Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie The only way I can give 3 stars to Best Served Cold is if I read it in the spirit of that wonderfully campy B-movie horror classic of revenge The Abominable Dr. Phibes, starring Vincent Price and Joseph Cotton and the incomparably lovely Caroline Munro (though she’s dead and doesn’t have anything to say). In the movie, Dr. Anton Phibes revenges himself against the ten people whom he blames for his wife’s death using the plagues of Exodus as a blueprint. It’s great fun to watch, Price is at his scenery-chewing best, and he gets away with it in the end (more or less).

If I were to consider Best Served Cold as a serious commentary on the “way things are,” I can give it but 2 stars. While I enjoy the grimmer, more morally ambiguous fantasies of Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, et al., Abercrombie is too nihilistic in the end for my tastes. He writes well enough* and the stories are well paced but none of his characters can catch a break, and anyone who tries to be better gets slammed down (usually lethally).

The mercenary general Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna of the Thousand Blades are betrayed and murdered by their employer Duke Orso of Talins (an off-stage character in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy) but Monza survives to take ruthless vengeance against the seven principals in the affair. The novel is divided up into 7 sections that follow Monza as she gathers a small group to go after her brother’s killers – Caul Shivers, a Northerner; Friendly, a thief and murderer with an obsession for numbers and counting; Morveer and Day, poisoners; Shylo Vitari (Glotka’s former associate from the First Law); and Nicomo Cosca, Monza’s former mentor and erstwhile general of the Thousand Blades (betrayed and deposed by her). As I mentioned above, the pace is brisk and the writing carries the reader along as Monza’s actions cause greater and greater disruptions in the politics of the Kingdom of Styria. The betrayals come thick and furious, and by the end of the book you discover that nearly everyone’s motive for their actions revolves around the desire for vengeance against someone. One of the things I most enjoyed was Abercrombie’s ability to show how easy it is to misinterpret other’s motives. E.g., Duke Orso betrays Monza because Benna had been plotting to raise her up in his place as Duchess. But Monza knew nothing of her brother’s machinations; in fact, she was almost entirely blind to the fact that he was a ruthless coward whom everyone else despised.

It’s serendipitous that I read this right after finishing Against All Things Ending, the third book in the third Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Monza Murcatto is the anti-Thomas Covenant (or anti-Linden Avery). Where the fundamental principle guiding the latter two is compassion, Monza’s are “mercy and cowardice are the same” and “conscience is an excuse not to do what needs doing.”

It makes for a bleak and joyless read…. Unless, of course, one can keep the soundtrack of Dr. Phibes in his head and imagine Caroline Munro playing Monza.

* Many reviewers praise his description of battle and fighting but that seems more a deft hand at describing gore than anything that elevates the prose to any higher meaning. E.g.,

“Shenkt stepped around his sword, the edge of his hand sank deep into the thief’s chest then tore back out. A great chunk of rib and breastbone was ripped out with it, flew spinning through the air to embed itself deep in the ceiling.

“Shenkt brushed the sword aside, seized the next man by this breastplate and flung him across the room, his head crumpling against the far wall, blood showering out under such pressure it made a great star of spatters across the gilded wallpaper from floor to ceiling. The flies were sucked from their places by the wind of his passing, dragged through the air in mad spirals. The ear-splitting bang of his skull exploding joined the hiss of blood spraying from his friend’s caved-in chest and all over the gaping boy as time resumed its normal flow.”
(pp. 598-99)