Best Served Cold is a standalone novel from Joe Abercrombie, set in the world of his debut series, The First Law Trilogy. While Abercrombie stays within his Circle of the World setting, he moves the action to Styria, a land barely referenced in the original trilogy. Styria is a land of constant conflict, and springtime is a time for war… and vengeance.
That’s going to leave a mark
Monzcarro Mercatto is the infamous Snake of Talins, a successful mercenary commander assisting her employer Grand Duke Orso to conquer and unite Styria. After yet another victory, Monza expects the Duke’s gratitude and a reasonable reward. Instead Duke Orso has Monza’s brother, Benna, killed, and throws Monza out of a tower window.
Monza survives by luck. Barely. Given the bloodbath that follows, perhaps describing her survival as a cruel twist of fate is more appropriate. Crippled, scarred, and friendless, and not to mention drug addicted, Monza begins her quest for vengeance against the seven men who betrayed her.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Abercrombie has been accused of providing a relentlessly dark vision of humankind. While I find that observation excessive, Best Served Cold is not the evidence I would use in Abercrombie’s defense. His style is best described by Logen Ninefingers, a character from Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy: “You’ve got to be realistic.” Being realistic, in the case of Best Served Cold, is to demonstrate that an obsession with revenge creates a whirlpool of darkness around you that inevitably sucks others in. This may seem like a sound moral lesson, but Abercrombie gleefully revels in the teaching of it.
Thus we see characters who, trying to better themselves, end worse than they were before. We see characters come close to conquering their demons only to happily embrace them later. A moment of breathless reflection at the conclusion of the story will show that even the ‘winners’ might have been better off losing. Their journeys are painful yet inevitable – characters are unable to escape the pasts which continue to define them.
Unfortunately what accompanies this downward spiral is a growing loss of sympathy for some key characters and a descent into caricature for others. It is telling that one of the characters I felt the most for was, in fact, an enemy of Monza’s, utterly distraught that events had forced him to betray his own character and even his name: Faithful.
There’s a souvenir for a lucky fan
Although Abercrombie focuses on a new cast, there are significant and often hilarious reappearances of characters from The First Law Trilogy – some sinister, some appropriately ridiculous, and one sublime. The reintroduction and elevation of irascible mercenary Nicomo Cosca is brilliant. He is undoubtedly my favourite character in Best Served Cold and manages to create many of the story’s most enjoyable and heartrending moments. Where Monza is compelling and corrupted, Nicomo seems to be moving toward some sort of redemption. Yet even Nicomo, like the other characters, is a product of and slave to Abercrombie’s dark world.
I never thought I would feel this way
Nestled in with the brutality of Monza’s quest, there are genuinely touching instances of friendship and sacrifice which contrast starkly with the majority of the book. The relationship between Cosca and the appropriately named Friendly is a particular highlight. The characters are flawed, providing almost unlimited humour through ironies and contradictions. Even as the characters appall, (some of) the bleaker ones still draw the reader into their journey. You feel the characters’ hopelessness as strongly as their passion. The dialogue crackles with color and humor, such that the story always remains entertaining even if as a guilty pleasure.
Warning: Adult Content
There are no punches pulled in Best Served Cold. I personally felt repulsed in the early stages of the story, but fought through to reach the heart of it, which puts the violence and vileness in context. The gritty depictions of sex and violence increase the narrative’s realism in the same way that the self-absorbed characters do. Abercrombie pushes the envelope with some of the characters’ perverse desires: Monza’s relationship with her brother, for example, seems to have been rather… complicated. The squeamish will squirm, and some readers will inevitably be offended.
Why should you read this book?
Abercrombie fills the page with damaged characters, adult themes, and more death than the Rambo movies combined, but he does it with tongue firmly in cheek and just so much damn class. Even when Best Served Cold disgusted me, it entertained. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I’m not the subject under review. In spite of the humour, Abercrombie maintains a tense and unrelenting atmosphere that really does transport the reader to Styria. As a final aside, I didn’t predict the key twist in the plot. I usually do. You win this time, Mr. Abercrombie.