24/25 (96%) 5 stars.
Behold: my first five star-read of 2021. ‚Best Served Cold‘ features an expertly constructed plot from the master of character writing. It’s a wild mixture of The Count of Monte Cristo and Kill Bill, a revenge story par excellence, graced with Abercrombie’s fleshed-out anti-heros: his best book yet.
Is anybody even mildly surprised? Did anybody expect anything else than me giving this five stars? You have to be realistic about these things: I’m a character reader and Joe Abercrombie is easily the best character writer in fantasy, so how could this go wrong? I expected greatness and Lord Grimdark delivered even more than I expected. With this one, Abercrombie sheds away the last tiny weakness his writing had in the First Law trilogy, meaning: plot. While I did enjoy the trilogy, I felt that Abercrombie had problems with establishing and focusing on the core plotline because he concentrated so much on his character work. Don’t attack me for saying that, he’s said so himself. So, what happened to that weakness?
It’s gone. Vanished into nothingness. Ladies and Gentlemen, with this one Mr Abercrombie has proven that he can write a book that’s carried not only by its magnificent ambivalent characters but also by its plot. And he’s chosen the one plot line I which I cherish above all others: IT’S A FRIGGIN REVENGE STORY, FOLKS! YES! Boom. From Count of Monte Cristo over Crooked Kingdom to The Lies of Locke Lamora, revenge stories have never ceases to get to me. It’s just so much easier to root for the protagonist right from the start when you see his/her motives, and no motive is better than vengeance.
But it’s not easy to write a good revenge story. The fact it can go completely wrong quite easily: look at Sam Sykes’s Seven Blades in Black, for instance. I guess Sykes modeled his book after this masterpiece, but he completely failed to come anywhere near Abercrombie’s brilliance. Not just because Abercrombie is the better writer, no, Sykes failed already at the basic, at plot construction. Just like Monza, the protagonist of Best Served Cold, Sykes’s Sal is hunting seven enemies who have wronged her. And she’s not hunting them over the course of a trilogy or two movies like Beatrix Kiddo, no, it all happens in a single book. And Sykes failed at doing that. Abercombie didn’t. Why? Lemme tell you why.
So, let’s start with the plot, shall we? As I said, Monza is hunting seven of her enemies. In a single book. So constructing the plot arc is both extremely easy and especially hard – it’s easy because you have an easy structure: kill person A, then B, then… you get the gist. Basically, your protagonist kills off his antagonists one by one, then goes after the big villain at the end. That’s your story. And that’s hard to write because it could very easily become repetitive, boring, and episodical. Of course, Abercrombie is too much of a genius to let either of that happen here. Instead, he creates a masterpiece once again: Everything that could go wrong doesn’t go wrong. He takes the traditional weaknesses and risks of writing a revenge plot and transforms them into his story’s strenghts.
The two biggest weaknesses and risks of revenge stories are:
1. Repetetiveness of plot.
2. The protagonist gets too dark and people stop rooting for him/her.
What Abercrombie does is using his own strengths to transform these weaknesses into strengts by adding entertaining, fascinating side characters that help his protagonist ONE BY ONE. He doesn’t start with Monza and the crew, no, he adds (and takes away) members of the crew slowly over the course of Monza’s vendetta, thereby making each individual episode fresh and original. So there’s no repetetiveness. He avoids Issue Two by establishing a really strong character motivation at the start: we see what happens to Monza, we feel her anger, we understand the whole impact of the betrayal and so we’re ready to follow her. And instead of letting his protagonist get darker, he does the opposite – Monza gets less bitter brick by brick. And of course the reader still roots for her throughout all the brutal things she does because this book was written by Joe Abercrombie, the man who has given literature a likable torturer as a protagonist.
This is the raw structure of the plot line: Monza on her vendetta against the grand villain and his minions, grabbing them one by one. There’s a secondary plot that’s closely connected to this: the war in Styria, a number of city states fighting each other, Italian Renaissance transported into the First Law world. Not many fantasy elements, as usual with Abercrombie: the focus is somewhere else. Yes, this one has a strong plot, but the focus is still on Lord Grimdark’s bread and butter business: characters.
We get some side characters from the trilogy as new narrators, but at the heart of this is of course Monza, that female Edmond Dantès, that black-haired Beatrix Kiddo. Monza has many similarities to Glokta, but she isn’t just as broken as him in terms of body. In terms of mind, well, that’s another story. Once again Abercrombie has created an amazing group of anti-heros and Monza is the coronation of them all: she is broken like Glokta, she has Ninefinger’s brutal past, she has Ferro’s thirst for vengeance. Her crew consists of northman away from home, a sociopath called Friendly (Oh, Abercrombie’s irony never stops impressing), an incredibly wordy, arrogant poisoner and his hungry apprentice, a former torturer, an honourless mercenary, and an exiled torturer. Sounds like they’re not a group you’d like to hang out with? Of course. Following them around is still highly entertaining.
What else is there to say? So much: masterful use of unreliable narrators and perspectives, the wonderful opposing interior development of Monza and Shivers, the amazing fights – and the sex scenes, of course. Joe Abercrombie writes sex scenes like… well, like no one else. Also, the prose in general: Yes. Just ‚yes‘ to Abercrombie’s prose that never fails to underline the individual voiced of his characters.
So, all in all: perfect planning, perfect execution. Promise, payoff, and progress are all delivered in a manner that can only be summed up as „excellent“. Abercrombie has once more improved as a writer and as a storyteller, this thing is absolutely flawless: five stars.
Writing Style: 5
24/25 (96%) 5 stars.