You were a hero round these parts. That’s what they call you when you kill so many people the word murderer falls short.
I remember reading the entire original First Law trilogy more than 10 years ago and loving it but with the passage of time, I retained only the barest skeleton of the books’ plot in my head—yet, characters like Glokta, Logen, Bayaz, Ferro, Jezal, and the Dogman stayed fresh and fleshy in my mind. The reason why I remember them so well is because they are some of the most well-written characters ever put to the page. They are layered, complex, and compelling, while most authors struggle to write even one single character which is equally memorable, let alone an entire cast of them. I always say that characters, more than the story and plot, even more than the world-building, are the linchpins of truly great works of fantasy because if you can capture a reader’s sympathy and investment in them, you can write about these characters having a meal or going grocery shopping, and the reader would still lap every word up.
Now, more than a decade later, I pick up where I left off with Joe Abercrombie’s well-praised standalone follow-up to the trilogy, Best Served Cold. I cannot give any good reason for the delay but I can tell you why I am doing it now. I read Mr Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy last year which I really enjoyed, and having reacquainted myself with the author, I realised that he was starting a new trilogy set in the First Law world called The Age of Madness. Because I had forgotten most of what happened in this world Abercrombie built, I decided to re-read the original First Law trilogy by way of audiobooks, and made an exciting discovery of English actor Steven Pacey who narrates them. As a rule, I only use audiobooks for re-reads but Mr Pacey’s is just so damn good at bringing the story and the characters to life that I felt thoroughly compelled to listen to other Abercrombie books he narrated, even when I have not read the original text. I had thought about going through Best Served Cold on ink and paper first, and perhaps check out the audiobook later, but I found the thought of experiencing this books’ characters without Pacey’s many and varied voices was quite intolerable.
Let me say it on record that I think the best way to experience Joe Abercrombie’s writing is through Steven Pacey. I will accept no alternative.
If the title hasn’t given away its premise yet, Best Served Cold is a revenge fantasy. Monza Murcatto is the infamous leader of the mercenary company, The Thousand Swords, and she is employed by the ruthless Grand Duke Orso to aide in his ambition of crushing all the independent city states of Styria under his boot heel. In his service, she had won wide acclaim and wealth, but because her rising popularity threatened Orso’s own hold on power, she was cruelly betrayed. She was viciously beaten, stabbed, thrown down a mountain, and presumed dead—but chance had somehow kept her alive, leaving her permanently in pain and venomously bitter. With this second lease on life, she put together an Ocean’s Eleven team of killers to plan the murder of Orso and everyone who had a hand in trying to kill her. Seven assassins against seven unsuspecting targets—targets who are some of the most powerful (and most well-protected) people in the country.
Best Served Cold has all the hallmarks of a great Abercrombie book: it features some of the most colourful, best written characters comparable to any in the original trilogy, a crippled protagonist like Glokta or Yarvi, deep meditations on morality, and wit as sharp as sword points. Even if you have never read Abercrombie before, you can jump right into this one (though you should keep in mind that it does spoil some major events in the First Law trilogy, if you feel like backtracking later). Many fantastic side characters like Shivers and Cosca from the original trilogy are given the main spotlight in this book alongside some new ones that feel as familiar as the old. While the plot hinges on the series of elaborate, heist-like murders she planned for each name in her kill list, the story of Best Served Cold centres around the idea of taking revenge itself as a concept. While Abercrombie is a deft hand at writing action, what he really excels at are the slower, more thoughtful moments, when two characters just talk to one another about their personal philosophies or shared history, or when characters question their own actions and principles. And as usual, since this is grimdark after all, there is plenty of maiming and torture—but Mr Abercrombie does not simply engage in wanton violence for the heck of it. Every single bad thing that happens feeds into character development and recalibrates characters’ relationships to one another and to the world around them. In many ways, I think of Abercrombie as the Quentin Tarantino of fantasy literature: larger-than-life characters, great dialogues, surprisingly insightful moments of introspection, and lots of blood.
Caul Shivers seemed to have inherited Logen’s dilemma of trying to be a good person in a world that punishes the good. He serves as a counterpoint to Monza, who is so single-mindedly consumed with making her enemies pay that she doesn’t even pause to consider if she should. The inclusion of “famed soldier of fortune” Nicomo Cosca in the story is a welcome one, and not just because he is an entertaining and charismatic slime-ball, but because of his complicated past relationship with Monza that added a lot of pathos to her journey. I also very much enjoy Castor Morveer’s role as the master poisoner in the crew of seven, and if there is anyone who is a bigger poster child for Cluster B personality disorders (specifically sociopathy and narcissism) than he is, I don’t know them. Morveer’s assistant Day is also a delight, and I wonder if she was inspired by Brad Pitt’s character in the Ocean’s Eleven series of films because like Pitt, she is perpetually snacking on something.
Then there is also the ex-convict, Friendly, who has an endearing Rain Man-esque knack for numbers, and he reminds me very much of Murata Sayaka’s Keiko from Convenience Store Woman. Like Keiko who chooses to stay in a dead end job for years in a konbini because it provides her with structure and gives her instructions in how to interact with others, Friendly too feels overwhelmed by society with its constantly shifting rules and circumstances, and yearns for the simplicity of incarceration where every person has their place, and every activity like sleeping and eating has their time. Shylo Vitari is in this book too, I guess, but she wasn’t given much to do beyond landing some solid zingers on Cosca.
The ongoing centuries old conflict between the shadowy banking house of Valint & Balk and the prophet Khalul spilled from The First Law trilogy into Best Served Cold as well but that occurs mostly in the background. There are plenty of fun references from the preceding books, but not so much that those who have not read them would feel left out. I was glad that the focus of the story was moved from the Union (analogous to the the UK) in the preceding books to Styria (fantasy Italy) since the new setting gave me a chance to visit a hitherto unexplored corner of this world.
More than the grittiness and misery porn that have come to advertise the grimdark genre, what I appreciate most from Best Served Cold (and First Law) is the moral relativism, which is pithily summarised in this quote from the book,
That was the difference between a hero and a villain, a soldier and a murderer, a victory and a crime. Which side of a river you called home.
It asks a lot of questions on what is the right thing to do, or if it is even possible to tell right from wrong. Every step that Monza and co takes on her revenge tour asks these questions anew, challenging them with new revelations about their situation or their targets, and shaking their certainties on who deserves what. Best Served Cold is not a novel that adds anything new to the discourse, but whatever it says, it says it well—and it did it all while serving up a stone cold feast of vengeance, betrayal, action, and humour. I would happily watch a miniseries adaptation of this book, with Steven Pacey playing every character like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. I will accept no alternative.