Having thoroughly enjoyed The First Law trilogy, I was eager to discover where Joe Abercrombie would take us next. A stand-alone novel set in the same universe and focusing on revenge seemed to be just what fans were clamoring for. And believe me, Best Served Cold is all fans want it to be. And then some!
Abercrombie raised the bar high when he brought The First Law to a close in Last Argument of Kings. With three quality yarns under his belt, I felt that the author really needed to push the envelope in Best Served Cold. And he certainly did! Abercrombie's latest is his most ambitious work to date. Moreover, if it's any indication of what he is capable of, it bodes well for the future indeed. His accessible style could make him one of the biggest names in the genre in the years to come.
Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins and the Butcher of Caprile, is the most feared and efficient mercenary general in Grand Duke Orso's army. Her many victories have made her famous in Talins and infamous in the rest of Styria and beyond. So much so that her employer fears that her sight might be set on his own throne. Betrayed by her closest allies, Murcatto is stabbed to death and thrown down a mountain for good measure. Somehow, she barely survives and lives another day, her desire for vengeance the only thing allowing her to cling to life as her body slowly heals, leaving her hobbled and scarred for the rest of her days. With revenge the only thing left for her to live for, Monza Murcatto will give new meaning to the adage «Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.» Seven men were there when she was betrayed and thrown off that terrace. Seven men she counted among her friends and allies. Seven men who must now pay the price and die by her hand.
Best Served Cold is an excellent tale of murder and vengeance. It's a morally ambiguous work with many shades of gray. The good guys become the bad guys, and vice versa, and back again. There are more twists and turns than in The First Law, and I get the feeling that Joe Abercrombie truly came into his own while writing this one. Best Served Cold is filled to the brim with all the elements that made The First Law such an enjoyable reading experience, yet it is definitely the work of a more mature author.
Abercrombie's black humor is present throughout, and to a certain extent it helps create a balance with the more violent and gruesome scenes. As was the case with Charlie Huston's latest book, I felt that Abercrombie's witty and humorous style and tone allow him to get away with sequences of graphic violence other fantasy authors such as Terry Goodkind were denounced for. Still, although Best Served Cold is dark, brutal, and gritty, every chapter contains several moments that will make you chuckle out loud in spite of everything. For instance, the entire Sipani sequence is a classic.
Joe Abercrombie upped his game in the worldbuilding department as well. Styria's Mediterranean setting is well-done, and each city/region comes alive through the imagery of the narrative.
Characterization remains the author's bread and butter, and Abercrombie doesn't disappoint. Monza Murcatto could well be his most fully realized character to date. And yet, it's the interesting cast of secondary characters which make Best Served Cold so memorable. Many characters from The First Law show up, so I will refrain from elaborating on this aspect to avoid any spoilers. But you know you're in for a wild ride when Murcatto's allies include Styria's least reliable drunkard, its most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers, and a barbarian trying to become a better man.
The pace is crisp throughout, though things slow down a bit in the last portion of the novel. I loved the way Abercrombie closed the show, and how many storylines are tied with the quite a few plotlines from the original trilogy. Best Served Cold features a body count that would make George R. R. Martin clap Abercrombie in the back in approval. My advice: Don't get too attached to anyone. . .
If you are one of those poor drifting souls who have yet to give Joe Abercrombie a shot, Best Served Cold is your opportunity to get acquainted with the author's style. For fans of Abercrombie, it will scratch that itch and more.
Hard to put down.
The final verdict: 8.5/10