(2009-06-01) Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Published by Gollancz, June 2009 (ARC copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
According to the old saying (attributed to sources as varied as Shakespeare, the Godfather, Dorothy Parker, Kill Bill Volume 1 and the Klingons), ‘revenge is a dish best served cold.’
And here the idea of revenge is very important. In fact, in Joe’s latest book, his fourth novel, it is perhaps right to say that the idea of vengeance and righting wrongs is rampant. In a plot reminiscent of the famous Ealing Comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) (where the titled quote actually appears as "revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold") Joe’s latest heroine is one who has taken on not just one revenge-killing, but seven.
The basic theme then is not particularly new: Shakespeare had Macbeth. In historical novels the Count of Monte Cristo was similar, so too in SF, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. However, it’s what is done with the idea that is the thing and here Joe manages to pull off the trick of writing an exciting and engaging novel that kept my attention from the start.
In typical Joe fashion, the heroine is not a typical hero-figure. More Ash than Scarlett O‘Hara, at first Monzcarro/Monza Murcatto comes across as an arrogant bitch, someone you wouldn’t trust, nor would you cross. She is, in fact, The Snake of Talins and The Butcher of Caprile, who along with her brother Benna, are the two most successful mercenary generals in Styria. Their actions, admittedly well paid, have established Duke Orzo as a man of influence and power, but also an intensely jealous one. Realising their increasing fame, in a jealous fit and without warning, he kills Benna and critically injures Monza, throwing her body down a mountainside.
However Monza survives and, though badly injured, dedicates her life to gaining revenge on the men who did her and her brother wrong.
To assist Monza there is an impressive list of memorable allies, collected together in Magnificent Seven style as the novel progresses. Caul Shivers is a Northman who wants to see things done right. Morveer and his ever-eating female assistant Day are two of the best poisoners for hire; Nicomo Cosca (who you may have met before) is an impressive swordsman-for-hire, now an equally impressive drunk; Friendly is a mass-murderer whose obsession with numbers borders on the autistic. Together they make an impressive team, if a little unusual.
As the body-count rises, Count Orso dispatches Styria’s greatest assassin to deal with ‘the problem’. And that’s where things become interesting….
The great news is for those who thought Joe couldn’t top his First Law trilogy, this one is up there. It is The First Law re-imagined, but with a strong female crippled protagonist (rather than a male) and a more impressively ambiguous set of supporting characters. Though the style and themes are similar, this is to my mind a stronger novel, as it should be from an author developing his craft. For many readers it will be enough that the gritty cynicism, violence and humour that has quickly become Joe’s trademark is still prevalent.
This is also made engaging by the plot: those familiar with Kind Hearts and Coronets or even Kill Bill will know what to expect. Throw in some Italian Job type heists and a sprinkling of impressive set brawls and the reader will find the fast-moving plot a treat.
Those who know of The First Law will find another dimension to the book through the familiarity of characters and places mentioned in Joe’s other novels. Caul Shivers, for example, has known The Bloody Nine and indeed fought with and against many of TBN’s troupe in The First Law, and Nicomo Cosco has been met before. There are others met or mentioned in passing who readers may recognize. It can be fun to note these links, though writers can sometimes become too carried away with such links, so that time is spent hunting the links rather than following the plot. Here it is nice, though not obtrusive. Similarly for many readers, not having read the earlier books may be a worry, though I didn’t think it was a particular problem.
On the negative side, there are aspects that some will find irritating. Those who disliked previous novels and found them dark, depressing and unremittingly bleak may find more to be annoyed about here. Be warned: the violence in this one is even more visceral than in previous books, and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Some of the torture and murder scenes were quite extreme, even for my own broad sensibilities.
Similarly, though we do have Joe’s gallows humour as a counterpoint, there were initially times when seemingly all aspects of the traditional positive values – honour, heroism, pride, honesty – are quashed here, not just once, but repeatedly. From the start, Monza’s sidekick, Caul Shivers, finds himself involved in mass murder, not because he particularly likes it, but because he is beaten down by the harshness of life. Monza’s first murder as a young girl occurs because when left to fend for her brother and herself (due to the death of her parents), her first profitable crop is burnt down by thieves. Over the course of this lengthy book, Joe’s humour asserts itself into its usual bleak demeanor in the characters.
In fact, Monza herself is a difficult character to like. Even though she is clearly wronged from the outset, I found it at first difficult to sympathize with her, despite understanding her motives and, as the book develops, her troubled personal history in the harsh world of Styria. Morally complex, foul-mouthed and bad tempered, though I understood her motives I rarely liked her as a character until towards the end. But in true ‘anti-hero mode’, perhaps that’s to be expected.
Morveer is this book’s Glokta, but still an interesting one. Crafty, intelligent and with those wicked one-liners that Joe now has a reputation for, his character is a pleasure to read here.
However the strongest part of this stand-alone novel is the plot. Fast moving, rarely repetitive, once the book is up and running it is a great tour de force, as the reader goes from one caper to the next, knowing that eventually Monza will have to face her nemesis.
In summary, this is another Fantasy novel that is very highly recommended. The tale is a long one but thoroughly engaging and one which really challenges the reader to predict events (usually wrongly.)
Of the great books in the genre this year, of which there are a few, Best Served Cold matches the best, without a doubt. For all its gruesomeness, its bleakness and its moral cynicism it is a rich, memorable tale, exciting and well structured. This will be a ‘best of the year’ novel for many in the genre. It is still a pleasure to see this author’s talent develop. Bravo, Joe.
Mark Yon, May 2009
Extract here: http://www.joeabercrombie.com/extract_best_served_cold.htm
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