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Literature: Best Served Cold
Cover of the UK edition.

Mercy and cowardice are the same.
—Monzcarro Murcatto

Best Served Cold is a 2009 Low Fantasy novel by Joe Abercrombie, part of his The First Law series. It's set a few years after events of the main trilogy, and a fair number of characters in it were supporting characters in the trilogy.

As might be imagined, this is a tale of revenge.

In Styria, a land of warring city-states based rather obviously on Renaissance Italy, mercenary captain Monzcarro Murcatto ("Monza") has come close to putting her employer, Duke Orzo, on the throne, which would realize his lifelong dream of supremacy. He's a suspicious man, though, and Monza's success has brought her renown; fearing that she may try to convert that into political power, he has her and her brother brutally murdered and thrown off the battlements of his fortress.

Unfortunately for him, he fails to ensure that she's actually dead.

A mysterious stranger finds her broken body and nurses her back to health; suspicious in turn of his motives, Monza escapes as soon as she's able, and swears revenge on all the men present at her "murder"; seven in all, counting Orzo, his two sons, his general, Monza's treacherous second-in-command, Orzo's bodyguard, and the banker who's Orzo's financial backer.

To do this, she assembles a team of oddballs; a warrior Northman failing at becoming a better man, a numbers-obsessed ex-convict, a pompous poisoner and his gluttonous assistant, an ex-torturer, and the alcoholic old mercenary captain that Monza replaced. The task begins easily enough, but Monza soon discovers that going after the powerful has consequences — to her, to her companions, and to the fate of Styria as a whole.


This work provides examples of :

  • Acquired Poison Immunity: Morveer frequently doses himself with his own poisons to keep immune to them.
  • Action Girl: Monza. Vitari.
  • Alliterative Name: Monza (Monzcarro Murcatto)
  • An Axe to Grind: Shivers.
  • Anti-Hero: Monza; all that saves her from being a Villain Protagonist, in the beginning, is that there isn't a good side to cheer for. Sure, Duke Orzo is a villain, but Monza was his enthusiastic tool until he betrayed her, and her motives for revenge are all personal ones; that Orzo betrayed her, broke her body, and killed her beloved brother.
  • The Apprentice: Day, who starts of as Morveer's apprentice and then is his assistant.
  • Arc Words: Monza's "Mercy and cowardice are the same."
  • Barbarian Longhair: Shivers gets an Important Haircut and for a time wears it in the style of the Italian Renaissance Fantasy Counterpart Culture in which he's ended up. He then lets it grow long again following his Face-Heel Turn.
  • Berserk Button: Friendly will put up with a lot but don't accuse him of using loaded dice. Ever.
  • Best Served Cold: It's a fitting title. You can count all the named characters who don't have some sort of revenge motivation at some point on both hands.
  • Big Eater: Day.
  • Bigger Bad: The Bank of Valint and Balk figure prominently in the story. Readers of The First Law will recognize them as the proxy of the Arch Mage Bayaz and Shenkt subtly alludes to it while staring down Yoru Sulfur.
  • Black and Gray Morality: By the end of the book you won't be surprised by who murders, exploits, or betrays who, you'll be surprised that it's taking them so long.
  • Book Ends: The book starts and ends with the words "The sunrise was the color of bad blood."
  • Breaking Speech: Ganmark gives one to Murcatto.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: Monza and her brother Benna.
  • Bullet Time: Shenkt can do this.
  • The Butcher: Monza's epithet is "The Butcher of Caprile", because of the bloody sack of that city by her army. It turns out that she gave explicit orders not to sack the city, which were ignored in her absence while she was reporting to Duke Orzo.
  • Character Development: in contrast to much of The First Law, there's a fair amount here, especially for Monza.
  • Carnival of Killers:
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted with the King of Poisons.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: More or less Hat of the Styrians.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Duke Salier's torturers in Visserine, and what they do to Shivers.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: Monza wears a glove at almost all times over one of her hands to hide the fact that it is horribly maimed/disfigured as a result of the attempt to assassinate her during the first chapter. At one point in the novel, she disguises herself as a High-Class Call Girl and is able to benefit from the fact that the "uniform" includes long opera gloves.
  • Dual Wielding: Friendly uses a cleaver and knife to great effect. General Ganmark is also an expert swordsman in the Union style of long and short steels.
  • Duel to the Death: Several.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Monza ends up as Duchess of Talins, refuses to become beholden to any faction, and looks like she's going to make a strong but fair ruler with a strong practical streak. Certainly, one better than the standard run of city rulers one's encountered in the rest of the book.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones/ Unholy Matrimony: Vitari is an ex-Torture Technician gone freelance and Shenkt is a notorious assassin with cannibalism-fueled magical powers. They love each other dearly and dote on their children.
  • Evil Gloating: Lampshaded twice.
    Morveer, liking nothing better than a captive audience, could not resist explaining how it had been managed.

