Title: Best Served Cold
Paperback: 662 pages
Publication Date: 01/06/2010
Revenge, as the title of Joe Abercrombie’s fourth novel would suggest, is a dish best served cold. Except that, this being an Abercrombie novel, and one set in the morally ambiguous [to put it extremely mildly] First Law universe, cold is somewhat of an understatement. Revenge is everywhere in Best Served Cold – from drowning to poisoning to garrotting and general massacres, it is delivered in frequently ingenious and blood-soaked ways.
The central character around whom this carnage tends to coalesce, is mercenary general Monzcarro Murcatto – Monza to her friends [well, it would be, if she had any]; The Snake of Talins and The Butcher of Caprile to those who aren’t quite so enamoured of her and her military ‘methods’.
When her beloved brother is murdered and she is betrayed and abandoned for dead by her employer, Monza is left with only a burning desire to exact vengeance on the seven people she holds responsible. It’s like a very bloody, very brutal version of The Count of Monte Cristo.
Revenge is a well-established trope in the fantasy genre [just look at David Gemmell’s Waylander novels] and pretty much every character in Best Served Cold is seeking some kind of vengeance. But, what sets this novel apart from the other revenge narratives is the manner in which Abercrombie fills his pages with a complex and evolving set of characters in an intriguing, well-developed world. And, crucially, and at odds with many fantasy revenge narratives, there is very little in the way of redemption in this novel [the final chapter is called ‘Happy Endings’ but after the morally ambiguous six hundred and fifty odd pages that have gone before, you know that this title is humour of the blackest kind!].
To exact this revenge, Monza recruits herself a very motley crew. Among them Caul Shivers, a warrior Northman failing at becoming a better man [and previously seen in Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings]; Friendly, a numbers-obsessed serial murderer; an arrogant poisoner and his gluttonous assistant; a female ex-torturer; and the alcoholic old mercenary captain that Monza usurped prior to her own betrayal.
Personally I found myself inexorably drawn to Monza and Shivers as characters, despite their many flaws. In fact, so flawed is Monza that the only reason that she isn’t a Villain Protagonist at the outset of the novel is because there is no-one else ‘better’ than her. And yet, despite other characters repeatedly referring to her as an ‘evil bitch’, there was something about her that I found myself liking and ultimately rooting for, which I can’t seem to explain. And both her and Shivers – in completely contrasting manners – evolve over the course of the book, often in ways that you don’t expect as a reader.
And it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the novel that I realised that both Shivers and Monza seemed incredibly similar to a couple of characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Monza, a renowned duellist, loses the use of one hand and has to learn to fight with her other hand. And she has an ‘unorthodox’ relationship with a family member, and then subsequently becomes a better person when separated from that family member. And Shivers, a violent but incredibly loyal bodyguard and mercenary, who loathes his brother and ends up horribly disfigured. I leave it up to you, dear reader, to make the relevant connections, but there was definitely a light-bulb moment when I realised who Shivers and Monza were parallels of in Martin’s books.
With his brilliant use of narrative voice, grammar and vocabulary to distinguish his POV characters, and his adept and complex world building, Abercrombie continues to be at the vanguard of Low Fantasy. But Best Served Cold is so morally ambiguous that Abercrombie almost manages to out-Abercrombie himself. It is his meanest, most violent book to date, and even the shades of grey are dripping with gore.
If I had one slight criticism then it would be that the numerous references to Abercrombie’s first three books and to characters and events in The First Law world could be quite confusing to someone coming to Best Served Cold as their first Abercrombie novel. It does work as a standalone, but I could imagine that if I hadn’t read the previous three books then there would have been a lot of things that would have gone over my head.