Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie is the new master of dark, gritty, realistic fantasy, and Best Served Cold might well be the masterpiece that represents that subgenre. Monza Murcatto is a renowned and very successful mercenary … or was until she was stabbed, beaten, and thrown from a mountainside by her employer. Monza wants revenge, so she contracts a party of unsavory characters to aid her. Monza’s story goes from dark to black to “a wet match in the bottom of a dark cave” — everyone suffers, lots of people die, and the trail of blood and tragedy that Monza leaves in her wake is unprecedented.
Abercrombie takes what appears to be a simple tale of revenge and twists it into a sanguine journey of self-discovery on the part of each character. The heart of Best Served Cold is how Abercrombie strips our “heroes” down to their core and reveals who they truly are. No other author I’ve found works so hard to create likeable characters out of such nasty individuals. Best Served Cold is exceedingly well-written, so I have to give it 5 stars. It really is a great work.
Reading Joe Abercrombie is always bittersweet for me — I know I’m going to get an amazing story with unique characters told in Abercrombie’s special way. But the wonderful writing comes with a price: you change a little. His books have altered my perception of fantasy literature. Before, I was blissfully unaware of how truly brutal and tragic fantasy can be. Sure, George R.R. Martin loves to kill off his main characters, but I never had any doubt that I was observing his story from the outside. In contrast, Abercrombie brings you in: I feel the character’s spirit break in the hands of the torturer. I know that the person on page 112 has become someone else by page 113, and it makes me sad. There is no redemption — no “making it up” later — they’re irrevocably changed. It’s a very real and unsettling thing for a reader to experience, and it’s a feeling that’s not commonly found in the fantasy genre. I have a love-hate relationship with Joe Abercrombie’s books. I will most certainly continue to read them — they are just too incredible not to. But I need something exceedingly optimistic to read afterwards.
Best Served Cold is technically a stand-alone novel, but I would highly recommend reading The First Law trilogy first because I get the feeling of an overall “Big Picture” taking place in this world. Read Best Served Cold if you are ready to challenge your thoughts about fantasy literature. Do not read Best Served Cold if you like your fantasy to be a pleasant escape from the harsh realities of life. ~Justin Blazier
When the infamous mercenary captain, Monza Murcatto, seems to be getting too powerful, her employer, Duke Orso, attempts to have her and Benna, Monza’s next-in-command, killed. Short work is made of Benna, but, by a cruel twist of fate, Monza survives, just barely. And her quest for vengeance sets a spark to the powder-keg that is the country of Styria during the Years of Blood.
Best Served Cold is a stand-alone novel that takes place in the same world as Joe Abercrombie’s acclaimed The First Law series. To his many fans (of which I’m certainly one), I say: you’ll be more than pleased with Best Served Cold. Along with a colorful array of new characters — criminals, henchmen, assassins, power-hungry nobles, and mercenaries — several of the second-string characters from The First Law play a major part. I’d list them, but half the fun of this book is guessing just who will show up. I will just give you this much: if you liked the despicable soldier-of-fortune Nicomo Cosca before, or maybe even if you didn’t, you’re gonna love him in Best Served Cold.
Mr. Abercrombie’s stories have been called “fantasy noir” and I can’t think of a better description. Think Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie doing a fantasy movie and you just about have the right idea. Mr.Abercrombie’s First Law and Best Served Cold has edginess, a multitude of criminals, raw and gritty dialogue, horrifyingly realistic violence, and dark humor.
Best Served Cold drags the reader along on Monza’s grim and unyielding vendetta which in turn ignites vengeful repercussions that only throw other deadly events into motion. It was fascinated to watch how one person’s obsession can drag so many others down with it and how once someone starts down a dark path, their whole self-concept can change. But, there’s no need to lose heart in the darkness. There just may be (according to the individual reader’s interpretation) a small ray of light at the end of the tunnel.
I do feel compelled to warn that Abercrombie may be too dark for some readers, and the sexual content is raunchy — but it is on par with the tough, roguish characters. I almost knocked off a half star for this, but the ending more than made amends.
“Mercenaries are people, too.”
I won’t tell you about the plot of Best Served Cold since that’s been well done by Greg and Justin. Instead, I’ll tell you about the audiobook and how I liked the story.
