Published by Orbit
Reviewed by Mark Yon/Hobbit; http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/542.html
Joe Abercrombie jumps from the trilogy to stand-alone-novel in Best Served Cold, a big tale of passion, conflict, and most importantly, revenge. The protagonist of the story, Monza Murcatto, is a strong-willed general/mercenary who is an infamous legend in Styria as the greatest general in Duke Orso’s army of the Thousand Swords. Her brother, Benna, is her partner and only family at the beginning of the novel. Although the novel is placed in the same world as Abercrombie’s earlier First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold takes place in a different part of the world and is very much a stand alone novel.
Very early, as in the first chapter, Monza and Benna are ousted from their place in the employ of Duke Orzo in a rather violent fashion, to say the least. Benna is killed and Monza pushed to the edge of death, saved only because she landed on Benna’s body rather than the hard ground. It seems the mighty Duke is a jealous man and fears that Monza will try to usurp his place of power.
The plot is effective in its simple linear thread of revenge, but what Abercrombie does from beginning to end helps to make the novel, characters and story stand out more than just the story of an angry bitch seeking retribution.
Along the way, Monza recruits the typical motley crew of people to assist her – Caul Shivers, the Barbarian from the North looking to change his violent ways; the poisoner Morveer whose outward sense of civility offsets his aims of killing; the somewhat crazed Friendly; and a perhaps familiar swordsman Nicomo Cosca who does more dueling with wine bottles than with swords.
The “chick-in-chain mail” has become something of a laughable cliché in fantasy fiction of late, with brazen women flashing big swords along side the big boys. Some writers pull it off, and people need look no further than many of what is considered Urban Fantasy by today’s standards to see the iconic image of a tightly clad woman with sword in hand facing down an unseen enemy. Granted, the US edition of Best Served Cold does depict Monza in armor, Abercrombie breaks the walls of cliché and presents a fully-rounded and powerful female lead. She isn’t shy about violence, sex, or pain as long as she keeps her goal of revenge in her sights. While I can’t compare Monza to many of those scantily clad leather-wearing swordswomen, Monza comes across as an unapologetic, powerful woman unwavering in who she is.
While Monza is the prime focus of the novel, it would be fair to say that Shivers is somewhere between protagonist and supporting character. He also might be familiar to Joe’s readers. Readers/fans/critics have said that Robin Hobb likes to torture her characters, which is true. I’d hate for those people to weigh in on what Joe does to Shivers in Best Served Cold. Even more so than Logen Ninefingers in The Blade Itself, Shivers fails to escape the life and circle of violence in which he finds himself drawn. The loyalty he gives to Monza early in the novel and the pain he bears through to the end novel is filled with pathos. In a sense there was elegance in how Joe depicted Shivers’s tragic character arc.
In the end I enjoyed Best Served Cold … but, and I hate to admit this, I was a bit let down. Perhaps my expectations were too high or unrealistic since I loved The First Law so much and liked how it ended. For me, the pacing really seemed uneven in Best Served Cold. I felt Joe took a lot longer to get to where he wanted with points in the story compared to his other books. It was a big book that might have been improved with some tightening.
To reiterate, Best Served Cold is placed in the same world as The First Law, but is completely stand alone. It could be read without having read those three books and the reader would not miss a beat. Anything referenced to those books is only in passing and ultimately, doesn’t affect the plot of this particular novel. That said, Abercrombie throws enough “Easter Eggs” into the novel to give his growing legion of fans enough satisfaction for having been along for the ride since The Blade Itself first hit bookshelves.
I thought the conclusion was great and really like how the characters were handled, so in that respect I saw the continual growth of Joe as a writer. Considering how good he was at providing believable and empathetic characters before, to see an improvement is even more impressive. What makes this doubly impressive is that these characters are not exactly knights-in-shining-armor; they are murders, killers and worse. When he focuses on each character, Abercrombe does an incredible job of conveying that character’s belief in what they are doing as Right. Even as I wrote the review a week after finishing the novel, I realized how much of it stuck with me. Despite my issues with the pacing, I can say Best Served Cold is a powerful novel, filled with raw emotion that will add to Joe Abercrombie’s already stellar reputation as a “hot new writer” of fantasy.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford