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Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Book Name: Best Served Cold
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publisher(s): Orbit (US) Gollancz (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Release Date: July 29, 2009 (US) June 1, 2009 (UK)

Around a week or two ago I had the imponderable pleasure of meeting Joe Abercrombie at Fantasy-Faction’s Grim Gathering. I was reading Best Served Cold at the time, my Abraham Lincoln bookmark treading lightly at 100 pages prior to the finale. I had it signed and told him that I would be writing this review, and that his book was amazing. His response, “Well you better put that in the review!” And so I have Mr. Abercrombie. Because it is. Let us begin…

This novel is the account of Monzcarro Murcatto’s quest for vengeance. Ok we may have seen this kind of thing before, anyone who has ever followed the Jacobean Dramatists (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Webster, Ford (the list goes on)) will have a full grounding in the revenge tragedy sub-genre. But with Abercrombie, having already grabbed the fantasy world by the scruff of the neck with the First Law Trilogy whilst shouting, “I shall subvert all of fantasy’s known clichés and tropes! All of them!”, you know before going into Best Served Cold that this isn’t just going to be a re-hash of Hamlet or The Duchess of Malfi.

The truly great thing about this novel is that it follows Abercrombie’s literary philosophy beautifully by exploring the ‘typical’ revenge plot, in a fantasy setting, and then cutting into it with the precision of a surgeon’s knife. Monza’s desire for personal and emotional vengeance is the primary drive and motivation for all her actions in the novel, but instead of becoming lost in the throes of her blood-lust each death that comes from her quest has a telling impact on her psyche. It is this sense of self-reflection, doubt, and in some cases regret, which really makes this story shine.

There are a whole host of characters that come along for the ride: some old (Shivers, Cosca, Vitari) and some new (Morveer, Friendly), and Abercrombie elects to tell the story from each of their perspectives. The character’s thoughts, feelings, and deepest desires are all exposed and explored in their moments within the novel allowing the reader to truly get inside the mind of each participant of the party, to understand their reasons for engaging in this quest, and to empathise with their own naturally developed character flaws.

Shivers in particular deserves special mention. Coming into this novel with his experiences and choices from the original trilogy, his story and development was able to reflect Monza’s own. This worked to create an almost poetic parallel between the two characters. I mentioned how effective the use of Shiver’s character was to Mr. Abercrombie himself whilst in the midst of a fanboyish/drunken stupor down at a London pub following the Grim Gathering. His tongue-in-cheek response being, “It’s almost as if someone put some thought into it!” But it’s true! It was such an interesting move to make!

To most authors, Shivers story would have been over in the First Law Trilogy, his decisions made, his acceptance of events now set in stone. But Abercrombie doesn’t leave poor Shivers be. No, instead he forces the man to come against more situations that force him to question his own identity and overhaul his entire view of the world and its inhabitants. The events of Best Served Cold have a much bigger impact on Shivers than the entire First Law Trilogy and towards the end of the tale, we see a very different person than at its inception. This change in his perception is far from jarring; in actuality, Shiver’s development is perfectly natural. You completely get the way he feels at the novel’s climax and why he feels it. He’s a fascinating character and the choices that he makes in light of Monza’s choices truly show how the path of vengeance can have severely differing impacts on two separate souls.

However, to truly get Shivers, in fact to truly understand a lot of what’s going on in the novel, I feel you do really have to read the First Law Trilogy. Best Served Cold is an attempt by Abercrombie to tell a stand-alone story in his world, and it does work on its own merit, it really does. But I still feel that a lot of its nuances are almost certainly lost on the new reader. Ok, maybe that was the intent, that some aspects of the novel would be there for continuing readers as Easter eggs, or fun references, but there are some moments in particular that I felt would potentially leave a new reader simply confused.

For example, at one point there is a confrontation in the novel between Monza and another returning character called Yoru Sulfur. Now to savvy readers who know what Sulfur is all about, they can see how vital his presence is to the events of the story, yet to the newbie they would have no idea who or what Sulfur is and why he’s there. That scene has the resonance to imply it to be quite important in the scope of the series, but it would be lost on anyone who had no prior knowledge of Sulfur and what he represents. Even though the plot had nothing to do with its predecessors I just felt that scenes such as the one mentioned would just have left new readers thinking, “What?!”, and so they potentially detract from the novel in a small way. As for myself, having read everything, I loved the scenes, but I feel that if Abercrombie wanted to create a true stand alone work he should have tried to remove the story from what came before as much as physically possible. But if seen as a spiritual sequel to the original trilogy, it rocks.

The story of the novel, its characters, and its satisfying climax make this novel an incredible fantasy work. It is definitely his best (not counting his following novels of which I am still to sample). In contrast to the original trilogy, Best Served Cold was concise, to the point, analytical, hilarious, and conclusive all in a single volume. Abercrombie certainly has a knack for the single book story, as it never once felt rushed and it never felt too short. It was the perfect amount of pages to put this story into, not dragging the plot out but instead giving it room to breathe and flourish into the subverting masterpiece that it is.

The violence brings the story into a gritty ultra-realism that impacts the reader in a way that only the recent ‘grimdark’ phenomenon can do. The battle at Ospria in particular holds no punches, a visceral plethora of extreme ferocity making it an amazingly real and vivid combat encounter. The extreme violence that Monza is subjected to at the start contributed to one of the most well written prologues I’ve come across in a story. Her whole resignation towards the end of the prologue was a specifically poignant and emotional point. I was surprised and taken aback at how moved I was so early on in the tale. And, in true Abercrombie style, Monza’s story is full of peril, pain, and amazing revelations proving that not all is as it seems. Words cannot adequately state how great I thought it was. And so, to maintain my earlier promise to the author, I shall say again…it truly was amazing.



  1. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Great review James, I’ve all Joe’s work and this novel is easily my fave. Considering the rest are all fab that really says something!
    I too was at Grim Gathering (which was great), shame I didn’t notice you there as I’d like to have said hi, your YouTube reviews are excellent. And as it happens I need some loft panels….

    • Thanks Davieboy, much appreciated.

      Yeah the Grim Gathering was ace. I was busy arriving late, queuing for signatures and then enjoying the pub. Great night all round.

      If you’re serious about loft products you should trying looking up the ‘Loftshop’. They’re the company I work for. 😛

  2. Avatar Justin Brown says:

    I’ve recently read this one. It was a revenge story, but the theme was betrayal: Monza’s betrayal at the hands of the duke kicked the whole thing off, and she allies herself with those she’s betrayed in the past to get her revenge. Shivers is forced to betray his new resolution to do the right thing.


    And at the end Monza has to come to terms that she’s effectively been betrayed by the idealised version of her brother, who in reality turns out not to be the innocent party she’s wasted so much blood on.

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