    "Why is it that men pointing loaded flatbows always feel the need to gloat, rather than simply letting fly?"
    "Gloating's fun."
  • Eye Scream: Shivers
  • Face-Heel Turn: Shivers
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Styria is fundamentally Renaissance Italy, made up of warring city-states.
  • Fantastic Drug: Husk, which Monza starts using to dull the pain of her many injuries. It appears to be a loose expy of opium.
  • Foreshadowing: "Be nice to come out of this with both his eyes."
  • Functional Addict:
    • Monza becomes addicted to husk, and for part of the novel, is quite functional despite her dependence on it. Later on, she goes cold turkey and stops using the drug, but knows she will have cravings for the rest of her life.
    • Cosca is a serious alcoholic and had reached the non-functional stage when introduced, but for the rest of the novel stays sober and functions quite well (despite desperately wanting a drink the whole time). At the end of the novel [[in a subversion of Character Development, he immediately goes back to drinking the instant that it no longer serves his plans to stay sober.
  • Good with Numbers: Friendly, who is obsessed with numbers, numerology, and counting to an OCD level.
  • Gotta Kill Em All: All seven of the men who helped "kill" her.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: Monza has her trusty Calvez rapier, not a showy blade but of the highest quality.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: deliciously subverted with Cosca's apparent death in Visserine. He is found by the invading soldiers, mistaken for a friendly casualty because of the uniform he stole and wore to infiltrate, and nursed back to health. He then proceeds to reclaim leadership of the Thousand Swords, right from under Monza's nose.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Carlot dan Eider has become one as part of her role as a Honey Trap working for The Union.
  • Hourglass Plot: Monza starts out as coldly ruthless and expresses a mocking attitude toward Shivers' optimism and desire to be a better person (and continually encourages him to engage in shady behavior). Eventually, Monza has a Face Realization and ends up as a better person, whereas Shivers has a Face-Heel Turn, and Monza despairs about how he turned out given how he started.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Shenkt and Ishri, continuing the proud traditions of the Eaters.
  • Ironic Name/ Ironic Nickname: Zigzagged with Friendly. He's The Comically Serious as opposed to jovial and is a self-confessed psychopath, but in some respect, the name fits, as he is the least actively malicious character.
  • Irony: Holy shit, where do we start? With the fact that half the betrayals in the book are by accident? Or how Morveer does more to aid Monza after turning on her than he did when he was working for her? The only constants in this story are that almost any slight will be avenged, almost every trust will be betrayed, and that you can't stop the consequences of your actions. That leads to a lot of irony of the situational, cosmic, and tragic varieties.
  • It's Personal: Duke Orzo killed Monza's beloved brother Benna (as well as almost killing and permanently maiming Monza herself.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Monza. Cosca nails it, near the end, after she repeats that "Mercy and cowardice are the same": "Do you know why I always loved you, Monza? Even after you betrayed me? More, after you betrayed me? Because I know you don't really believe any of that rubbish. Those are the lies you tell yourself so you can live with what you've done. What you've had to do."
  • Mad Doctor: The Bone Thief Shenkt who puts Monza back together.
  • Magic Versus Science - Morveer is a strong advocate of science, and magic is not strongly believed in Styria.
  • The Man Behind the Man: A magus. Always.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Benna Murcatto has been manipulating Monza throughout her career as mercenary and was planning to use her to make himself the Duke or Orzo. He got away with it for so long only because he was her brother.
  • Master Poisoner: Morveer.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Castor Morveer: the castor bean is the source of ricin, a lethal and hard-to-trace poison.
    • Day, Morveer's apprentice, is blonde and appears sunnily innocent.
    • Caul Shivers, like all Northern Named Men, bears a meaningful nickname. He's named 'Caul' for being born with a caul (part of the amniotic sac) on his head, but 'Shivers' is thanks to falling in a freezing cold river on his first raid and climbing out shivering with cold. He tells people sometimes that it's because his enemies shiver with terror, but this is a lie.
  • Meatgrinder Surgery: The way the Bone Thief puts Monza back together in this manner after her grisly attempted murder and near-fatal fall. It borders on a non-cyborg version of We Can Rebuild him, as it seems pretty clear that there is no way normal medical techniques could have healed someone who had suffered such extensive injuries.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: To make sure Mauthis is good and dead, Morveer goes ahead and poisons every single ledger in the bank, killing an extra forty or so people in the process.
  • Not Quite Dead: Monza, who Duke Orzo is convinced that he killed. Later, Nicomo Cosca.
