Reviews: Best Served Cold

An exciting, well-written slog through insufferable darkness

Having just finished my second readthrough of Joe Abercrombie's "Best Served Cold", I find that I appreciated the excellently crafted character perspectives far more than on my first, with each character having easily recognizable and identifiable quirks and views of their own, making the world they inhabit more believable simply by virtue of them being so well-fleshed out.

Yet my impression from the first readthrough hasn't changed: Best Served Cold is a deeply unpleasant story about terrible people in which the only changes that take place are for the worse, whether in the characters themselves or in the setting they inhabit. It is to Abercrombie's credit that the characters still have magnetism about them that draws one in, but when the most likeable character is an unrepentantly treacherous drunken sellsword, almost virtuous in his completely honest dishonesty, this reader, at least, felt his connection to the narrative dwindle almost to nothing.

The previous reviewer mentioned "The First Law" as being a story about how things generally don't change and people don't grow; while I agree on one level, on another I find that the main theme was instead that people often fail to change, despite trying their best. Characters in that trilogy began their changes only to be snapped back by an uncaring world and by their own baser instincts, but at least they tried, and this reader could sympathize with their failure. In "Best Served Cold", the characters only change in station and position; the protagonist, Monza Murcatto, is on a quest for revenge, goes through with it, and is never forced to grow as a character in any real way. She remains an angry, tactically intelligent but headstrong general with a penchant for rationalizing monstrous actions from beginning to end.

About the only personal change sought and experienced is by the deuteragonist, Caul Shivers, and all of it for the worse. In the end, no one has grown and there are just less people left standing. It is an incredibly crafted revenge romp, but when no one truly questions anything aside from the details of their murder plans, a story becomes simply a series of events linked by blood and evil. If that is all a reader is looking for, then this is an amazing example; but if more is desired, readers like me will close the book deeply unsatisfied.

An excellent but nasty book.

This is Abercrombie's best work to date. The tighter format of a single-volume story seems to help him, keeping this a little more focussed than the First Law trilogy, and his skills as a writer have definitely improved. The story also benefits from a reduced desire to make points about fantasy clichés, which I felt harmed the story and characterization in The First Law at times.

On the surface, the story is a simple tale of revenge. Female mercenary captain Monzarro Murcatto ("Monza") and her brother Benna are killed by their employer, Duke Orzo, who fears that her popularity might result in political ambitions. Except ... Monza isn't quite dead when they throw her off the battlements. Found by a mysterious stranger who nurses her back to health, she swears revenge on the seven men who were present; the Duke, his two sons, his bodyguard, his top general, Monza's traitorous second-in-command, and the banker who funds the Duke's wars.

Revenge, of course, is not as easy as it seems. It has consequences. You don't easily or lightly kill the powerful, and even a woman as cold-hearted as Monza, the Butcher of Caprile, finds less joy in it than she might have expected.

The setting is largely based on the warring city-states of Renaissance Italy, a fitting backdrop for Abercrombie's cynical straight-shooting about politics, war and power.

What makes this book for me, though, are the characters. Well-drawn, and despite the subject matter, much easier to sympathize with than many in The First Law. Also, there's a crucial difference; The First Law is largely about how things don't change, and most of the characters there do not grow. Here, the focus is on change; the impermanence of anything, perhaps, but still, the setting is not one for stasis and neither is the task, and the characters do change and grow, some for the better, some for the worse.

I wouldn't say that you absolutely need to have read The First Law; while some characters, not including Monza, do carry over from the previous work, none of the main characters in this played huge roles in what came before. Knowledge of the previous series certainly gives a bonus when we recognize things, but I think the story works without it.

If you can tolerate much blood and human nastiness in the pursuit of a story less hopeless than it may appear, I'd recommend this very highly indeed.