I listened to Tantor Media’s audio version which was read by the excellent Michael Page. This was a great format except for one chapter (“To the Victors…”) in which Mr. Abercrombie meant for us to be surprised by who the principal actors were. In the text, section breaks indicate scene (and therefore character) changes. The audiobook reader, however, used the voices for the characters that Mr. Abercrombie meant for us to think were involved. When the trick was revealed, Mr. Page switched voices. This was confusing, especially since a listener can’t see the section breaks and realize that the scene kept changing. I had to go back and listen to it again. This wasn’t Mr. Page’s fault, though — just a limitation of the audio format. Other than this scene, the reading was terrific. I was impressed with the way that Mr. Page portrayed Shivers’ character development by subtly altering his voice as the story went on.
Speaking of characters, Shivers and Monza, the main characters (I don’t think we can call them “heroes”), evolve so gradually and realistically throughout the story that they are both quite changed at the end, but in a completely believable way. Looking back at their journeys is an interesting (and somewhat disturbing) thought exercise. It was fun to meet several familiar faces from The First Law trilogy. Greg was right — I just loved Nicomo Cosca. He’s complex, witty, and unpredictable. Nice piece of work, Mr. Abercrombie! Several of the characters are so keenly characterized that they become over-the-top (e.g., Morveer the poisoner keeps asking the same annoying questions of his assistant who is constantly eating) but at least they’re vivid. Friendly, the sociopathic savant, is so creepy that I actually got nervous every time he appeared.
Best Served Cold has an exciting plot and it’s clever and funny — mostly in the droll, ironic, black humor sort of way. For example, Monza pulls Cosca out of alcoholism… so he can murder people. Some of the scenes in which Morveer was trying to poison somebody bordered on slapstick and provided some hilarity to balance the story’s grimness.
I enjoyed the plot, characters, and humor in Best Served Cold, and I recognize and admire Joe Abercrombie’s talent, creativity, and passion. But the truth is that his stories stress me out. It’s sort of like watching Schindler’s List. Brilliant movie, important message (and there is a message in Best Served Cold), but not something I want to watch before bedtime. There’s a lot of ugliness and vulgarity — much of which seems to be done for shock value (e.g., cannibalism and incest) — and there are more characters who are sociopaths than who are normal. If there’s a crude word for something, Abercrombie uses it. Characters are constantly pissing, spitting, growling, bleeding, feeling sticky, and sucking on their sour teeth. They don’t make love, they fuck (with grunts and squelchy noises). They have tits, asses, cocks, and pricks (as far as I can tell, Mr. Abercrombie doesn’t know the polite terms). Battle and torture scenes are the worst — they literally give me headaches.
All of this makes for interesting, original, dramatic fantasy, and I completely understand why it’s so appealing. After all, Joe Abercrombie at least makes me FEEL something. But what he makes me feel is rather depressed, hopeless, and just plain icky, and I can’t say that I really LIKE feeling that way.
A few years ago, I discovered a completely new — to me — subgenre of fantasy. It is bloody, full of battles with swords and maces, always placed in a medieval setting, and very nearly devoid of magic. Its practitioners are the likes of Richard K. Morgan and Matthew Stover — and Joe Abercrombie, in the dark, brutal and compelling Best Served Cold. I’m still not quite sure that I like this type of book; though it is certainly exciting, it is also troubling. Perhaps that is precisely the intent of the authors’ writing about a very visceral and immediate type of battle, one far removed from the surgical precision of computer-guided missiles floating through the door of a house to pinpoint the death of a terrorist.
Abercrombie names his book for the ancient saying by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” To me, though, two other sayings came more vividly to mind while reading this book: the Chinese proverb, “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself” and the saying attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” These latter two sayings are played out in full in the course of Best Served Cold.
The book begins when General Monzcarro Murcatto and her beloved brother Benna are riding in to report to the politician they serve, Grand Duke Orso, who is well on his way to becoming the King of Styria. Orso’s ambitions have advanced as far as they have because of the military genius of Monza, as she is known to those who love her — and such people do exist, despite her reputation as the Butcher of Caprile and the Serpent of Talins. But Orso proves to be less than grateful for her efforts, causing the swift dispatch of her brother with a knife to the neck and attempting to kill her by strangling her and throwing her down a mountain. Monza proves hard to kill, though, and despite having her right hand shattered by a man’s boot, a sword to the gut, and a bevy of broken bones from her fall down a mountain, she lives.
And what she lives for is revenge. She vows to kill each of the seven men who were in the room and participated in her attempted assassination. She gathers about her a powerful group of misfits, including a fighter from the North, Caul Shivers, who is in Styria trying to become a better man; a mass murderer freed from prison, known as Friendly and obsessed with counting things; a master poisoner, Morveer, and his assistant, Day. Others become attached to their company, willingly or not, as plans — and killings — proceed.
