Fiction Reviews

Best Served Cold

(2009) Joe Abercrombie, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 534pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08245-8


This novel is set in the same world as several of the author’s other stories, namely the 'First Law' series. Anyone who has read these will recognise the character Shivers, who makes a return in this novel and is on a quest to make himself 'a better man'.

He turns up in the land of Styria to seek his fortune and things look bleak until he chances upon a woman who offers him a job which goes against his personal goal, as this role involves murder and a mission of personal vengeance... For those not familiar with the environment of Abercrombie’s other novels, the tale takes place in a pre-industrial world of sword and just a little sorcery, with a warring nation ruled by the nobility.

He meets is Monza Murcatto, a woman who has sworn revenge against the ruler of Styria, the Grand Duke Orso, and allies of his who were entailed in the murder of her brother and nearly bought about the end of her own life.

The novel starts out with a victorious setting, and the change of pace when Monza and her brother are betrayed provides an edge that carries on throughout the book. Abercrombie’s writing style is evident here – it is possible to clearly identify the thoughts of Shivers and his simple, down to Earth thinking versus the other characters' narratives. The story weaves itself together at a consistent place as Monza recruits a band of allies, all with their own agendas.

There is Morveer, a master poisoner not short on arrogance and the ability to find trouble who is accompanied by his assistant, Day. Monza is also accompanied by Cosca, an associate of hers from the days of old who has developed a drinking habit that cost him his career in the army. Monza and her allies plot all manner of strategies to bring about the demise of the men who were implicit in her brother's murder. These characters and the way in which observations are made and plans carried out vary from dark to quirky and humorous presentations.

This is very much a tale of strategy and best laid plans – which in some respects fail to come to fruition in quite the way they were intended. There are plenty of scrapes the characters get into and comedic moments where they are trying desperately to escape and meet misfortune at every turn and more than a few last minute saves. There are also genuinely gruesome moments which were described well enough to have me cringing as I read them.

However, this is part and parcel of the type of book this is – it is full of combat, bloodshed and violence counterbalanced with moments of comedy to ensure the story is not so dark as not to be enjoyable. The style of writing ensures that you will want to keep turning the pages as questions are raised about the characters and how they deal with their flaws – there are also some last minute cliff-hanger saves. In a way I felt the comedy and last minute saves became a little overdone at times but the depths of the story and its characters keeps it all afloat.

It is not often I read a novel of this nature with a female character as the lead, and the protagonist's personal challenges as to how they shape her view of the world add interesting turns to the plot. It is also fascinating reading how Monza became the feared aggressor that she is known to be, and, while rumours are circulated about her by the people of Styria, what is the real truth.

There is a fair amount of both swearing and sex, and a gritty nature to the unfolding of events in the novel, but a clear writing style that enables the reader to avoid too challenging a time when keeping track of which character is doing what, when and where. Despite this, there are changes of scenery that at times get a little confusing, although these keep the story fresh.

The reaction of each character to where they find themselves provides an interesting contrast throughout – for example when Monza and Shivers find themselves at a regal function. The nature of the characters is capitalised on and provides an interesting angle regarding where they find themselves and how they conduct themselves. The interaction between the characters is also appealing, especially as their respective stories often reveal that all is not as what it first appears.

This is a dark tale of revenge that does not take itself too seriously and possesses a storyline with a range of depths and dimensions. It is a varied piece, with sorrow, achievement and some chilling moments that make the most of the characters within it and the world they inhabit. There are a range of settings, encounters and dramas that take place and quite a few surprises along the way. I won’t give away the ending, but will say that it is well worth reading the novel for its very satisfying conclusion.

Best Served Cold is likely to appeal to both male and female readers of sword and sorcery, and would probably be an interesting introduction for someone who is new to the genre. While this borrows from 'The First Law' in the usage of one of the characters, it works perfectly well as a standalone novel in its own right.

Susan Griffiths

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