Review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
“You were a hero round these parts. That’s what they call you when you kill so many people the word murderer falls short.”
Considering the title of the book, it is not surprising that Abercrombie’s first stand-alone is a story about revenge. Monzcarro Murcatto is the notorious leader of the mercenary band, The Thousand Swords (whose actual numbers long ago surpassed a thousand). Along with her brother Benna, she has brought victory after victory to Orso, Grand Duke of Talins, and become fairly wealthy and popular as a result. Perhaps too popular. At least that is what Orso fears. Unfortunately for Monza, he has her thrown down a mountain. Unfortunately for Orso, she survives. And now the Snake of Talins wants vengeance.
But she can’t do it alone, so she enlists the help of some morally ambiguous characters to aid her in her quest. This includes a self-important blowhard of a poisoner and his apprentice, a number-obsessed (and, I suspect, autistic) convict, a Northman looking to make a fresh start, a former torturer’s assistant, and last, but by no stretch the least, an infamous soldier of fortune.
Best Served Cold is, technically, a stand-alone that is set in the same world as the trilogy The First Law. However, I would definitely say that having read the trilogy, while not a prerequisite, certainly brings increased enjoyment to the proceedings. There are some characters that play a major role in the book who readers of The First Law will recognize, and others from the trilogy who appear only briefly, but will have fans smiling at the cameos and mentions. The book is not as easily accessible as the trilogy, but represents a more mature take on the world from Abercrombie. His characters seem a bit more fleshed out, and the writing is superb.
The book is even more violent than the trilogy, but Abercrombie has a knack for writing fight scenes and it never seems out of character for the tone of the series. The action always feels fluid, fast, logical and sensible. You practically see the fights, rather than read them.
There are some flaws, of course. Caul Shivers — one of our primary protagonists, and the man who spent his time in the trilogy contemplating killing our favorite nine-fingered barbarian — seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Logen. A tested warrior who leaves his home looking to make a better (and hopefully less violent) life. As he soon founds out, Styria is not nearly the land of opportunity that he was told. Or rather, it’s home to a wholly different sort of opportunity.
Another flaw — if it is one — is that I never quite felt connected to Monza. Her quest for vengeance seems to consume her entirely, and we rarely get to see anything more than glimpses of he personality. Maybe it was deliberate; maybe Abercrombie wrote a character that is so deeply flawed that she is meant to be unlikable. Yet, of all the Abercrombie novels I’ve read (and I’ve read all of them) Monza is the one protagonist who I felt the least empathy for. I can’t really say I ever found myself caring whether she succeeded or not.
On the plus side, the other protagonists are excellent. Morveer, the egotistical poisoner; Cosca, the definition of a lovable scoundrel; and Friendly, the strong and silent (and psychopathic) type. All make for very interesting POVs, and do a great deal to give the book an overall feel very different from the trilogy.
Overall, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s really quite good. Not Abercrombie’s best, perhaps, but I’m in the camp that believes that Abercrombie at ‘less than his best’ is still better than almost anyone; and as usual with Abercrombie books, the cover (at least the British cover pictured here) is awesome, specially in person. All in all, a solid 4/5.