I’ve continued my dive back into epic fantasy be reading Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. When I was browsing the shelves at the library, I was looking for something gritty, dark, without any of the cliches or tropes of the fantasy genre. I found what I was looking for in this book. As you’d imagine, Best Served Cold is a revenge tale. By the end, it seems like all the major characters are seeking revenge against all the others.
We begin the book by meeting Monza Murcatto, a mercenary and great general. She’s on top of the world and because I have the benefit of foreshadowing and the book jacket blurb, I wanted to warn her. In a scene reminiscent of Kill Bill, her employer tries to kill her. He succeeds in killing her brother and throwing Monza down a mountain. She is cared for by a very creep amateur doctor and, as soon as she gets back on her feet, she immediately starts to plan her revenge on the seven men who tried to kill her. At this point, I was expecting something like a grimmer criminal plan where the protagonist rounds up specialists and puts together an elaborate plan. Only the first part happens, but Monza never really develops a grand plan. A whole lot of people die. Plans are thrown together and almost immediately go to hell. Monza and her employees get very battered and even caught up in a couple of major battles along the way. But then, isn’t there an old proverb about how the path to revenge is never a straight line? Or maybe that’s a line from Kill Bill.
While revenge consumes many of the characters, they still develop and change throughout the narrative. While they are people you’d never actually want to meet–because they are bastards to man (and woman)–they do seem like real people. Throughout the narrative, Abercrombie includes some very restrained flashbacks at the beginning of each section to show you want Monza’s life before her employer tried to kill her. You get to see how she got her nickname as a butcher. As these short, tight flashbacks unfold, you learn the real story and my opinion of Monza and her brother changed. These revelations were really well done. Until I got this part of the story, Best Served Cold was just a bloody revenge story, albeit very well written. The action scenes are some of the best I’ve ever read. It’s cinematic, like John Woo in print. And I have to say something about the humor that punctuates the book. Even though it’s very violent, it’s also got some hysterically funny moments:
“And what do you think is God’s plan is, General Cosca?” “I have long suspected that it might be to annoy me.” (p. 469*)
And this one, when Cosca addresses his troops before a battle:
“Brave heroes of the Thousands Swords!…Well, let us say brave men of the Thousand Swords, at least. Let us say men, anyway…My boys, you all know my stamp! Some of you have fought beside me…or at any rate in front…May Mistress Luck be always at your side and mine! She is drawn, after all, tho those who least deserve her! May darkness find us victorious! Uninjured! And above all–rich!” (449-450).
By the end of the book, the revenge narrative turns into something else entirely. In retrospective, I can see the political part of the story developing, but the end of the book is very different from its beginning. I hate to give too much away, but I will say that there is a lot of irony in the ending. There are still some mysteries that I kind of wish Abercrombie had addressed, but I admire the skillful way that he wrapped up all the major plot thread. One of the biggest cliches of the genre is that every story is told in at least a trilogy and sometimes more than three books. But, remarkably, Best Served Cold is a satisfying stand alone novel.
This book is set in the same world as Joe Abercrombie’s trilogy, The First Law. I can clearly see some elements of our history in Abercrombie’s world: an empire based on Rome, Northern barbarians, an Ottoman-like empire. Monza’s country resembles nothing so much as Renaissance Italy, with warring city states and roving mercenaries and a superfluity of poisoners and assassins running around. It’s one of the most dangerous and interesting settings I’ve encountered. Abercrombie does a great job of subtlety writing in the long, long history of this world without letting the action bog down. You really get the sense that this world will keep rolling along after the last page.
* All quotes are from the 2009 Orbit hardcover edition.