Joe Abercrombie never fails to disappoint. After thoroughly exhausting myself reading his First Law trilogy towards the back end of 2011 it took taken me a while to come to Best Served Cold. I anticipated reading it last year but knew I didn’t have the time to do it justice. Now, at last I’ve managed it. And I was right. It took time to read, but every page was a gruesome delight.
Abercrombie’s writing is dense and gritty. He’s not afraid to explore the darker side of his characters – indeed sometimes you feel as though they are all darkness – but twisted through the darkness is even blacker humour. Don’t get me wrong, Best Served Cold is anything but a comedy, but it’s saved from unrelenting grimness by the reality of the emotions.
Visceral and brutal, described as ‘splatterpunk sword and sorcery’ by George RR Martin, I shouldn’t love these books as much as I do, but yet it’s the very moral ambiguity of the characters that draws me in – characters who do wicked deeds for good reasons and good deeds for bad reasons.
Set in the same world as the First Law Trilogy and employing some of the peripheral characters from those books, this moves to Styria, outside the Union. Monza, is the Snake of Talins, the Butcher of Caprile. For Duke Orso she and her brother Benna have slaughtered their way across the land at the head of the Thousand Swords. Monza with a sword in her hand, Benna backing her up with sly guile and ruthless ambition. It’s all going as well as death and destruction can go until Orso, frightened that she and Benna are getting too popular, arranges for their death.
Benna is killed, but Monza survives, broken and scarred, and begins her quest for revenge on the perpetrators, Orso, his two sons, the mercenary from the Thousand Swords who betrayed her to take her place, the banker who helped finance it, Orso’s foremost general and his personal bodyguard. Seven men she has sworn to kill. And to help her do this she engages a northern barbarian, an ex-con, a pair of poisoners, and the man she betrayed when she took charge of the thousand swords herself, plus assorted other turncoats and crooks.
It’s hard to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad, but to paraphrase from the book: this is war, there is no right side. The action rolls from one bloody revenge killing to the next, with plenty of collateral damage, but Monza doesn’t care about that as long as she gets her men in the end. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it doesn’t always taste sweet. Monza’s single-mindedness doesn’t only destroy her enemies.
But at the end of the sprawling, brawling 600+ dense blood-filled pages there’s a glimmer of… is it redemption? Maybe. It’s enough.
Very highly recommended if you’ve got the stomach and the time.