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"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, 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 employer's 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 Northman 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."
With Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie returns to the unpretentious fantasy world he mined so memorably in the three books of The First Law, but it seems the myriad threads and perspectives of that subversive narrative are old news to the filthiest, most bloody-minded writer Britain has spat out in decades. His latest is a single-minded, standalone cycle of betrayal and revenge that careens headlong towards a conclusion that befits the mounting trail of death and destruction its protagonist leaves in her wake.
The Years of Blood have left Styria divided. The once-great nation's most powerful forces have been at war with one another for decades, but for the first time, an end to the bloodshed and battery is in sight. With the army-for-hire of the Thousand Swords at his every beck and call, Grand Duke Orso has come within a hair's breadth of seizing control of the devastated kingdom. One last push is all it will take, and the tying up of a few loose ends.
Among the loose ends is Monzcarro Murcatto, captain of the mercenary forces which have won the day for the Duke time and again. A hero without match to some, a ruthless villain to others, Monza's sway over the people of Talins has left her an unwitting threat to Orso's intended dominion. Thus, the Duke and his inner circle take steps to have her removed from the picture. Her brother Benna is slaughtered before her eyes; Monza, meanwhile, is stabbed, slit open and thrown from atop the palace's tallest tower.
But she survives. And before she can even begin to heal, far less to mourn her terrible loss, she has sworn vengeance on the Duke and the six of his sons and associates who played a part in his betrayal. Monza may be broken, beaten and scarred from head to toe, but seven men must die; seven men without whom the ravaged landscape of Styria will never be the same.
Inevitably, the death toll amounts to considerably more than that. Best Served Cold is, after all, a book by Joe Abercrombie, which - if you're not already familiar with his, ahem, body of work - you can take to mean heads, not to mention a veritable miscellany of other limbs and digits, will spend more time rolling than in their naturally appointed place. Best Served Cold is, let me be quite clear, an incredibly violent novel: bitter, twisted and dark beyond imagining.
Curiously, perhaps, it is also a very funny novel. Abercrombie's acerbic sense of humour permeates the text at the least appropriate moments possible, and it's as well; without the occasional chuckle to bring a little levity to the grim proceedings, Best Served Cold would likely leave its readers in a dismal state indeed. The relentlessness of Monza's lengthy, murderous quest is apt, eventually, to punch through the defenses of even the most optimistic speculative sorts.
One cold-blooded killing follows another, and for a while, the wanton carnage seems to come a little too easily to Monza and company. I'll swallow the notion that she has connections everywhere; an undwindling chest of some secret stash of gold from her days with the Thousand Swords is more of a stretch, but sure; it beggars belief, however, that her return trip down from Grand Duke Orso's tower doesn't seem to have left her much the worse for wear, physically speaking, short of a few war-wounds and a stiff pinky finger. Though there are ample reminders of Monza's motivations, it becomes increasingly difficult to identity either with her or the motley lot she recruits to her cause.
In fact, it's only at the halfway point - and mark my words, Best Served Cold will be a beast of a paperback - that readers are granted any real insight into the protagonist's disturbed psyche. It's all business from the outset, and what visceral business it is. There's something to be said, certainly, some added value to be had from thrusting readers right into the thick of the action, but all work and no play leaves precious little room for Monza and her unlikely band of brothers to breathe as characters. Until the troupe arrives in Visserine and their best-laid plans begin to unravel, Friendly alone, an oddball ex-convict with a passion for mathematics matched only by his prowess with a blade, seems fleshed out enough to be in any sense sympathetic.
Monza's harrowing hunt never quite takes a backseat, but persistence is pivotal: Best Served Cold is at its bloody best when the cost of all the killing finally catches up with its cast. From that point on, Abercrombie's visceral fantasy lurches to life like a corpse long consigned to oblivion suddenly reanimated and stuck full of uppers. The stakes are raised, the pace picks up, tensions escalate to breaking point and of course, the body count increases exponentially. If the relative tedium of the first handful of chapters doesn't break your spirit, a brilliantly brutal climax awaits. The long journey chronicled in Best Served Cold isn't an easy one, neither for readers nor the anti-heroes at its pounding black heart, but late in the game, Abercombie's return to Styria reveals itself as an epic and exciting revenge thriller utterly true to its own unflinching, if unconventional moral code.
Best Served Cold
by Joe Abercrombie
2009, Gollancz: London
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