Best Served Cold – by Joe Abercrombie

Ok, I know I said I was done with Joe Abercrombie, however I don’t really enjoy leaving things unfinished; the existence of additional books in the First Law universe was there, nagging at the back of my mind, so I decided I could as well go ahead and read them.

Title: Best Served Cold

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Original Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date: 18 June 2009

Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark

Pages: 534

Standalone or Series: Standalone (set in the world of the First Law)

Synopsis: Monzcarro “Monza” Murcatto, notorious leader of The Thousand Swords mercenary company, has brought victory after victory to her employer Grand Duke Orso of Talins. Having grown to fear her popularity, however, Orso has her and her beloved brother Benna thrown down a mountain. Despite all odds, Monza survives and, as soon as she’s somehow back on her feet, starts plotting her revenge against her former employer and his accomplices. Since she can’t do it all alone, she enlists a ragtag team of people either psychopathic or desperate enough to work for her.

Analysis: Best Served Cold, not unlike other Abercrombie’s books, is written in third person subjective, following the perspective of with multiple characters all united by their common unpleasantness; the prose indulges in the description of all sorts of upalatable details, as well as making use of gory metaphors and imagery at any given chance – for instance, it’s hard not to notice how any vaguely reddish thing ends up being compared to blood and open wounds.

The themes and the tone, too, are exactly those I’ve come to expect from the author: we follow our nefarious team in their quest to kill all their targets, murdering a large number of additional people for good measure, occasionally backstabbing each other and prodigiously managing to prove themselves even more atrocious that they might have appeared at first.

In comparison to his previous novels, however, Best Served Cold is more focused in its scope. The First Law trilogy suffered from having stakes that were both high and irrelevant: it dealt with massive wars and the destiny of nations, but in the end it was impossible to care for any of its conflicts because no outcome seemed even remotely appealing. Here, on the other hand, we follow a more personal story, that is to say the private vendetta of an individual; a rather despicable one, sure, but still one we get to know in depth, perhaps enough to even care a bit about the outcome of her plan.

The novel also seems to embrace its grotesque nature in its fullest, with cartoonish overkills, over-the-top expositions of psychopathy, offputting descriptions of stinky and slobbery sex, plans that end up being fulfilled not though careful scheming, but though messy piles of accidents and betrayals.

This is not to say that characters are just charicatures – on the contrary, Abercrombie does have a talent for digging deep into horrible minds, and while some of our protagonists are admittedly a bit onesided, in other cases we even get to see some nuance in the pitch-black darkness of their souls – I am especially thinking to Monza’s apparent need to remark her cynicism, to fight back what bit of conscience is still giving her troubles, and Shiver’s very misplaced hopes to somehow better himself.

Conclusions & Recommendations: While my overall judgment about the First Law world still stands, I ended up finding this book more entertaining that others, both because of its more limited scope and because of its unapologetically over-the-top edginess, that doesn’t demand to be taken seriously. Worth reading if you like grimdark fantasy with competently written horrible protagonists.

Content Warning: Torture – Violence – Gore – Explicit Sex – Incest – Alcoholism – Cannibalism – Mysogyny – Toxic Relationship – Death – Mutilation

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