Joe Abercrombie’s detractors say his books are violent, cynical and often bereft of clear heroism. Funny thing, that. His fans say the same thing. I guess it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Want blood and guts and rage? Give Abercrombie a try. Hankering for a return to Xanth? Look elsewhere, my friend. Best Served Cold (Orbit) is, as you can tell from the title, a book about revenge. It makes George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire look like Sweet Valley High.
A few months ago I wrote about The First Law trilogy. You can read it here (be warned, there are a lot of spoilers and bad words). Then read Abercrombie’s highly entertaining rebuttal here (for that matter, read his whole website. Very funny guy).
Honestly, I’m glad his response was so pointed. I can’t respect “Gosh, let’s agree to disagree” as much as I can a good, heart-felt, “Well, fuck you, then!” But I digress.
The story takes place a little while after the events of The First Law. While some of the protagonists (if that isn’t too sunny a word) are common to both stories, it’s primarily a separate plot from the other books and focuses on fewer point of view characters. Also, magic, which plays such a significant part in The First Law, is notably absent for much of the story, placing the emphasis primarily on gory, painful revenge and various things that go squelch. Because of the narrower scope, the pace is quicker than before, which means it’s gone from the reader feeling like they got jumped in an alley to feeling like they got shivved fifteen times on the way to the prison cafeteria. In an entertaining way.
Monzcarro Murcatto and her brother Benna are leaders of a mercenary army. Betrayed by their employer, Grand Duke Orso, Benna is murdered and Monza barely survives stabbing, mutilating, garroting and a brutal fall. I’ve never before read an author so willing to chuck his characters from high places. He just defenestrates the shit out of people. I admire that; no author should be too sweet on their characters, after all, or you end up with, say, an Anne Rice book.
Monza is nursed, sort of, back to health, sort of, by a mysterious hermit. Allow me to make up a word and say instead she was Frankensteined back to working order. That’s closer to it. After that, she begins a very thorough course of vengeance against all who had betrayed, stabbed, mutilated, garroted and hurled her. The planning and execution of revenge is the majority of the plot. If that had been all there was to the book, it would have been a pretty flat read. But what we get is a thrilling, funny, vicious and exhilarating story, because above all, he writes great characters. That is, as always, the strongest part of his storytelling. I truly marvel at his skill in generating concern for the wellbeing and success of people who are more or less degenerate bastards.
Monza collects a fascinating crew: a self-congratulatory poisoner and his assistant, a numerically obsessed ex-con who fights with a cleaver, a former torturer and two other notable fellows. First, a massive Northman named Caul Shivers, who played a small but important part in The First Law, and mercenary genius turned drunken has-been and figurative cockroach, Nicomo Cosca.
They make an interesting trio, Cosca, Shivers and Monza. Cosca had been betrayed years before by Monza when she was an officer in his company. Monza had been betrayed by her officers. Shivers once sought revenge for the death of his brother, but tried to put that behind him. He’s hired by Monza, avenging her brother’s death. Everyone’s been screwed over by someone. Do you seek revenge, peace, or the bottle? Does it matter what you choose?
The hardly-love-not-quite-hate relationship that develops between Shivers and Monza is so strongly reminiscent of Logen Ninefingers and Ferro that I wonder if Abercrombie didn’t originally conceive this story for them, but opt in the end for a couple less well known characters to fling off of high things. Whatever the case, I’m glad he went with Shivers. He is, in some ways, a more engaging character than Monza. He sincerely tries to maintain hope and compassion; Monza thinks compassion makes you soft. She says, repeatedly, that mercy is weakness. That’s one of the main themes of the book, or at least, of her story. Shivers’ struggle against rage and violence comes from his understanding that the opposite side of the equation—cruelty is strength—doesn’t hold true.
Given that, in the author’s view, I completely and utterly misunderstood the ending of The First Law, I’m almost hesitant to make any statements about the ending of Best Served Cold. I mean, if I get it wrong, I might find my coffee poisoned. Or he might just very well fly out to Los Angeles kick me in the fruits. I’ll take that risk, though, because I am large and frightening. And besides, I thought the ending was solid and satisfying, and holds promise of much more to come.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.