Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie: A treatise on grim dark

Revenge is a dish we are all very familiar with – We have seen this in movies made immortal by Lee Marvin (Point Blank) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) – With a name such as “Best Served Cold”, Abercrombie makes no bones about what this book is going to be about. But heck, this is Joe Abercrombie we are talking about. 

The lord of grim dark, an entirely new sub-genre that he has breathed life into and carved himself a bloody throne out of. So when news comes out that Abercrombie is penning a revenge novel set in the cruel grim world as that of the First Law trilogy, you can’t help feel the goose-bumps break out all over your arms and you wait on a bed of nails until you can dive back into the gore-spattered, crazy dark world slick with blood, sweat and grime, where seasons may change but the only constant thing is death and treachery. 

While First Law was mostly Abercrombie’s attempt at skewering the standard fantasy tropes and introducing us to some of the finest anti-heroes of modern fantasy, Best Served is decidedly his tribute to the revenge drama. A straightforward story of bloody vengeance at heart slammed in tight with some fantastic side characters and uneven twists that will blow your minds. GRRM calls it a kind of splatterpunk sword ‘n sorcery COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, Dumas by way of Moorcock. Not enough justice in that. It’s far more than just a linear story with the body count hitting the stratosphere with each manner of execution topping the bar in how to kill someone. It’s surprisingly an in-depth look at the hopelessness of the collateral damage incurred by single-minded focus on revenge. There is nothing even remotely redeeming about the lead character – the woman who cheats death and now wants nothing more than to wipe off the seven men who had a hand in her attempted execution and her brother’s murder. 

Punctuated and underlined by the gut-wrenching violence and headlong pacing that rivals any slick action movie, Best Served is not just about revenge. It’s about moral transformations, dark back-stabbing treachery and a spiraling melt-down into the dark depths of human psyche. Well, a typical Joe Abercrombie you say? 

The basics, first: Monza Murcatto, the most successful mercenary commander that Styria has seen, also known as the Butcher of Caprile and the Snake of Talins, is marching back triumphant after having led a series of victories for her Duke, Osro. The celebrations however turn ugly, as Monza and her brother are lured into a trap by the Duke and his inner circle, six of them as deadly as the Snake of Talins herself. Her brother is killed and she herself is left for dead, tossed down the mountainside, stabbed and broken.

Monza survives against all odds and lives for nothing other than revenge. Nothing less than the gruesome murders of the seven men will suffice. For this, she binds herself with her own motley crew of cutthroats and vile murderers, the very scum of the earth: A barbarian from the North, out to seek for himself, a better way of living. A mass murderer who has an obsession with dice and counting. A torturer fallen to worse days of her life. An untrustworthy master poisoner and his apprentice. And the world’s worst ever mercenary with a perpetual drinking problem.  In the company of these social misfits, Monza decides to right some wrongs. And in the process, discovers how high the odds are stacked up against her. Including the most dangerous man in the Circle of the World sent out to hunt her down.

This being a revenge story, you of course know things will turn out and yet you are amped up by every enactment of the revenge. Going from seven to one. And Joe Abercrombie, who can spin perhaps the best ever action prose among the writers today, ups the bar of the style of execution with each count. The scenes of an execution in the middle of a besieged city are definitely one of the best ever! Taut on trip-wire as you traverse towards the second half, you realize the Abercrombie is also upping the stakes as he goes for the higher body count. It is no longer just personal – in spite of Monza, a single minded, brutally focused woman intent on exacting bloody revenge – the events spiral out to form a broader bigger canvas that involves the fate of the whole of Styria in this game. (“This is Styria. There is always a war here.”) War, the hopelessness mired in the blood-spattered black forms a major backdrop of this entire book. Here unlike the First Law trilogy, where Abercrombie keeps it unevenly grey, the characters are without redemption. A dark shade dipped in blood. That’s what they are. No remote lining of silver among the grey here. And that is precisely one of the points that the author is probably pushing for. That there is no hope in revenge. “Who is dead, will only continue to rot.”

What is a winner, as in the previous trilogy, is that book is grounded in its characterization and their evolutionary arc. Flawed memorable men and women who keep slipping into the quagmire, ragged limp dolls in the hands of fate, fashioned by hate. (“Love is a fine cushion to rest upon but only hate can make you a better person.”)

Monza is definitely up there, amongst the most bloodthirsty protagonists ever, who gets sucked into her own cesspool of fears and emotional imbalance. Broken bones, ugly scars and painful demons that is more than just physical and she turns her world inside out for a single minded goal: revenge. It’s frightening and scary to watch her go about her business and yet the thoughts and turmoil in her mind opens us to the vulnerable, scared female who really knows that there is no end or respite from all of this. Abercrombie works wonders with the narrative voice of hers, breaking down the walls and going deep inside her beyond that scar-lined face and broken deformed bones.

Or let’s take Caul Shivers, a northerner stuck in Styria, having come to look for his redemption, finds himself slipping in (blending in) to become more evil than ever. His rapid descent from a half decent man to half way to evil is a fascinating study in psychology (Gah!) but the point, I am making, is about how truly fascinating is Abercrombie’s ability to get inside such characters head and make them live on in our thoughts? We rant and chastise the descent of humanity and all the colorful characters of Best Served Cold deserve to be mentioned under the headings of “special thanks “here. They are just so flawed.

Friendly, a mass murderer with an obsession to be counting pretty much anything and has a long standing love affair with the dice, is one who flat out creeps you out. His rapid outbursts and scant regard for human life, makes him an unpredictable player and halfway through the narrative, you expect the wind to blow in the opposite direction. 

The one character that I truly enjoyed is Nicosa Cosca. He is just unbelievably endearing, in spite of being the lowest scum when it comes to matters of honor (“What use is honor? My piss is worth more. At least it can help grow nettles”) A soldier of fortune who switches loyalty with the direction of wind with even lesser inspirations, he gets some of the best black humor lines ever written in this genre. A rival to Steven Erikson’s famous Tehol and Bugg duo. Banter rancid with the blackest of humors, Cosca is a master and certainly one of the best characters drawn by Abercrombie. I will look forward to more of him.

A linear revenge story would have been boring. Unworthy of Abercrombie’s writing chops. So the side characters leave the room wide open with respect to seeds of doubts being sown midway through among the company and double-games start off. You would have guessed, put together a band of misfits, untrustworthy and ready to back-stab at the drop of a hat, this is bound to happen. But still, the twists that hit you trust me, will still be something you might have not seen coming.

Best Served Cold forms the perfect alighting point for those of you not familiar with Joe Abercrombie’s works. It’s got everything that Abercrombie has gone on to perfect. The grit, the gore and the grim dark. His showcase for his evolution as a writer, though, has no stars shining in the dark. It’s awash with unapologetic violence amped up to stratospheric levels and yet at the end of it all, it ain’t the gore or the execution styles that remain with you, the truly memorable characters are what shine. A revenge story plugged with complex characters that raise some pertinent questions on the uselessness of violence. 

Full five stars.


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