Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie describes his work as “unheroic fantasy”, a beautifully turned phrase which it’s hard to better if you need to quickly sum up Best Served Cold. Put simply, there are no gallant, selfless or likeable characters in Abercombie’s first standalone novel – yet somehow, you find yourself rooting for many of them. The basic plot, as the title clearly suggests, is a classic quest for revenge, but it’s in the execution, with a gleeful disregard for the ever-growing body count, and in the flawed characters, that Abercrombie’s talent shines.
Monza Murcatto is a successful mercenary – too successful by half, as she finds out when her employer, Grand Duke Orso, tries to kill both her and her brother. He is only half successful, failing to make sure the job is finished, and once Monza is patched up, she swears revenge on the Grand Duke and his minions for the death of her brother. Of course, Monza needs allies, and among those she enlists are the drunkard Nicomo Cosca, former leader of the Thousand Swords (previously encountered in the First Law trilogy); a mentally disturbed master poisoner and his gluttonous apprentice; a numerically-fixated yet simple-minded murderer disarmingly called Friendly; and Caul Shivers, a Northman who left his native land to escape from killing but discovers it’s perhaps the only thing he’s any good at.
Shivers is the only character in Best Served Cold making a conscious effort to be a better person. The trouble, as he discovers, is that death follows Monza Murcatto around like a faithful companion – and one revenge scheme after another comes to define the word ‘overkill’. Along the way, there are plenty of double-crosses and revelations that give us opportunities to re-evaluate our initial impressions of the characters, not least Monza’s deceased brother, and the action shifts from one city to another, all in the midst of the ongoing civil war in which Monza made her name as a mercenary.
Best Served Cold exhibits Abercombie’s trademark black humour in spades, and the standalone novel form provides him with ample opportunity to show off his plotting skills – but don’t let the glibness fool you, the author and his characters do recognise the terrible nature of the violence being described, and don’t try to downplay the human cost. It’s a testament to Abercrombie’s skill as a storyteller that he can, over the course of your acquaintance with them, make you care about generals, assassins, cut-throats, barbarians, poisoners and (worst of all?) politicians so much, and in spite of their dubious deeds. Best Served cold is definitely this author’s best work to date, and I would be very happy to see him continue in this vein when he returns to the wonderful world he has created.