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.