Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

A common comparison in reviews goes something like ‘fans of __ will love __’. Related and nearly as common is something like ‘fans of __’s earlier work will love this one’. I’ve seen the argument about the above being lazy and unhelpful reviewing, and I’ve seen numerous pleas for exactly that kind of comparison in reviews. Disregarding that particular discussion, the most appropriate one-line description of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) is ‘Joe Abercrombie serves up a heaping dish of more of the same with Best Served Cold’.

Monza Murcatto is the most ruthless and successful mercenary in Styria. Depending on what side of the river you stand on, she is either immensely popular or indescribably hated. Dwelling on the former, her employer, the Grand Duke Orso, has Monza and her brother killed in an impressive scene of back-stabbing betrayal. Only Monza manages to survive being beaten, cut, stabbed, and thrown from a mountain top. What remains is the classic vengeance story as she methodically seeks the death of the seven people in the room when her brother was killed with the help of a merry band of dangerous degenerates, both new and familiar.

For fans of Abercrombie’s previous work, The First Law Trilogy (
review), Best Served Cold is probably just what they are looking for. Abercrombie’s dark, biting humor imbues everything. Violence is bloody, language harsh, dialogue full of grunts, the sex is cleverly not-so gratuitous, the addictions and perversions shall not be spoken of, and everybody is an evil son-of-a-bitch.

Unlike The First Law Trilogy, Abercrombie doesn’t set out to be blatantly subversive with Best Served Cold. It really is a strait-forward vengeance plot, with surprisingly few twists along the way. With that said, Abercrombie just can’t help but be a little subversive. A scene that sticks with me is one where a female mercenary, female poisoner, and female torturer interrogate a female prisoner – you can feel the testosterone (err…estrogen?) of this not-so uncommon scene reinvented.

The main issue I have with Best Served Cold likely won’t bother most who read the book – Abercrombie doesn’t offer anything new. The First Law Trilogy was a refreshing offering in the often stale genre of epic fantasy. Hoping for an equally refreshing read in Best Served Cold, I found that any novelty remaining quickly wore off. The 640 pages drag on as vengeance is repeatedly sought and achieved – I frequently found myself unmotivated to continue reading. Readers of The First Law will quickly recognize near carbon-copies of characters: Monza is the strong, dangerous woman that Ferro never realized and Shivers nearly a mirror-image of introspective barbarian Logen Ninefingers.

As I hinted at above, Abercrombie’s characterization doesn’t feel so different from The First Law, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Best Served Cold is just as character-driven. At the forefront is the curious dichotomy between Monza and Shivers. Shivers is on a personal journey to become a better man. Monza is the cold-hearted bitch of a mercenary seeking vengeance. Through the book, these two evolve in an unhealthy co-dependency – and if they have sex, watch out! While not the central protagonist, the stage is consistently stolen by the loveable, drunken rogue of a mercenary, Nicomo Cosca, always landing on his feet with flask and sword in hand and caustically cheerful comments to make.

Best Served Cold is a stand-alone book in Abercrombie’s imagined world. However, readers of The First Law will likely appreciate certain plot points more and recognize several recurring characters as it becomes clear that all things in Abercrombie’s world come back to a central feud between powerful enemies, often manipulating events with proxies. While plot is self-contained, Best Served Cold isn’t quite as stand-alone as advertised.

The more-of-same approach of Best Served Cold entertains, yet becomes tedious at times and unfortunately left me wanting more of that special something that I’m convinced Abercrombie can give. 7.5/10

Related Posts:
Review of The Blade Itself, Review of Before They Are Hanged, Review of Last Argument of Kings, Review of The First Law Trilogy, Interview with Joe Abercrombie


Phil said...

Your review is very interesting. It's a point of view that I didn't see much since the reviews started coming out.

But I have to admit that : "For fans of Abercrombie’s previous work, The First Law Trilogy (review), Best Served Cold is probably just what they are looking for" doesn't really stand out from the ‘fans of __’s earlier work will love this one’ kind of review. :)

I hope to read it soon, reviews like this one only increase my interest.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I will probably delay reading in favor of other works I have sitting on the shelf. While I'll still buy and read, someday, now doesn't seem like the time.

Niall said...

I’ve seen the argument about the above being lazy and unhelpful reviewing, and I’ve seen numerous pleas for exactly that kind of comparison in reviews.

I think it's lazy and unhelpful reviewing if that is the only information given: if I say "fans of Kim Stanley Robinson will love Marla Mullinger's debut", do I mean (a) both create an excellent sense of place, (b) both have a first-sf the-future-can-be-built aesthetic, (c) both are politically engaged, (d) both are fundamentally utopian and often about genuinely good people, (e) some combination of the above or (f) something else entirely? You can't tell. Writers have many characteristics, and reader A may love writer Y for different reasons than reader B loves writer Y.

Of course, "fans of Kim Stanley Robinson's utopian outlook will love Marla Mullinger's debut" is still a bit of a cliche, and arguably rather slack; I could instead say, "Marla Mullinger's debut is utopian science fiction, of the sort rarely practiced these days except by Kim Stanley Robinson", for instance, which gives you more information: it's like KSR, and it's a relative rarity.

Neth said...


Thanks. After I wrote the review, I searched out reviews that are already out there to see how my thoughts compared. What I found was that a lot of those 'reviews' seem to be little more than fan testimony. I've argued in the past that true objectivity in a review is impossible and not even disirable, but when reviews are written, there should be at least some semblance of objective thought - if not, the review should be qualified like hell with things like 'I'm an Abercrombie worshipping fanboy'.

OK, I'm getting a little off-track here and straying into realm of some the recent ethics discussions that I've been happily avoiding.

Anyway, I always hope that when I write a review (whether it's positive, mixed, or negative) that some interest is raised. Particularly with negative reviews, I strive that some people can read the review and think something like 'he may not have liked it, but that's exactly the type of book I want to read' (that is unless the book is complete shit).

and the comment about comparison to previous works - well, that was fully intentional and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.




I agree with your thoughts on this, but as I mentioned, from what I've seen from general fan communities (message boards), is that the majority really like direct comparisons to other authors (even if they are done poorly). Anyway, as I said in the review, I don't really want to dwell on that tangental discussion - basically I was looking for an intro and a way to justify a statement that I knew could easily be seen as quite lazy, though I believe it sums up the book very well.

RobB said...

Spot on Ken. Maybe we fall in line on Orbit books?

Neth said...


Maybe that's the connection.

I did notice over at SFFWorld that you mention King Rat as one of your favorite Mieville books - I consider it my least favorite of those that I've read.

ediFanoB said...

First of all you wrote a good review with interesting aspects.
Do readers always expect something new from their authors?
My answer is yes and no.
To be honest when I read a series or a stand-alone based in the same world I do not really expect something new.
But when an author starts a new series then I expect new things.

I look forward to read Best Served Cold. And against my reading habit I will read the German edition which will be released in October 2009. I read the First Law trilogy in German and the translation by Kirsten Borchardt was good. And she is also responsible for the translation of Best Served Cold.

Neems said...

"I strive that some people can read the review and think something like 'he may not have liked it, but that's exactly the type of book I want to read'"

This. I loved the 'First Law Trilogy', and I am doubtless going to buy 'Best Served Cold' - but you can take so much more from a considered, objective review. I don't really need to know that a Joe Abercrombie fan likes a Joe Abercrombie book, I could probably work that out for myself.

Ondrej from James Patterson Book List said...

Evil son of bitches nearly always make good reading.


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