In a land where those on the pedestals of power are always very wary of being toppled, it pays to do the job properly when you are the one doing the toppling.
Best Served Cold is a hard-nosed, no holds barred tale of revenge set in the same fantasy world as Joe Abercrombie's recent trilogy, The First Law. It's a no-nonsense world, with no evidence of elves, dragons or fairies. What it does have, in large amounts, is blood, dirt, violence and intrigue. Using the betrayal of successful General Monza Murcatto by her jealous employer as a fuse, the book explodes into a ripping yarn of vengeance, greed and betrayal, with a healthy dose of wit and world weary wisdom for good measure.
With Best Served Cold Abercrombie once again demonstrates his expertise at keeping reality at the heart of his fantasy, not by setting it in Baltimore or by going into mundane detail about laundry practices, but by crafting a tale that reeks of multifaceted humanity. We are given characters that live and breathe on the page; the near silent thug dangerously obsessed with arithmetic and numbers, the pompous poisoner harbouring deep childhood insecurities, and the drunkard former general's longing for dignity beneath the fašade of comic bravura to name but a few that grace this sweeping revenge story. Traits that would feel tacked on in lesser hands utterly inhabit Abercrombie's characters and drive them onwards, informing their decisions and actions. None of them are completely blameless, but neither are any of them without engagingly human features. In fact, the above potted character descriptions almost do a disservice to the author, as his protagonists are not mere static cardboard cut-outs; they are dynamic beings that develop throughout the tale. Strong nuanced character arcs are rarely attempted in this field, but these characters change in an utterly believable and enthralling fashion.
These characters are also utterly enmeshed in the gripping story Abercrombie weaves around them. Unlike other works, where protagonists can appear to exist in a protective vacuum between episodic adventures, here actions have repercussions, effect inexorably follows cause. Nowhere is this more apparent than the opening salvo, where betrayal leaves central character Murcatto near mortally wounded and hungry for vengeance. Not only does this set up of the rest of the tale, it also makes a significant point, the pain she suffers is not merely an excuse for gruesome prose (although it does succeed in setting the graphic tone in crushing fashion), but serves to underline that characters won't get away scot-free, that pain hurts, and it keeps on hurting.
As the title suggests, revenge is a key theme in the book, in fact, it is the gnarled spine running through everything in it. But of course, with this being a work fundamentally grounded in human vices (and at times virtues), revenge is not clean, nor is it simple. The messy and ugly effects of a blind desire for revenge are expertly sown into the tale, and allowed to grow like bitter weeds. We are left surveying a hard and chaotic landscape, where one betrayal snowballs into a great tide of blood, and where an ascent to power or influence makes the wielder a magnetic target for treachery.
Despite this cutting focus on the failings of human nature and its effects, Abercrombie deftly avoids letting the book wallow in its own sense of darkness. The biggest surprise about the book is that it isn't cold; it manages to retain a sense of warmth despite its apparently amoral stance. The pacing is sharp, so proceedings move along at breakneck speed, and there is a rich vein of humanity running through all of the proceedings that allows for both enormous humour on occasion and also significant empathy. In short, Best Served Cold is a very well written story, one that is able to raise a smile with its energy and humour despite being mercilessly brutal and heavy handed. It isn't quite perfect, one of the plot arcs in the second half feels a little superfluous, some characters introduced later don't quite live up to the very high standards set earlier, and at times the trick of a repeating motif throughout a chapter feels forced and grates a little, but these are fairly minor quibbles on what is a brilliant piece.
If you are looking for a vibrant and intelligent fantasy that pulls no punches, you can't do much better than this.