Against a backdrop of Machiavellian politics and bloody war between the city states of Styria, former mercenary general Monzcarro Murcatto is betrayed and nearly murdered by an employer she thought she could trust. Battered and beaten, she scrapes together a crew of bloody-minded misfits – amongst which a barbarian Northman looking to better his life, a murder with a mind for numbers and a poisoner with an excess of pride – with a single mission: Revenge!
Listened to the audiobook with Steven Pacey – I’m starting to think his excellent performance of the First Law-trilogy is half the reason I picked up this book, and his reading of Best Served Cold was every bit as good as his work on previous Joe Abercrombie-books.
This book is set in the same universe as the First Law-trilogy, but I am sure you could read Best Served Cold without having the prior knowledge. There are a handful of nice references and recurring characters familiar to readers of First Law, but none that are required for understanding what is going on.
Best Served Cold is both very similar and very different to previous books set in what I understand is also called the First Law-universe. It is very similar in that Abercrombie brings his signature style of well written prose, a nice balance of dark humour versus serious story, antihero protagonists, and blood-splashing-the-camera violence and gore.
It is very different in scope. One of my disappointments when I read The Blade Itself, the first part of Abercrombie’s First Law-trilogy, was that it felt like a large heap of (albeit well written) world-building and set up without much story progression. Even though I liked the trilogy in the end, I felt there was maybe too much going on for three books, and perhaps it would have been better to explore some settings or characters more outside of the scope of the trilogy (which I understand Abercrombie has done, and I will get to those books and stories in due time). Best Served Cold addresses all of these issues by zooming in on a smaller set of characters with an emotionally driven goal in a smaller geographical space, with just the occasional reference to the grand politics and great mages of the outside world. This sub-genre shift from epic fantasy to swords-and-sorcery fits Abercrombie’s style very well.
As befits a standalone novel, there is very little world building and rules setting weighing down the plot – instead, the main character gets to start her revenge mission a couple of chapters in, and the story doesn’t let up from there. I do not want to say that the setting is not well though-out, but rather that – unlike is the case in some fantasy novels – the setting exists as a stage for the drama rather than as a main character itself. I personally rather like the Machiavellian, warring-Italian-city-states backdrop. I feel it fits the book’s nihilistic message – and I don’t think it needed any more explanation than it got to work well.
Above all though, I found the book profoundly easy to read. That is in part due to Abercrombie’s easy and humorous prose, but also due to the somewhat episodic structure to this novel that means you will never loose track of where story is going next, and that delivers a satisfying climax every time.
I realise that Grimdark does not appeal to everyone, and some people will probably find this book somewhat disgusting and highly depressing. Others will love it to bits. Overall, I I think Best Served Cold is an excellent fantasy novel, and I would recommend people seeking to give Joe Abercrombie a shot to start here – it requires a lot less getting into and is even a tad less dark than the First Law-trilogy (I think? It’s still pretty dark), but it showcases all of Abercrombie’s qualities very well.