If you’ve read Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, there are some characters in his next novel, Best Served Cold, you’ll recognize, and the names of some of the countries and cities they visit will be familiar to you. If you aren’t familiar with his work, though, this is still an excellent jumping-on point, a sprawling tour of one of the most anti-heroic worlds in modern fantasy.
While The First Law was propelled by an assortment of interlocking power schemes, Best Served Cold is at heart a straightforward revenge story.
Abercrombie makes no secret about drawing the basic inspiration for the novel’s plot structure from the classic Lee Marvin film Point Blank, although you could also look to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill as a template. Here’s the basics: Monza Murcatto, an eminently successful mercenary commander, is summoned to the palace of her patron, the Grand Duke Orso, where, after witnessing the death of her second-in-command (who also happens to be her brother) she’s garroted, stabbed, and then thrown off the balcony to fall down the side of a mountain. Somehow, she survives all that, and dedicates herself to killing the seven men who took part in the attempted double murder.
Abercrombie’s action-movie pacing is at its finest here, as he sets up a chain of assassinations that raises the bar each and every time. How do you top the murder of a prominent banker in the center of his heavily guarded offices? Go for one of the duke’s sons in a bordello during the middle of a private orgy, then sneak into a besieged city so you can take a crack at the general of the invading army, and then...
Of course, most readers probably have some idea whether or not Monza’s going to fulfill her goals or not, so the story needs something more to keep us in full suspense, and this is where Abercrombie deploys his supporting cast to maximum effect. We come for the revenge, but we stay for the moral transformation of Caul Shivers, a Northman Monza hires as the first of several henchmen, or the reawakening of Nicola Cosca, the ex-soldier of fortune she betrayed to take the job leading the Grand Duke’s troops. We may see some of the double crosses coming, but even the most attentive reader will be surprised by the twists Abercrombie introduces in the second half of the story.
Some critics have accused Abercrombie of “bankrupt nihilism,” and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why: Best Served Cold doesn’t just underscore the anti-heroism of Monza’s quest for vengeance, it makes a point of rubbing our faces in the collateral damage of its pointlessness. Apart from a few fleeting glimpses of children, the closest the novel’s characters come to innocence are a spineless noble and a possibly autistic hired thug. In Abercrombie’s world, people don’t just become jaded to violence, they learn to punctuate it with dark irony.
Here’s the thing, though: Abercrombie doesn’t ask readers to revel in this bloodshed. Yes, there’s a visceral thrill when Monza checks another name off her list—the first few times, anyway—but Abercrombie always reminds us each of those successes comes at a great cost to Monza and to those around her. “You make yourself too hard,” she tells herself after one killing, “you make yourself brittle too. Crack once, crack all to pieces.”
There’s a Joseph Brodsky line Abercrombie quotes in The Blade Itself: “Life—the way it really is—is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.” With a few exceptions for “trying to be good,” that statement holds true for just about all of Abercrombie’s fiction, and it’s especially true of Best Served Cold.