Review: BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie

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Hahaaaa I love this book! There’s nothing more satisfying than a good revenge plot. Mix that with some top notch grimdark characters where no one is really in the right, add a smattering of Abercrombie’s trademark cynicism and some good old-fashioned violence and you’ve got yourself a story! As the more discerning among you have probably inferred already, BEST SERVED COLD is a tale of revenge. Monzcarro ‘Monza’ Murcatto is the Captain General of The Thousand Swords mercenary company, but when her victories cause her to become too popular in the eyes of her employer, Grand Duke Orso of Talins, he has her stabbed and thrown down a mountainside. Seems an effective way of ensuring someone doesn’t become a problem, right? Wrong. Unbeknownst to Orso, Monza survives the assassination attempt, and now she’s out for vengeance, against the duke and his six accomplices. It’s a simple premise, but one that Abercrombie puts a good spin on with his blend of larger than life characters and a murky world lacking in moral absolutes.

I’ll tell you this now, I’m probs gonna spend this entire review just waxing lyrical about all the characters in this book, cos they spring off the page (or out of the audiobook in my case) with a zest and vigour that had me variously grinning and wincing and wooping and hooting from beginning to end. We’ll start with Monza herself; the Snake of Talins; the Butcher of Caprile. Epithets she’s earned during her rather ruthless time spent as a mercenary, working her way up from lowly orphaned farmer’s daughter to leader of one of the most sought after mercenary companies in Styria. She’s the glue holding the story together, and there’s certainly no lack of interrogation of morality through the lens of her quest for revenge, but in many ways it’s the mismatched band of killers, convicts, torturers and various other miscreants she ropes into her crusade that make this story what it is, and if there’s anything else I like just as much as a revenge plot, it’s a ‘getting the gang together’ plot.

Of all the scoundrels and reprobates Monza gathers around her, Morveer is my favourite without a shadow of doubt. Castor Morveer, master poisoner. He and his gluttonous assistant Day are hired by Monza early on to assist with the murder of the banker Mauthis and I could tell immediately he was gonna be one of my faves. A man of science, a hypocrite and undoubtedly a sociopath, Morveer nevertheless sees himself as a sophisticated and ingenious gentleman assassin. He’s shown to be egotistical and inordinately impressed by his own deviousness, yet he’s often vocal about how he can’t abide arrogance in anyone else. His interactions with the rest of the crew are some of the best parts of the book; he’s self-aware about his complete lack of social skills and yet his attempts at humour and bonding with the crew still go down about as well as a poisoned bottle of grape spirit. Then there’s Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune, the charismatic self-professed scoundrel and turncoat, and previous Captain General of The Thousand Swords, who we find living as a wretched, penniless drunk in the gutters of Sipani. If you’ve read The First Law trilogy you may remember Cosca making a cameo appearance, but it’s here we get to see him truly shine, as the eccentric lovable rogue with never a shortage of fine witticisms to hand. Caul Shivers reappears as a POV character too, having left the North to try and become ‘a better man’ in Styria, following his part in the events of The First Law. And for all I do think that series is overrated by much of the fantasy community, I enjoyed recognising all the call backs and easter eggs Abercrombie throws our way; you can def read this as a standalone, but I think I definitely got more out of it having read that series and being able to recognise names and events that crop up from time to time. Shylo Vitari is also part of Monza’s crew, having left her life as a Practical behind and set up shop as a freelance information broker in Sipani. And finally we have Friendly, the somewhat ironically-named and numbers-obsessed ex-con who acts as the muscle and the cook. Each and every one of them is distinct and memorable, not just for their own idiosyncrasies, but for their easily-recognisable character voices and mannerisms. I reckon you could read any random line of dialogue out to me and I’d be able to tell you which character was speaking

What I like about Abercrombie’s brand of grimdark is that it isn’t all doom and gloom and violence and nihilism. For me one of the defining aspects of grimdark is challenging and sometimes satirising the tropes of traditional high and epic fantasy. Sure, part of that can be depicting worlds and characters that don’t conform to clearly demarcated notions of good and evil, but it can also be writing a duke whose kink is having his lovers piss on him. I can guarantee you’re never gonna read a scene where Aragorn gets off on Arwen soaking him in her elf piss – well, not unless you’re frequenting some darker corner of the internet anyway – nooo he’s far too noble for that, but in Abercrombie’s world we see the side of the great and the good that’s kept out of the sagas and chronicles, warts and piss and all. And it’s funny. I’m not sure I’d go as far to say Best Served Cold is a dark comedy, but it’s certainly darkly comedic and the whole thing is saturated with a witty cynicism that made me laugh out loud on many an occasion. It’s a writing style that was definitely present in The First Law trilogy, but either I was more invested in this story than I was in the previous series or Abercrombie improved as a writer in the interim, but either way I was able to appreciate it much more in this stand alone. I enjoyed Best Served Cold a lot and I’m really very excited to carry on reading the rest of the stand-alones in the First Law world 😀

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