death. As you may have noticed, it’s much grittier than most fantasy, and moral ambiguities abound, making it quite a bit more interesting than your standard epic quest.
Actually, the cool part of it is that Abercrombie has taken a lot of those tropes and turned them inside-out like a used pair of underwear. Murcatto is indeed on a quest, it’s just that it’s a quest for vengeance, not some Enchanted MacGuffin. And she has to run around the kingdom collecting plot coupons, but they’re not gems or sacred weapons, or pieces of the parchment; the plot coupons are the dead bodies of the seven dudes she’s determined to kill. She even has a little band of heroes, but instead of the swordsman-dwarf-wizard standard, her merry men are a poisoner, an ex-con, and a poor immigrant. And though it’s dark, it’s all done with a light touch and a sense of humor.
On the other end of the spectrum, The Serial Garden is a collection of children’s stories from Big Mouth House, the children’s book imprint from Small Beer Press. Best Served Cold is a bit heavy for my poor old-and-achey-before-its-time body to be lugging around, so Aiken’s book has made for perfect subway reading. (Actually, most of the stories last exactly one 20-minute subway ride into Manhattan, which is lovely since it’s always nice to have a sense of closure before moving onto the Next Thing.) Mark and Harriet are the Armitage kids, who encounter strange and magical things every week – usually on Mondays. A unicorn appears on the front lawn, the board of incantation commandeers their house, their father is transformed into a cuckoo, etc. The characters waste no time at all being shocked at the impossible, although, occasionally, when strange things happen on Tuesday instead of Monday, it is very disconcerting for everyone, especially Mr. Armitage. The stories have great telling details and are just plain fun – I only wish I’d discovered them when I was seven years old so I could fully appreciate them.