Best Served Cold
by Joe Abercrombie
Springtime in Styria. And that means war.
There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers and priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.
War may be hell, but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employers' taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.
Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Barbarian who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started...
Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
I’ve been curious about Joe Abercrombie’s books for a while, and this one in particular has been recommended to me many times, so I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did! This is such a fantastic book – a great story, some amazing characters, and pretty much perfect plotting and pacing. This is definitely a new addition to my favourites shelf!
The story really centres around Monza and Shivers, two characters who are caught up in Monza’s revenge quest. There are other characters involved too (fantastic ones – I particularly loved the poisoner’s assistant Day, and Cosca, the drunken ex-mercenary), but Monza and Shivers are the two that most felt like this is their story. Monza is obsessed with revenge; she is set on killing the men responsible for her brother’s murder and her attempted murder. Shivers has moved to Styria from the north in order to be a better man. He doesn’t have a fixed idea how to go about this, just a vague notion that he needs to change his life, to get away from killing, and to have more faith in people. Ironically, he is almost immediately pulled into Monza’s revenge schemes, and he quickly becomes too attached to her to be able to back out.
I found both Monza and Shivers to be fascinating characters. Shivers begins with such high hopes about being a ‘better man’, and Monza scoffs at the sentiment. Monza has built such a thick wall around her that it is hard for anyone to see the real person and the real feelings beneath. As a mercenary leader, she has had to be tough, and has learned to rationalise any violent behaviour and to treat mercy as weakness. Through her cold pursuit of revenge, Shivers is sucked into this way of thinking and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ begin to lose meaning for him. On first reading, this could easily seem like Monza has ruined him, but I don’t think it is that simple at all. Shivers, underneath the surface, is a violent man. I think he is attempting to be a better person more out of an idea that this is what he should want to do, rather than out of genuine feelings of remorse or concerns about his choices. He seems very quick to accept Monza’s work, all too willing to continue on with her, and her protestations that mercy is a weakness seem to make a lot of sense to him. I got the feeling that he has been pretending, and that when Monza gives him an excuse to stop pretending, he is relieved.
Monza is also pretending. She is a better person than she believes herself to be, better than Shivers, but she has become so used to hiding this that she has begun to believe her own lies. In her quest for revenge, she still shows mercy and regret, and wants to avoid as much innocent suffering as possible. The gulf between her character and that of the poisoner Morveer, for example, is huge. When the inevitable collateral damage begins to escalate, she uses this pretence as a shield so that she doesn’t have to think about the consequences of her actions. It is therefore very interesting to see where both Monza and Shivers end up by the final chapter of the book. You could say that both have changed considerably, being led in completely different directions by Monza’s obsession with revenge. However, I believe that neither of them has really changed at all, but rather they have been shown their true selves, and come to realise who they really are and what they really want.
This is so cleverly written, turning what could have been a simple but enjoyable tale of revenge into something much deeper and quite fascinating. In amongst the fights and the schemes and the action scenes (very well written action scenes, which I can find a bit boring in some fantasy, but not here!) were comments on war, violence, power, addiction and obsession. Revenge is shown to be a never ending cycle that sucks in everyone around it, in a similar way to war and betrayal. Monza’s quest is going on against a backdrop of war and shifting loyalties that feels as inevitable as her own actions. Both seem doomed – fail or succeed, there’s no victory in either, not really.
If that sounds a bit depressing, remember that this is ‘grimdark’. Except that... well, I actually don’t think that it is. Weirdly, this is a very hopeful book, with an ending that suggests there is a certain amount of goodness in people. Yes, there is violence (a lot of it - this is quite a gory book), but there is also life and hope, and plenty of humour. I think Joe Abercrombie strikes the perfect balance here, actually. His story is realistic, brutally so, but also cheeringly so. In the real world, there is a lot of good swirling around with the bad; it’s messy, and it’s life.
Another thing the author manages to get spot on is the pacing and plotting. There were several times that I didn’t know how he was ever going to resolve something, or where he could go at a particular point in the narrative, and every time he surprised me, and every time it felt exactly right. The twists and turns, the betrayals, the character changes, the reactions, and the weird quirks of fate, are all perfectly handled.
Have I gushed about this enough? :-) I enjoyed this book immensely, and will certainly be reading more of Joe Abercrombie’s books in future. Highly recommended!