Best Served Cold is his latest and, on the surface, it’s a simple tale of revenge:
From the Publisher: “War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, but it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die….”
Initially, yes, it may seem fairly straightforward but, as the story progresses, the reader is ambushed by twists, turns, and shocking revelations that lead one to question not only the measure for measure motivations of our main players, but the very nature of vengeance as well.
Like Abercrombie’s previous works, one of the true standout elements in this latest outing is the characters – a colorful, comical, alternately lovable and reprehensible bunch on both sides of the issue: a down and out barbarian, a dandyish master poisoner, his precocious assistant, a ruthless murderer with a thing for numbers, a washed-up drunkard. And these are the good guys! Sort of. But not really. They’re a flawed and conflicted, morally ambiguous bunch, but, love ’em or hate ’em, you certainly feel for them. Their actions thrill, impress, frustrate, and disappoint. There are no true heroes here, which isn’t really a surprise if you’re familiar with Abercrombie but, shockingly, one comes to the gradual realization that, just maybe, there are no true villains either. Just as, in the book’s opening pages, our protagonist is lulled into a false sense of security before having the rug pulled out from underneath her, the reader is similarly waylaid by a smart and surprising narrative that eschews traditional cathartic trappings for dark developments and disturbing uncertainties.
Although Best Served Cold is a stand-alone entry, there are certain elements from the First Law series that find their way into this book. Two relatively minor characters from the trilogy, the Northman Shivers and the opportunistic mercenary leader Cosca, are major contributors on this outing – well-drawn, deep, and wonderfully compelling.
While the world these characters inhabit is the same, the focus shifts from the courtly intrigue and clash of empires to a venue reminiscent of the Renaissance Italian city states in which wars are fought, not by civilians, but by paid mercenaries. And, very much like the foreign condottieri who waged war on behalf of the Italian cities, the mercenaries in this world are smart enough to realize that it is far more lucrative to “reach an understanding” rather than bother with real battle. Of course, mercenaries can be very, uh, mercenary, and prone to shifting alliances, employers, and reneging on their end of the deal. Abercrombie does a bang up job of capturing the spirit of this period in history and while giving it his own twist. I wonder whether he was inspired by the by the works of Jacob Burckhardt (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) or Geoffrey Trease (The Condottieri: Soldiers of Fortune) which offer fascinating historical accounts of the era’s most colorful players (like Sir John Hawkwood and The White Company, famed female commanders Onorata Rodiana and Bona Lombarda, or that duke who delighted in rolling boulders down a hillside onto unsuspecting peasants.).
While the First Law series did a glorious job of turning the high fantasy trope on its ear, Best Served Cold does the same for revenge story in equally impressive fashion. It’s fast-paced, absorbing, darkly humorous, and unabashedly violent, fraught with crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses and “back up a second did that really happen?!“ moments. Gripping stuff. A terrific introduction to the work of Joe Abercrombie for first-time readers, and an immensely rewarding read for fans of the author.