But this quest for vengeance is not such a quiet and personal thing as it seems. Slowly but surely, Monza’s task comes to involve ever wider circles, and ultimately armies. Soon revenge is a matter of statecraft. Allies become realigned, both in her immediate circle and in the larger world; armies of mercenaries change allegiances. Soon enough, the whole world has become blind, as Gandhi would have it.
Abercrombie has a tremendous ability to draw a character swiftly. In the first five pages, Monza and Benna are presented in such a way that they seem fully familiar, mostly through masterful use of dialogue. Abercrombie also knows how to plot a complex tale. On rereading the prologue after finishing the novel, I can see that the seeds of everything that is to come were planted there. And descriptions! Abercrombie can describe a whorehouse so that you can visualize it perfectly, and he can describe the most vicious torture so that you can imagine it much better than you would prefer.
Indeed, the battles and fights and double-dealings of the characters are described so well, with such attention to detail and plotting, that they become wearisome after a time. One more double-cross, ho hum. Yet one cannot help but feel that that is precisely the point Abercrombie is trying to make: that war, in all its horror, can become too commonplace to those fighting it, that one murder comes to seem much like another, and that ugliness can come to seem beauty when one is exposed to too much ugliness. I do not think I am going too far in saying that this is a surprisingly strong antiwar novel, if one chooses to look beyond the story itself and into the philosophy behind it. Abercrombie doesn’t want only to entertain you; he wants you to think. Most of all, he wants you to see revenge for the folly it is.
I am hoping to get to this book in 2010. I have read the first book, First Law, in the trilogy. I have the other two sitting here to be read as well. I really enjoyed it and look forward to the next two and this one as well. Thank you for the great review. I knew this book was a stand alone but wanted to read his trilogy first because it is the same world and wanted to get to know that world better first. I am really looking forward to this one as well.
Once you finish the trilogy be sure to stop by and let us know how you liked it. I’m always curious as to how various fantasy fans react to Abercrombie’s books. Hope the review was helpful.
I will have to make a point to stop back by after the trilogy. I am actually getting anxious to get into book 2. I have been reading it along with a friend so I am trying to wait for her. I don’t know if I can wait much longer.
The review was a great help. I am more glad now that I decided to read the trilogy before diving into Best Served Cold. This review helps make me feel better on the choice and now I really look forward to the book more. Thanks!
Very good Review, Kat. You’re dead-on and very good point about it stressing you out.
As much as I loved this book and Abercrombie’s other books, I do have to say, he does cross that line way too often –almost made me feel like I needed a shower when I read it. But I honestly don’t know if I want him to tone it down or not. Not sure if it would be Abercrombie without it..
But I do wonder what a book says about someone like me who enjoyed it so much… To quote, the movie Bad Santa “You [ I ] need many, many years of :censored: therapy”
Thanks, Greg! Yeah — like I need a shower.
The only thing that makes me smile when reading his books is the sincerely funny humor and irony. For me, it’s worth it for that, but even the humor is grim and dark and there’s nothing else there to make you feel good. I don’t need to feel good all the time, but a little redemption at the end would be a welcome relief. But Abercrombie never throws us a bone. I realize that other people may appreciate this though, since life doesn’t always throw us a bone.
Well, without giving away the ending, -!EXTREMELY VAGUE SPOILER ALERT TO FOLLOW!- there was a little something that I thought had the potential of redemption at the end.
But you are correct. Even in the First LAW Trilogy
!ANOTHER VAGUE SPOILER ALERT!- the immediate enemy is defeated only to discover an even darker truth.
Kat, as another fanlit Abercrombie fan, I thought your review captured the feeling perfectly….absolutely dead on. It took weeks of lighter material to wash out the Best Served Cold from my brain…lol…but I enjoyed it a great deal.
This sounds like a great piece of work by Abercrombie. I am looking forward to getting this book and digging in. I have books here I need to get through first and his trilogy to finish before I get to this one, but really do look forward to it. Thanks!
Melissa, buy a bottle of hand sanitizer, too. :-|
LOL :D Will do Kat. :)
Terry, very insightful review. I love Abercrombie but he is definitely not for everyone.
Thanks, Greg — that means a lot coming from you!
Terry, excellent review. You captured the essence of Abercrombie precisely. I look forward to your reaction to The Heroes.
Terry, I had the same reaction. I actually have a copy of The Heroes and haven’t had the guts to start it yet… guts… that’s kind of what I think of when I think of Joe Abercrombie’s stories.
Terry, Kat- The Heroes isn’t quite as rough as Best Served Cold. It’s dark but in a different way. I guess I would compare Best Served Cold to like a Quentin Tarrantino crime movie and The Heroes to maybe a Oliver Stone war movie.