  • Perfect Poison: the opening scene for master poisoner Castor Morveer shows him showing his apprentice, Day, the most potent poison he knows, "The King of Poisons", a toxin that is both completely undetectable and impossible to build up an immunity against, and should only be used against someone who is protected against all else to keep the secret. However much to Day's later dismay, the "King of Poisons" is merely a sham concocted by Morveer in case the apprentice betrays him, and is in fact harmless.
  • Perky Female Minion: Day, to Morveer.
  • Poison and Cure Gambit: Used several times by Morveer and Day, sometimes played straight, but other times there was in fact no poison at all; in one of those cases, the "antidote" was actually the real poison, tricking the victim into consuming it themselves.
  • Poisoned Weapon: Morveer and Day use poisoned needles as weapons.
  • Psycho for Hire: An argument could be made for any of Monza's recruits but it comes across most consistently with Morveer. He initially appears to be a sophisticated, if slightly eccentric gentleman assassin but his egomania and disdain for human life quickly become apparent. As more and more of his back story opens up it only gets worse. Subverted in how he frets about his own lack of people skills and how at times he genuinely wants people to relate to and understand him.
    • Subverted with Shenkt.
  • Quirky Mini Boss Squad: Orso's inner circle who participated in the attack on Monza and Benna.
    • Andiche, Sessaria, and Victus: the commanders reporting directly to the captain general of the Thousand Swords.
  • Rag Tag Bunch Of Misfits: Monza's revenge crew.
  • The Rainman - Friendly, with his obsessive-compulsive counting.
  • Revenge: Monza's motivation.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Monza systematically works her way through the list of those who participated in her brother's murder and her attempted murder.
  • Scars Are Forever: Abercrombie loves his scarred and maimed characters, and this is no exception; Monza is stabbed, crushed and broken before being thrown off the battlements of Fontezarmo and down a mountain, and there's a limit to how much you can be repaired after that. Her right hand is ruined, her face and body scarred all over, and she is in almost constant pain.
  • Sdrawkcab Alias: Morveer's Go-to Alias is to call himself Reevrom.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Morveer spends the whole book griping to himself about his time in the orphanage. When he finally questions if he did anything wrong he decides that everything from poisoning his mother on was the right thing to do.
  • The Starscream: EVERY captain general of the Thousand Swords has been deposed by his or her right-hand man. Cosca learns from the ordeal. After being reinstated he begins offing the generals who supported his overthrow.
  • Straight Gay: General Ganmark.
  • The Reveal:
    • Shenkt is the bone thief from the start of the story.
    • And Orzo's fears were well-founded, as Benna was planning to overthrow him without Monza's knowledge.
  • Twisted Echo Cut: There's a scene at the party the protagonists crash where Monza/Vitari and Shivers/Cosca engage in the same conversation, but in different contexts.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Played straight and subverted. Duke Rogont's plan has already failed by the time Monza tells it back to him, then it suddenly works exactly as planned due to an unspoken factor. Benna was fond of unspoken plans that he could reveal to Monza as fait accompli; TheReveals of when they worked foreshadow the real Reveal.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Monza has been manipulated into most of the infamous actions that form her backstory by her brother Benna. At the beginning of the book Shenkt plans to use her as a pawn against Duke Orzo and the Bank of Valint and Balk but she gets away. Ironically she fulfills Shenkt's plan all on her own.
  • Where It All Began: Monza confronts Orzo in his fortress of Fontezarmo, where he had her "killed" in the beginning.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Lampshaded twice.
    The Bloody-Nine had told him once - if you mean to kill, you kill, you don't talk about it - and it was advice he'd always tried to stick to. ... He wasn't sure if he was talking to stretch the moment out or talking to put the moment off. But he was talking, still.

    "Why is it that men pointing loaded flatbows always feel the need to gloat, rather than simply letting fly?"
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Monza is not pleased when the female soldier who tortured Shivers and herself (not knowing who they were), later tells Monza (once she knows who her prisoner was) how she considers Monza to be her hero and an inspiration.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: At the end of the novel, Cosca gives Monza a touching speech about how despite her pretentions to ruthlessness, she is actually a good person (see Jerk with a Heart of Gold). He gives this as a reason why he loved her and still loves her despite her betraying him in addition to the fact that Cosca knows Benna was the one who betrayed him and basically roped Monza into going along with it.
The Bell at Sealey HeadFantasy LiteratureBeyond
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