Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Too much of a good thing can be absolutely wonderful, but it can also get incredibly wearing.

I had this pegged as an easy review because I love Joe Abercrombie’s writing a great deal; his characters are tremendously well-crafted, his plots and story arcs are fascinatingly done and he has a wonderful way with words that allows for humour both subtle and unsubtle to share the page with some incredibly violent and brutal scenes.  His First Law trilogy was an immense read and I absolutely loved it; Best Served Cold, a tale of revenge set in the same world, tells the story of Monza Murcatto and her band of not-so-merry men (and a couple of women).

Amazon summarizes it better than I can:

Mercenaries are a wonderful thing: they fight as you tell them, whom you tell them, and when you tell them, for nothing more precious or complicated than money. And Monzcarro Mercatto, and her brother Benna Mercatto, are the two most successful, most popular, and most wealthy mercenaries in Styria. . . . but wealthy, popular mercenaries are not such a good thing. In fact they’re a downright dangerous thing. Which is why Grand Duke Orso of Styria arranges to have them dealt with. Permanently. With hindsight, he may come to consider this a tactical error. Through sheer good luck – which her brother doesn’t share – Monzcarro survives the long and fatal drop Orso arranged for her, and staggers away from her encounter with a ruined right hand, [a husk] addiction . . . and a plan to come back with a fortune, plently of bladed weapons, and a single-minded determination to kill the seven men in the room when her brother was murdered. Preferably in as gruesome a manner as she can . . .

Best Served Cold I loved for three-quarters of its length and then, suddenly, when I realised there was more bloodshed and brutality and smashing people’s faces in, I felt… tired.  There’s too much of it.  It’s well-written, each and every scene, but it definitely crossed the line to the “excessive” stage.

I liked the characters, although I’m aware I probably wasn’t supposed to.  Monza, Shivers, Morveer, Day, Friendly – and especially the returning Costa, who is absolutely wonderful.  They’re all seriously flawed people.  Monza is a difficult character to understand for most of the book but she gradually grows more human, whereas Shivers, another recurring character from the First Law books, does the opposite.  Shiver’s character was both the best and the worst aspect of the book.  He was the one person the reader could identify with the most, which makes his arc all the more brutal.  The whole plot is about cynicism and optimism and good vs. bad; as we see one character rebuild and strengthen, we see another torn down.

What really makes Best Served Cold worth reading – despite how uncomfortable and, at times, unrelenting it can be – is that all the characters feel the effects of their course of action.  They all kill, murder, betray, lie, and it all has an impact.  All too often characters can get away with hacking through hundreds of bodies in a book and it doesn’t prey on their minds one bit, but here, mixed with the hefty amount of revenge being doled out, there are ramifications for it all.

This isn’t the best Abercrombie can do.  It’s not a terrible book and it’s not a tremendous book; it’s diverting, it’s bloodthirsty, it’s a great examination of some moral issues linked in with small-scale and large-scale slaughter that a lot of fantasy overlooks.  If I hadn’t read the First Law trilogy I’d have loved it more, and although I knew I was getting into a gruesome, chaotic tale of revenge and betrayal and bloody warfare, at times it just got too much.

For all this wasn’t a book for me, I’m very excited about Abercombie’s next book, The Heroes – an excerpt of which can be found at the Gollancz blog.

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