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REVIEW: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

REVIEW SUMMARY: Revenge is a dish best served rare and bloody, with side dishes of complex characters that might be good, or bad, or actually flawed like real people.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: General Monza Mercatto, leader of the mercenary Thousand Swords, is mutilated and left for dead by the Duke she was working for, her beloved brother slain. She survives, and plots revenge on Duke Orso (who wants to be King of Styria) and the six others who participated in her brother’s murder. She assembles a crew of fighters, poisoners and criminals to help her along the way.


PROS:Bloody well choreographed fight scenes; great flawed characters.

CONS: Sometimes too bloody many fight scenes; didn’t understand some of the references to The First Law series (perhaps because I haven’t read book three!).

BOTTOM LINE: A great revenge novel, with characters that are not only interesting but evolve through the enacting of the revenge. This is a bloody book (keep your kids away) but it is a bloody good book too.

Set in the world of Abercrombie’s The First Law series, Best Served Cold has no sorcery like that series, but does turn some magic in making a seemingly ordinary revenge story into multiple interesting character studies wrapped in a few bloody messes. I was certain I had figured out the plot and ending multiple times, only to be pleasantly surprised by unpredictable characters…and not by convenient out of character jumps. Now where did I put the third book in The First Law series?

General Monzacarro Mercatto, the Butcher of Caprile, the Snake of Talins, victor in many battles, returns with her brother Benna to the castle of Duke Orso, who wants to be King of Styria. In minutes, her brother is slain and she is left for dead, by a Duke who is worried that she is becoming more popular than he, and will try to take his throne. Nursed back to health by an unknown savior, Monza vows revenge against the Duke and the six (including his sons) who helped in the betrayal.

To achieve said revenge, Monza surrounds herself by a motely but interesting crew:

  • Friendly, the counting convict;
  • Morveer, the misunderstood poisoner, and Day, his ever-eating female apprentice, who may be getting better than the master;
  • Caul Shivers, the Northman (who knows the Bloody-Nine from the series) come to Styria to make himself “a better man”. Shivers makes an appearance in Before They Are Hanged, book two of The First Law (and don’t tell me if he’s in book three, it’s in my reading pile!);
  • Vitari, the female torturer, who is also in Before They Are Hanged;
  • General Cosca, who led the Thousand Swords before Monza, and became a drunk, drowning his past;
  • Monzacarro Mercatto (sounds like a race car), the victim and revenge seeker…or is it the other way around?

Monza leads this crew as they butcher, poison, burn and drown one by one the seven she holds responsible for her brother’s death and he maiming. All who encounter her treat her as a Butcher, who puts her enemies heads on pikes and slaughters the innocent. But, in a series of chapter-beginning flashbacks, Abercrombie reveals that her story is not so simple as all that. There are no innocents in Abercrombie’s world; everyone is just a wee bit dirty, and some are downright nasty. But each is unique in background and in voice.

Friendly, the convict from the prison known as “Safety”, has a unique voice in the narrative, as he keeps a running obsession with numbers:

The dice came up two and one. Three years ago today, Sajaam bought Friendly’s freedom from Safety. Three years he had been homeless. He had followed three people, two men and one woman, all across Styria and back. In that time, the place he had hated least was the Thousand Swords, and not just because it had a number in its name, though that was, of course, a good start.

Revenge is not only the purpose of Monza’s group, rivalries make revenge slowly consume the group: Monza is suspicious the Cosca will turn on her, Shivers is jealous when Monza takes another man, the poisoner doesn’t like Cosca, the poisoners apprentice is ready to be Master poisoner…and no one likes the poisoner.

And in the end, the question becomes:

“When you build your life around only one thing…you risk losing everything at a stroke.”

What happens when any of the revenges are done with?

Best Served Cold is a surprisingly complex book that looks like a bloody revenge book on the outside but provides complex characters in a complicated and interesting world. I was thrown by some of the external references and higher background battles (multiple references to “The Cripple”, which I remember from the First Law series, but not clear on the significance…must be in the last book), but not enough to not enjoy.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

7 Comments on REVIEW: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

  1. ‘the cripple’ is sand dan glokta, who was in all three books of the first law trilogy. as to WHY they are referring to him in the first place…well, yeah, you would have had to have read the 3rd book for that to make sense. πŸ™‚

    i’m about 2/3 way through best served cold atm (getting it for $3 on my kindle = win) and am enjoying it a great deal.

    my only gripe is the ‘heroine’s name….monza is the place they hold the italian formula 1 grand prix each year. it’s a tad bit jarring for me. oh, and styria is an actual province in austria… 

  2. Nick Sharps // January 31, 2011 at 2:48 pm //

    I think Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s worst book to date. Not to say that it’s bad (it’s definitely not) but I think it was flawed. The strongest point about his First Law Trilogy was the characters. They were flawed but they were still likable. I formed a sympathetic bond with all the main characters and a good deal of the supporting characters. Logen Ninefingers was a true testament of Abercrombie’s character creating abilities. He took a guy that should by no means be likable and made him just that. The problem with Best Served Cold is that I didn’t like any of the cast, with an exception to the always lovable General Cosca. Anyway it’s still a good book but nowhere near as ground breaking as the First Law Trilogy. 


    On a side note Abercrombie’s newest book, The Heroes, is out and is a large improvement over Best Served Cold πŸ™‚

  3. @Kurt: I figured it was Glotka, and had a suspicion as to why they kept referring to him…need to squeeze that third book onto the reading stack. And the very Italian Monza name struck me as well, used to spend time in Milan working.

    @Nick: thanks for the tip on The Heroes. That is one of the things that struck me about the First Law books, most everyone was likable. I like characters that have flaws, and Morveer in Best Served Cold was easy to hate even when he tried to make himself more sympathetic. At the end, Caul Shivers is a changed man, and part of the book that I liked was watching him change, against his goals too.

  4. I enjoyed the book overall. My only real complaint was that some characters seemed under used. The poisoners got used only for 1 kill and then just kind of hung around until they became important near the end of the book again. Why hire a master poisoner and then go with plans that do not use poison?

    I agree with Nick about the characters. While the characters in this book were well written I ended up hating the guts of pretty much all of them. In the First Law books on the other hand I even grew to love the cripple.

    Go read that third book of the First Law Trilogy! It was the best one! Awsome novel.

  5. Nick Sharps // January 31, 2011 at 5:53 pm //

    You really do need to read the third book, it is a very bitter sweet ending to the trilogy. I did like Shivers at the beginning of Best Served Cold but by the end he was a whole different character altogether. I suppose that was the point of his whole character arc though. I think I could have probably stomached the unlikable characters better if Abercrombie had delved a bit more into each of them. I really feel like characters like Friendly and Vitari could have used some more attention, even Morveer and Day for that matter. 

  6. The strange thing is, I have the first two books right in front of me, and I have no idea where the thrid book is. Probably buried under Doc Savage books, or WWII books, or the rest of the To-Be-Read SciFi pile.

    The right solution is for JohnD to loan/give me his copy. JD, trade you a bag of bagels for it?

  7. @Larry: Are you kidding?  Not after all the praise these books are getting! πŸ™‚

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