Gollancz, 672pp paperback, £9.99 cover price
Having recently read about Joe Abercrombie in an interview, and watched the man himself interview George R R Martin (as a prequel to the latter’s Game of Thrones TV adaptation), I became intrigued enough to find out more about both the author and the world in which his début The First Law Trilogy is set.
On the promise that Best Served Cold was a standalone tale, I deliberately chose this book as my introduction to the author’s work, and am pleased to say it proved to be a good move.
Best Served Cold tells the story of Monza Murcatto, the infamous Snake of Talins and the most feared and successful mercenary general in the employ of Grand Duke Orso. It’s a tale of betrayal, mistrust, murder, and probably above all else, retribution.
Expecting to be rewarded for her latest victory, Monza returns to the Duke in good spirits alongside beloved brother Benna, both with half a mind towards better things and the hope of retirement sometime soon. Unfortunately, the Duke has other ideas, and jealous of her growing popularity among the people he cruelly betrays them both, killing Benna and leaving Monza for dead at the foot of a mountain.
The rest of the book tells of Monza’s personal struggle –both mental and physical– to avenge the murder of her brother by Duke Orso and those who assisted with this betrayal, and the motley crew she recruits to help her with the deed.
It’s in this assorted collection of characters, and the troubled interplay between them all that the whole strength of the book lies. By turns, the author does an excellent job of making you care and believe in the main players, clearly detailing their individual motivation to aid Monza in what ultimately proves to be a flawed quest, and spends the rest of the story peeling away at them until it becomes obvious that there are no winners at all in this particular business.
All of the crew have their own flaws and vices, and the manner in which Joe weaves a web of deceit, lies, double-cross and counter-cross ultimately makes it incredibly difficult to feel for any of them. For me, watching Monza’s personal battle against drug addiction play out, both mentally and physically, along with her efforts to conquer the physical disfigurement sustained at the start, proved to be the crux of a quite brilliant piece of storytelling.
There are some strong, memorable characters here, in particular the convict Friendly and his obsession with dice and numbers stands out, but all of them are built upon a shaky foundation of immorality and personal greed.
This tale is violent, graphic, and very much in-yer-face, telling an altogether uncomfortable story with lies and deception at its core. I really liked it and would recommend it as a solid read to anyone who would not be offended by its unsettling premise.