Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Best Served Cold

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Genre: Fantasy

Year: 2009

Conscience is an excuse. Mercy and cowardice are the same.

Monza Murcatto has everything she wants. At the head of the Thousand Swords, winning a battle after the other, she has money, respect, and a name: she’s the Serpent of Talins, the Butcher of Caprile. Her employer’s enemies curse her name, while his people cheer her when she walks the streets.
But they like her a bit too much for her employer’s taste, and so he decides to take her out of the picture – literally. If only he had checked that she was actually dead…

Broken and alone, her only desire is to take revenge on the seven people responsible for her demise. With a totally untrustworthy but deadly group of allies, she will hunt down her victims to the end of the world if she must, and let no one stop her.

A closer look

I read the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie maybe four years ago, so my memories are a bit blurry, but overall I remember enjoying it. I remember the plot only vaguely, but the characters were what stuck with me, and Abercrombie confirms his ability to create engaging and distinct voices for all of them in this fourth instalment.
Not technically a sequel, Best Served Cold is a standalone novel set in the same world as the original trilogy but a few years later, and following a different cast of characters. While it’s nice to be able to recognise characters from the previous books as they are mentioned by the protagonists, you don’t need to have read them before jumping into this one. I’d recommend it anyway but, you know, you don’t have to.

The plot of the book is not extremely original: think any kind of revenge story you’ve ever heard of, and you know pretty much what’s going to happen here as well. The book is divided in seven sections, one for each of the names on Monza’s list. Each of her victim is in a different location, and each time she’ll have to devise a different plan to get to them, with the help of the most random group of people you can imagine.
A Northener looking to redeem himself, a mass murderer with a thing for numbers, a master poisoner and his apprentice, a drunken mercenary and a torturer. All of them with distinct personality and voices, so much so that after a while I could recognise their point-of-view scenes in the span of a few sentences.

The characters are probably the best part of this novel. Some of them had great arcs, some are hiding pretty interesting secrets, while others were so closed in their own views and opinions as to be involuntarily funny. Even their dynamics worked, and despite the grittiness of the world, their dialogues managed to make me snicker from time to time. They all have a complex morality system, and none of them is merely bad or good. They all have dark sides – some more than others – but good qualities too. They work together, but they also lie to each other; they talk and build some kind of relationship, but they wouldn’t hesitate for a second to sell each other if a good offer comes their way.

While the book explores revenge and all that comes with it, the characters go through different arcs of self-discovery and change (well, some of them at least) but not necessarily in a positive way. And even as the story progresses, they start to question whether revenge is really worth it, and how much they’re willing to sacrifice to get what they want. Turns out the answer is quite a lot, but not without second thoughts.

Another character that’s present in the book, but mostly in flashbacks, is Monza’s brother. At the beginning of each section we get a short scene from their childhood, to their teenage years, to the time when they became mercenaries, almost to present day. Little details in these memories start to feel off as we go along and discover just how much her brother is responsible for the person Monza is now. I’m not going to say more, but I really enjoyed how these little parts uncovered a side of the protagonist that didn’t show too often in the present.

So let’s leave the characters alone now, and let’s talk about the plot. As I said before, it’s hard to be too original with a plot that follows three simple steps: find a victim, kill it, repeat. Abercrombie makes the happy choice of cutting the journey from a place to the next – considering this book is already over 600 pages – and manages to make each and every murder as different as possible. Not only the locations are different, but depending on the social status of the victims it’s progressively harder to reach them, and so the characters are forced to come up with a new plan every time, making the most of each person’s abilities and not boring the reader with seven identical stories.

Abercrombie is one of the most famous names in the grimdark fantasy genre for a reason, and he doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the world he talks about. Most people in his novels won’t hesitate for a second to stab someone in the back if it benefits them, and will still manage to sleep well at night. It’s impossible to count how many characters betray each other during the novel, and I’m not talking about the main cast alone; it seems to me that is really hard to find a decent person in this world, and even if you do, they don’t tend to last long: they either die, or are forced to change by circumstances. Which is not to say that everyone is a complete monster; even in this gritty and unforgiving world there is a spark of good in the people. Maybe it’s hidden, or it needs a lot of specific circumstances to reveal itself, but it’s there, buried under the violence and the pain, in little gestures or words.

If I had to make a complaint, I would say that I could do with less battle scenes – or shorter ones. This is purely a personal thing though, as battles tend to confuse me and I spend an inordinate amount of time rereading each sentence while I try to figure out what’s going on.

Other than that, this was a pretty solid book. Not an uplifting read, but a brutal depiction of the cycle of violence and its consequences, with badass characters and honestly good writing. Not for the faint of heart, as violence and blood abound, so be warned if that’s something that bothers you. As for me, now I’m just wondering why I waited so long to pick this book up.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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