Reviews

BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

While I’m not in the habit of re-reading books – mostly because book blogging and a huge TBR compel me to look forward rather than back –  I decided to make an exception for this first stand-alone novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series: back in 2011 Best Served Cold was my introduction to this author and to the concept of grimdark fantasy (and although I enjoyed it, it took me an unfortunate long time before I read the three books that precede this one) and what this re-read taught me is that, apart from the core concept of the novel, I had practically forgotten the majority of narrative details, so that my drive to re-acquaint myself with the story ended up feeling like a first encounter.

Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna are the leaders of the Thousand Swords, the huge mercenary band in the employ of Duke Orso of Talins: Monza’s successful leadership contributed to Orso’s sweeping conquest of a huge part of Styria, and as the book starts the siblings are headed toward the ducal palace to report on their latest victory.  Unfortunately, Orso is alarmed by Monza’s growing popularity, and fearing a power grab from the mercenary he orders her and her brother brutally killed. Against all odds, Monza survives: broken and maimed in body and spirit, the only thing keeping her alive is her desire for revenge against Orso and the other six people present at the murder scene. Gathering a band of misfits, Monza sets out to seek and kill – in the bloodiest and cruelest way possible – these seven people, moving ever closer to Orso and laying a trail of destruction in her wake.

While the previous three novels in the First Law sequence were rife with bloodshed and violence, these elements were however balanced out with some dry humor that made things easier for the readers: here that kind of humor is overwhelmed by the savagery of the story and by Monza’s unwavering focus on revenge, a goal that ends up consuming whatever humanity she and her crew possess. Even when the plan she sets in motion should end up in a “surgical” kill, quite a number of innocent bystanders are hurt or lose their lives, and Monza’s companions are not exempt from it, as well, sometimes suffering horribly.

I have often encountered a comment about there being no journey of redemption for Abercrombie’s characters, and this is particularly true here where Monza’s single-minded focus seems to pull everyone in a downward spiral from which there is no turning back: her desire for revenge taints whatever shred of humanity her companions might possess and more often than not I considered how that desire consumed Monza from the inside, compelling her to turn the others into a mirror image of herself – a twisted interpretation of the maxim about misery wanting company…

This is particularly true for Caul Shivers, a character from the First Law trilogy: at the start of the book we see him reaching Styria from the far North, driven by the desire to become a better man, to leave violence and bloodshed behind. The reality he encounters is quite different from that rosy dream and dire circumstances force him to become Monza’s main henchman, to find himself once again drenched in blood and violence until little by little he re-discovers the savage joy of brutality for its own sake. Shivers, and not Monza, is the truly tragic figure here: not unlike his old enemy Logen Ninefingers he comes to realize that there is no running away from one’s brutal destiny and in the end he fully embraces what he had left the North to escape. His is a long road, painful in many ways – not only for the body, on account of the often grievous damage he suffers, but also for the mind, when he understands that Monza is using him like a tool, one to either be wielded as a weapon or employed for a brief moment of physical respite.

Shivers is the mirror through which Monza’s character can be observed – and judged: true, she was used and discarded (She was the spider they had to suffer in their larder to rid them of their flies. And once the flies are dealt with, who wants a spider in their salad?) and for this she wants revenge, but to obtain that revenge she becomes herself a user, one who treats her allies as she was treated and displays no qualms, no moments of reflection on the brutally selfish drive that consumes her and all those who surround her. Even the flashbacks to her previous life, showing how she became the person she is at present, do little to justify her current attitude: while other characters might strive, however briefly, toward redemption, there is no such drive in Monza, and for this reason I constantly failed to cheer for her even though I admired the author’s skill in her portrayal.

While there are other very interesting characters in this story – like the master poisoner Morveer, whose acerbic personality and complicated plots often seemed to border on the comedic; or ex-inmate Friendly, the sociopath with an almost autistic penchant for numbers and counting, the one who truly shines here is Nicomo Cosca, who made a few sporadic appearances in the previous trilogy and here manages to steal the scene every time he comes under the spotlight.  Once the leader of the Thousand Swords, he was ousted by Monza herself and became a drunkard and a wastrel: he’s the only one in the group who really seems intentioned to change his life for the better, and indeed he does – in his own way. Cosca might be unreliable and sneaky, totally untrustworthy as a true mercenary should be (Loyalty on a mercenary is like armor on a swimmer), but he’s also quite complex, showing layers upon layers that make him unpredictable and totally delightful to observe. After a while, witnessing his oh-so-easily shifting loyalties paired with a whimsical personality, I came to see him as the equivalent of another favorite character, Sand dan Glokta: the two are as different as apples and oranges, but what they share is a captivating blend of opposing traits that make them compellingly irresistible.

Best Served Cold is not however only about the characters’ journey, fascinating as it is, but also about how the consequences of an individual’s choice come to encompass a whole country: Monza’s desire for vengeance becomes like the proverbial pebble that starts an avalanche, so that her actions turn from their fairly limited milieu into a world-wide state of warfare with vast political consequences that bring, once again, a massive upheaval in a land where peace is but a fleeting dream.  By now I’m more than used to Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity, but this time around I felt the pressing need, once finished the book, to turn toward something more optimistic – even though I thoroughly enjoyed this new journey in his world.

