George R.R. Martin praised Best Served Cold as a “splatterpunk sword ’n sorcery” Count of Monte Cristo. I can kind of see why, but at the same time, The Count of Monte Cristo is a masterpiece and one of my all-time favourites, so that is a tough standard to live up to in my eyes.
Also, I feel like I need to slap a huge disclaimer on this review. Firstly, I haven’t read any of Joe Abercrombie’s other First Law books. I know that this one is a standalone, so that probably shouldn’t matter; I just want to be upfront about my unfamiliarity with this world. Secondly, I started reading this the same day I began playing Mass Effect: Andromeda, and I have spent my meagre free time this past week mostly playing Mass Effect: Andromeda, to the anomalous detriment of my reading time. Embarking on a 650-page book while also playing my most-anticipated video game of the year was a silly decision on my part, but here we are.
I really want to give this book three stars, because it probably deserves it, but I’m going to stick with two for now just because, if it were really that good, it would have demanded my attention despite my Mass Effect addiction. I would have found a way.
Best Served Cold is, as GRRM’s comparison suggests, a revenge plot chilled in the finest wine of the Italian-fictional-analogue Styria, where dukes and armies vie for supremacy backed by foreign powers and banks. Monzacarro Murcatto, or Monza as her friends—well, close allies—know her, is a renowned mercenary. So renowned, in fact, that her employer worries she plans to usurp his dukedom, so he has her and her brother brutally murdered. She survives! (This is not a spoiler; this is all boilerplate.) She vows revenge! She sets off on an unstoppable rampage to kill the seven men involved in her and her brother’s assassination. Along the way, she accumulates a small coterie of comrades who alternatively help and hinder her progress.
I want to like this book more than I did, I swear! By so many metrics, this is a really well done work of fiction. Abercrombie focuses a lot on the minutiae of Renaissance-era warfare, on the practicalities and difficulties of large-scale troop movements, logistics, and mercenary life. Yet he does not get bogged down in these details to the point of forgetting to move the story forward. Best Served Cold takes a kind of episodic route, since it is essentially a series of seven murders on Monza’s way to revenge. Each murder could be thought of as a particular episode, with corresponding caper or infiltration or other gambit, before the party moves on to the next location and the next target. In this way, Abercrombie can change up the scenery, further exposing us to more of his world while keeping the story moving.
Furthermore, I kind of hated Monza … but that might have been the point. Abercrombie makes no bones about portraying Monza as an unsympathetic protagonist. Indeed, most of the people in this story are fairly vile. And I appreciate how he has Monza kind of question and come to terms with the fact that her revenge quest is about as nonsensical and immoral as any other personal vendetta in this world—revenge is not justice, as much as it is tempting to conflate the two. As terrible as these characters are, some of them, like Cosca and Morveer, are delightful in how they are written. Others, like the assassin’s assassin, Shenkt, are more of a cipher—maybe deliberately so—and the part they play in the plot feels very strange.
If Best Served Cold drags in any way, it’s simply through the sheer weight of detail that Abercrombie impresses upon us. And this is coming from someone who not only read but luxuriated within the unabridged edition of The Count of Monte Cristo and will defend (albeit not to the death) the importance of Dumas’ digressions into the lives of the gardener’s daughter’s cousin’s dog. On another week, maybe I would have enjoyed this level of detail more. As I mentioned before, I don’t think Abercrombie gets bogged down by it—but I think I, as a reader, certainly might.
While we’re comparing these books, and mostly because I just want to talk about what a masterpiece The Count of Monte Cristo is for another paragraph or so, there is a key difference between them. Monza is far from the innocent man that Edmond Dantes was. Sure, she wasn’t actually planning to overthrow Orso (although, without spoiling it, there is a cool twist towards the very end that adds some irony to her revenge quest). Nevertheless, at the end of the day she is a cold-blooded killer, a bringer of misery and strife and perpetuator of the Years of Blood that Styria is experiencing. Dantes, on the other hand, was literally just in the wrong place at the wrong time. His is the quest of a righteous person wronged by corrupt people; Monza’s is the quest of a sinful person out-sinned by other sinners.
I totally recommend this book if it sounds like your thing, if you like the really dense, detailed portrayal of fantasy worlds in a very military setting. There is more explicit sex than I’m used to in these books, and it’s not really my thing, so just be aware of that. And the ultimate tone of this novel is, if I’m being honest, somewhat nihilistic in its take on the purpose or outcomes of our lives. So … maybe don’t read it if you need a pick-me-up. I’m probably not going to read more of Abercrombie’s work, at least not in this series, because it isn’t precisely what I’m looking for at this time—that being said, I certainly recognize the talent that has gone into this book and want to acknowledge that rather than pan it.
Correction, November 2018: An earlier version of this review stated “there is no real magic here”. I have been advised that this is inaccurate. Given that I read this book over a year ago, naturally I have zero memory of it. So I can’t explain why I wrote that.