A Book I Liked: Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

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Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

I came across Joe Abercrombie when I had lunch with some people from Orbit, the science fiction publisher, a few weeks ago, and they mentioned him. They publish Abercrombie, so their objectivity is hopelessly compromised, but I put him on my list anyway. Then I was reminded of him when I was obsessively checking the Amazon UK page for my book and I saw that you could order his and my book together, and that his book was outselling mine by like a mazillion orders of magnitude. (He and I may be the only authors in or out of Christendom to be blurbed by both Junot Diaz and George R. R. Martin.)

Abercrombie writes dark, adult fantasy, by which I mean there’s a lot of stabbing in it, and after people stab each other they sometimes have sex with each other. His tone is morbid and funny and hard-boiled, not wholly dissimilar to that of Iain Banks. Best Served Cold begins with the heroine, a mercenary named Monzcarro Murcatto — thankfully it gets abbreviated to Monza — getting thrown over the wall of a castle and down a mountain.

Amazingly Monza survives. Not so amazingly she swears revenge on the seven people who tried to kill her. The rest of the book is story of her attempts to kill them.

This premise allows Abercrombie to march Monza the length and breadth of his fictional kingdom of Styria, collecting a ragged band of mercenaries along the way. As she works her way through the list, and becomes increasingly embroiled in the fate of Styria as a nation, he puts her through a series of wildly inventive combat sequences. Like Fritz Leiber he has a gift for describing hand to hand combat — you can see in your head where the blades are going, what is clanging off what, the sweat, the blood, the banter.

And like George R. R. Martin Abercrombie has the will and the cruelty to actually kill and maim his characters. Monza is a badass, but she’s not so badass that you always know what’s coming next. No one is ever safe. Volumetrically speaking, it’s hard to think of another fantasy novel in which this much blood gets spilled.

Not that Best Served Cold is just fight after fight. The arc of the story is about revenge, and why people want it, and what you actually have once you get it. Abercrombie does a particularly good line in witty nihilists, men and women who’ve been killing so long that they’re past the horror of it, but not past the humor of it. “You were a hero round these parts,” someone tells Monza. And then by way of clarification: “That’s what they call you when you kill so many people the word murder falls short.”