My Rating:

35 thoughts on “BEST SERVED COLD (First Law #4), by Joe Abercrombie

  1. This sounds intense! I tend to shy away from books like this that don’t have any glimpses of light, so I’m not sure if I’ll be tackling this anytime soon, but your five star rating is very tempting…😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, Abercrombie has been elected “Lord Grimdark” with good reason, and his books are no picnic, but his characters and the world he creates are nothing short of fascinating, and that helps a great deal in withstanding the darkness… 🙂

      Like

  2. Ola prefers “The Heroes”, but for me it’s the best Abercrombie, I’m definitely re-reading it at some point (but not just yet, I’ve read it a few years later than you).

    “Joe Abercrombie’s bleak view on humanity” – for me, his the Tolkien we deserved, in our rotten times 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you!
        Book 2 of the First Law trilogy, while still good from my point of view, felt like the weakest of the series: IMHO there was too much meandering around with little results to show for it, but the patience required paid off in book 3 – and this is indeed a fascinating, if cruel, world and he depicts so well… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Welcome to the Re-read Side!
    Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing MORE re-reads from you, but I’ll take what I can get, hahahaa.

    While I’m not an Abercrombie fan I am glad that this re-read worked so well for you. Finding out that an older favorite is still a favorite is a great feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this might very well be a once-in-a-life event 😀 since there are too many new books I want to read… Yet I wanted to revisit this before tackling the other books in the series, and since I had forgotten so much I don’t feel guilty for the re-read, because it felt almost like a new book!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Personally I like the Heroes better, but Shivers is one of my favorite characters in the series, partly due to his long road to redemption (or, whatever it is that he’s looking for). So glad this worked for you so well the second time through! You know how it is sometimes when you reread something 😅 I’d like to reread this too, there’ll surely be time this year… Thanks for the great review! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A marvellous review, Maddalena! And this was the book where Abercrombie and I parted company – other than his fabulous Shattered Seas trilogy which I loved… I’d managed with the first three books, because of the thread of humour running through them – but though I got through this one, as the writing is brilliant, that savagery was too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is indeed harsh (to say the least), but I believe one of the reasons I was able to stay with it was the awareness that the violence in Abercrombie’s stories is never gratuitous and it’s not there for simple “shock value”, but is rather functional to the story. That said, after one of his books, one is in dire need of some rainbows and fluffy unicorns… 😀

      Like

  6. My first encounter with Abercrombie was with one of his stand-alone too, but in my case it was The Heroes and it was love at first sight (especially because the first page of The Heroes is a masterpiece all on itself), but I have yet to read all the others. And your review acutely reminded me of that. I don’t know if I would read them this year, since I have my eyes on the Shattered Sea Trilogy (I am re-reading the first one at the moment) but I would read them, that’s for sure! And your review was brilliant!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t know if I’d be able to read it as I am considering stopping listening to The Four Winds by Kristin hannah as it’s too depressing for me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, Abercrombie’s novels do require some inner strength, that’s certain, so they might not be the right choice if we feel the need for some uplifting read, but since individual mileage might vary, no one will know until they try them out… 🙂

      Like

  8. This is a book that I read and got 85% through and then put it down for some reason. Oh, right I had borrowed it from a friend and she wanted it back LOL. I still need to finish this one but I remember I was really loving it! I don’t really love grimdark, the nihilism gets to me, but somehow Abercrombie makes it fun? Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t read Abercrombie in years because I have to be in a very specific mood to enjoy grimdark. I read Best Served Cold in 2016 when I was already fed up with grimdark so I didn’t enjoy this book at the time but I want to read it at some point to give it a fair chance.
    I love re-reading books but it’s hard to make time for re-reads when so many interesting books are coming out all the time!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’d like to try Abercrombie’s work one of these days. Thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve read anything yet that would qualify as grimdark, so I’m a little curious about it. I know what you mean about sometimes rereading something so long after the first reading that it almost feels fresh again. I really like that, as close as you can get to the opporunity to relive that great first experience with the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can heartily recommend Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy: if you enjoy the first book, The Blade Itself, you will certainly like his other works: the trilogy he’s currently writing – The Age of Madness – is even better, but I advise reading the First Law first, to better enjoy the background and characters 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s great to see you loving this series. I do have the first three books and would love to read them but at the same time I have a mental block now that I’ve started the most recent series – I just don’t know if I can now go back. It was the same with the Gwynne books, I read the last three books and so although I’d like to read Malice, etc, I realise or recognise that I’m probably just kidding myself.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me, the first book in The Age of Madness was the encouragement I needed to finally tackle The First Law: like it happened with Gwynne’s first series, it helped me put in better perspective the characters from later times, and since in Abercrombie’s case we have the immediate “next generation” on stage, what I learned from The First Law helps me appreciate the new series even more 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.