With Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie returns to the unpretentious fantasy world he mined so memorably in the three books of The First Law, but it seems the myriad threads and perspectives of that subversive narrative are old news to the filthiest, most bloody-minded writer Britain has spat out in decades. His latest is a single-minded, standalone cycle of betrayal and revenge that careens headlong towards a conclusion that befits the mounting trail of death and
destruction its protagonist leaves in her wake.
The Years of Blood have
left Styria divided. The once-great nation’s most powerful forces have been at war with one another for decades, but for the first time, an end to the bloodshed and battery is in sight. With the army-for-hire of the Thousand Swords
at his every beck and call, Grand Duke Orso has come within a hair’s breadth of
seizing control of the devastated kingdom. One last push is all it will take,
and the tying up of a few loose ends.
Among the loose ends is Monzcarro Murcatto, captain of the mercenary forces which have won the day for the Duke time and again. A hero without match to some, a ruthless villain to others, Monza’s sway over the people of Talins has left her an unwitting threat to
Orso’s intended dominion. Thus, the Duke and his inner circle take steps to have
her removed from the picture. Her brother Benna is slaughtered before her eyes;
Monza, meanwhile, is stabbed, slit open and thrown from atop the palace’s
But she survives. And before she can even begin to heal, far less to mourn her terrible loss, she has sworn vengeance on the Duke and the six of his sons and associates who played a part in his betrayal. Monza may be broken, beaten and scarred from head to toe, but seven men must die; seven men without whom the ravaged landscape of Styria will never be the same.
Inevitably, the death toll amounts to considerably more than that. Best
Served Cold is, after all, a book by Joe Abercrombie, which – if you’re not
already familiar with his, ahem, body of work – you can take to mean heads, not
to mention a veritable miscellany of other limbs and digits, will spend more
time rolling than in their naturally appointed place. Best Served Cold is, let
me be quite clear, an incredibly violent novel: bitter, twisted and dark beyond
Curiously, perhaps, it is also a very funny novel.
Abercrombie’s acerbic sense of humour permeates the text at the least
appropriate moments possible, and it’s as well; without the occasional chuckle
to bring a little levity to the grim proceedings, Best Served Cold would likely
leave its readers in a dismal state indeed. The relentlessness of Monza’s
lengthy, murderous quest is apt, eventually, to punch through the defenses of
even the most optimistic speculative sorts.
One cold-blooded killing
follows another, and for a while, the wanton carnage seems to come a little too
easily to Monza and company. I’ll swallow the notion that she has connections
everywhere; an undwindling chest of some secret stash of gold from her days with
the Thousand Swords is more of a stretch, but sure; it beggars belief, however,
that her return trip down from Grand Duke Orso’s tower doesn’t seem to have left
her much the worse for wear, physically speaking, short of a few war-wounds and
a stiff pinky finger. Though there are ample reminders of Monza’s motivations,
it becomes increasingly difficult to identity either with her or the motley lot
she recruits to her cause.
In fact, it’s only at the halfway point – and
mark my words, Best Served Cold will be a beast of a paperback – that readers
are granted any real insight into the protagonist’s disturbed psyche. It’s all
business from the outset, and what visceral business it is. There’s something to
be said, certainly, some added value to be had from thrusting readers right into
the thick of the action, but all work and no play leaves precious little room
for Monza and her unlikely band of brothers to breathe as characters. Until the
troupe arrives in Visserine and their best-laid plans begin to unravel, Friendly
alone, an oddball ex-convict with a passion for mathematics matched only by his
prowess with a blade, seems fleshed out enough to be in any sense sympathetic.
Monza’s harrowing hunt never quite takes a backseat, but persistence is
pivotal: Best Served Cold is at its bloody best when the cost of all the killing
finally catches up with its cast. From that point on, Abercrombie’s visceral
fantasy lurches to life like a corpse long consigned to oblivion suddenly
reanimated and stuck full of uppers. The stakes are raised, the pace picks up,
tensions escalate to breaking point and of course, the body count increases
exponentially. If the relative tedium of the first handful of chapters doesn’t
break your spirit, a brilliantly brutal climax awaits. The long journey
chronicled in Best Served Cold isn’t an easy one, neither for readers nor the
anti-heroes at its pounding black heart, but late in the game, Abercombie’s
return to Styria reveals itself as an epic and exciting revenge thriller utterly
true to its own unflinching, if unconventional moral code.