Abercrombie is one of the people who's received a lot of attention in the blogsphere in recent years. Until now, I never got around to reading one of his books. In one of my rare trips to a bricks and mortar book store recently, I got a copy of his standalone fantasy novel Best Served Cold. This novel is set in the same world as his First Law trilogy. It isn't necessary to have read them to understand this book although I got the impression there were some references to places and events in the earlier trilogy. Abercromie is known for his gritty and realistic fantasy. I thought Best Served Cold perhaps tried a bit too hard. It's quite cynical, very nihilistic. To the point where it becomes predictable even.
Styria during the Years of Blood. The region is dotted with numerous city states all trying to take advantage of the slightest weakness in their neighbours. In recent years an all out war between the various states has dominated life in the region. On one side the ambitious Grand Duke Orso is fighting a war against the League of Eight. Orso is backed by the Union, one of the large powers in the world, while the Gurkish Empire supports the League of Eight. The two great powers are nominally at piece but neither seems to mind fighting a proxy war in Styria. At the opening of the story, Orso has the initiative. One of his main assets is a mercenary company known as the Thousand Swords. They are lead by a women known for her ruthless methods and resounding military victories. Nicknamed The Snake of Talins, Monza Murcatto is one of the most successful generals of her era. Perhaps a bit too successful.
When Murcatto arrives at Talins to report on the summer's activities, she and her brother Benna are welcomed by the other major players in the Grand Duke's court. The campaign seems to be going well, with their enemies smashed and retreating before the victorious armies of Orso. The Grand Duke is not a man who has risen to power by being naive though. He clearly remembers the origin on his own house, and upstart mercenary commander that took a throne some generations back. Murcatto is too popular in Talins, she has got to go. After a messy attempt at assassination, Benna's corpse is thrown off the mountain Orso's fort is built upon. Monza soon follows. She miraculously survives being stabbed and thrown off the mountain and is taken in by a mysterious practitioner of medicine. Her body is broken, pain her constant companion but soon, she is strong enough to think about revenge. Seven people were present at her assassination, all seven must die. Revenge will be hers.
As the title and the synopsis suggest, the main theme of this novel is revenge. Monza aims to kill some very powerful people and thus, sets herself a very hard challenge. To have any chance of success at all, she needs help. Of course nobody in their right mind would be willing to help her if there wasn't a great deal of gold involved. Fortunately, gold is not something Monza lacks. Bought help has the disadvantage of having the tendency not to stay bought. This is a problem both Monza and the other characters struggle with throughout the novel and what makes it predictable in the long run. Everybody is looking for the right moment to screw their current employer and make more money somewhere else. Monza even manages to corrupt the one character who is actively looking to be a better man (although it must be said, he doesn't have the faintest idea what he means by that). Plenty of plot twist but the all come down to someone double crossing someone else.
Abercrombie's style is quite bloody. Monza sets out to kill seven people but there is quite a lot of... collateral damage, even without the casualties of war. That conflict does not wait of Monza to sort out the mess she is in. Best Served Cold contains quite a lot of descriptions of people getting stabbed, clubbed, bludgeoned, gutted, impaled or poisoned. Monza's revenge is a bloody affair and in more than one occasion she ends up deep in blood and gore. In other words, this book is not for readers with a queasy stomach. Although I don't mind a bit of mayhem myself I do think it pressed the psychological effects of Monza's campaign a bit to the background. Revenge is not to most productive of human emotions. In the long run the momentary satisfaction of cleaving the skull of one of your enemies, does not really outweigh the suffering endured and caused. Quite a few of the characters seem to think along those lines at least once in the book but none of them ever follows up on that realization.
The author creates a number of memorable characters in this novel. I liked the chronically misunderstood (or so he seems to think) poisoner Castor Morveer and the shameless opportunist and mercenary general Nicomo Cosca in particular. Both of them inject a bit of humour into what would otherwise be quite a depressing book. Abercrombie uses quite a few characters in this book but he somehow manages to flesh most of them out really well. He has well over six hundred pages to do it but it's still quite an accomplishment. Despite Abercrombie's talent to draw a character in a few lines, I still feel that with some of them, it would have been interesting to move beyond the exterior of greed, cynicism and suspicion. That is something the book does not seem to find the space for, crowded as it is by bloody action and conversations of trading clever insults.
How to express what I think about this book? I guess I felt that this book was almost but not quite. The darker side of human nature has provided the genre with quite a few good tales but it needs to be balanced by at least a little bit of optimism, altruism or sacrifice. I guess that is what I was missing in this story. Any attempt at moving beyond the cynical world view the characters base their decision on, is swiftly and mercilessly punished. The world is not a place where people get what they deserve but surely no society can function if people are classed as declared enemies or potential enemies. The constant and usually well-founded suspicion gets repetitive in the book, making it a bit predictable despite the many twists in the plot. Best Served Cold is a well written novel, a decent read if you like your fantasy bloody and low on magic, but it was clearly not my cup of tea.
Title: Best Served Cold
Author: Joe Abercrombie
First published: 2009