A few years ago, I discovered a completely new — to me — subgenre of fantasy. It is bloody, full of battles with swords and maces, always placed in a medieval setting, and very nearly devoid of magic. Its practitioners are the likes of Richard K. Morgan and Matthew Stover — and Joe Abercrombie, in the dark, brutal and compelling Best Served Cold. I’m still not quite sure that I like this type of book; though it is certainly exciting, it is also troubling. Perhaps that is precisely the intent of the authors’ writing about a very visceral and immediate type of battle, one far removed from the surgical precision of computer-guided missiles floating through the door of a house to pinpoint the death of a terrorist.
Abercrombie names his book for the ancient saying by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” To me, though, two other sayings came more vividly to mind while reading this book: the Chinese proverb, “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself” and the saying attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” These latter two sayings are played out in full in the course of Best Served Cold.
The book begins when General Monzcarro Murcatto and her beloved brother Benna are riding in to report to the politician they serve, Grand Duke Orso, who is well on his way to becoming the King of Styria. Orso’s ambitions have advanced as far as they have because of the military genius of Monza, as she is known to those who love her — and such people do exist, despite her reputation as the Butcher of Caprile and the Serpent of Talins. But Orso proves to be less than grateful for her efforts, causing the swift dispatch of her brother with a knife to the neck and attempting to kill her by strangling her and throwing her down a mountain. Monza proves hard to kill, though, and despite having her right hand shattered by a man’s boot, a sword to the gut, and a bevy of broken bones from her fall down a mountain, she lives.
And what she lives for is revenge. She vows to kill each of the seven men who were in the room and participated in her attempted assassination. She gathers about her a powerful group of misfits, including a fighter from the North, Caul Shivers, who is in Styria trying to become a better man; a mass murderer freed from prison, known as Friendly and obsessed with counting things; a master poisoner, Morveer, and his assistant, Day. Others become attached to their company, willingly or not, as plans — and killings — proceed.
But this quest for vengeance is not such a quiet and personal thing as it seems. Slowly but surely, Monza’s task comes to involve ever wider circles, and ultimately armies. Soon revenge is a matter of statecraft. Allies become realigned, both in her immediate circle and in the larger world; armies of mercenaries change allegiances. Soon enough, the whole world has become blind, as Gandhi would have it.
Abercrombie has a tremendous ability to draw a character swiftly. In the first five pages, Monza and Benna are presented in such a way that they seem fully familiar, mostly through masterful use of dialogue. Abercrombie also knows how to plot a complex tale. On rereading the prologue after finishing the novel, I can see that the seeds of everything that is to come were planted there. And descriptions! Abercrombie can describe a whorehouse so that you can visualize it perfectly, and he can describe the most vicious torture so that you can imagine it much better than you would prefer.
Indeed, the battles and fights and double-dealings of the characters are described so well, with such attention to detail and plotting, that they become wearisome after a time. One more double-cross, ho hum. Yet one cannot help but feel that that is precisely the point Abercrombie is trying to make: that war, in all its horror, can become too commonplace to those fighting it, that one murder comes to seem much like another, and that ugliness can come to seem beauty when one is exposed to too much ugliness. I do not think I am going too far in saying that this is a surprisingly strong antiwar novel, if one chooses to look beyond the story itself and into the philosophy behind it. Abercrombie doesn’t want only to entertain you; he wants you to think. Most of all, he wants you to see revenge for the folly it is.