Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
As much as I enjoyed the First Law trilogy, I couldn’t really muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for this book. Perhaps it was the truly horrible title. Despite that old adage regarding books, covers and judging, it’s difficult to not get a worrying vibe from a book with a cringe worthy name like Best Served Cold, and the generic cover art didn’t exactly engender confidence either. I was seriously wrong. Best Served Cold isn’t just a gloriously entertaining novel, It’s comfortably Abercrombie’s best that I’ve read so far.
This novel takes place in Styria, which is essentially Italy, and takes place not long after the conclusion of The Last Argument of Kings. Although there are important links to the original trilogy, it is by and large its own beast. Best Served Cold is the story of Monzacarro Murcatto, a feared mercenary in the employment of Grand Duke Orso, who has been steadily conquering the lands of his neighbours to become the first King of a unified Styria in many years. Standing against him is the League of Eight, and Monza, alongside her brother Benna, has returned to Orso’s region of Talins after destroying one of them. Orso, fearing the popularity of Monza and Benna among the people, murders Benna and throws Monza from the window of his castle. She miraculously survives after being rescued and healed by a mysterious figure, and swears vengeance for her brother on Orso, and six others involved in the murder. Monza recruits allies and cuts a bloody swath across Styria in pursuit of her revenge.
Best Served Cold is one of the best structured and paced books that I’ve ever read. Fantasy is a genre prone to excess and unnecessary length, and whilst Best Served Cold is certainly a very long book, the sense of urgency doesn’t let up for a second. What Abercrombie does brilliantly is to continually raise the stakes as Monza moves from target to target, with early parts of the books having a distinctly seedy and grotty feeling, rendezvousing with the criminal undergrounds, before raising the stakes to entire cities and the nation of Styria. The message that the nobles who rule are equally terrible to the petty murderers in the streets is clear, making Best Served Cold one of those rare books which manages to have a great message whilst also telling a fantastic story.
As with the First Law books, Best Served Cold is savagely funny. Abercrombie has a really dark sense of humour, and although he’s very good at deploring senseless violence (and, my God, is there a lot of senseless violence), he is also willing to take a step back and simply marvel at the ridiculousness of it all. A brief mention has to go out to the sex scenes, which are magnificently terrible. They are seriously the most off-puttingly realistic and unpleasant sex scenes which I have ever read. I don’t know if this was intentional, but every single one had me in peals of laughter, so it doesn’t really matter, I enjoyed them either way.
Although the struggle to be a better person is one of the central themes of the book, with almost every protagonist musing on their own morality, there’s a good lack of authorial judgement on these characters. We’re not invited to hate them, or judge them, but simply to enjoy them as brilliantly rounded characters. Monza is a fantastic protagonist, and helps to make up for the shortfall in good female characters in the original trilogy. I also enjoyed the Northman Shivers, who fans of the original trilogy will remember, who travelled to Styria in an effort to become a better man. Although he swore vengeance and hated Logen Ninefingers of the original trilogy, he steadily becomes more and more like him, and it’s fascinating to see. Of course, the standout character is Nicomo Cosca, who is rightfully promoted from his supporting role in the original trilogy. I love characters that are gleefully unhypocritical, who know exactly who they are and have no intention of improving. Cosca is gleefully entertaining in this capacity.