If the myriad of year-end and best of the decade lists published by my fellow bloggers taught me anything, it was that Joe Abercrombie's standalone pseudo-sequel to The First Law trilogy is an incredibly divisive entity. Second only to The Magicians by Lev Grossman, readers either reveled in the experience of Best Served Cold, or were left... well, cold by it.
200 pages in, I can't yet say with any certainty which of those camps The Speculative Scotsman will ultimately fall into, if indeed it can only be a love-it or hate-it kind of thing. There are moments of brilliance peppered throughout what I've read: quick and dirty action scenes with immediately brutal consequences; a couple of characters that genuinely intrigue me, Friendly the borderline autistic soldier above all others; and a sense of humour black as the night sky throughout.
Foolishly, perhaps, I hadn't thought to wonder what the title of Abercrombie's latest novel might entail until I sat down with Best Served Cold and read through the opening chapters. After a prologue in which her brother is slain and the protagonist herself barely survives, Monza assembles a reluctant band of thugs to aid in her single, searing purpose: the murder of the seven people she deems responsible for the bloody betrayal which was Benna's end.
Set against the bleak fantasy backdrop of Styria fleshed out in The First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is, of course, a revenge thriller. That shouldn't be a surprise. What gives me pause, however, is the relentlessness of Monza's vengeance. The novel's seven sections are each devoted to one of her targets, from the lowly banker whose only crime was to witness the attack to the inestimably powerful Duke himself whose paranoia meant the death of Benna. There is an inexorable sense of motion as the motley band Monza assembles moves forward, always forward towards the next mark, the next murder.
Best Served Cold has been a harrowing read thus far, but I'm pleased to report that already there are emergent narrative strains asking the inevitable questions of Monza's motley: are the lives of seven men equal to the death of one? Does the troupe not stand to become the very thing they despise?
In the end, neither seven murders nor seven thousand will bring Benna back, and the various thugs in Monza's employ have already begun to question righteousness of their purpose. What remains to be seen is whether or not the bitter protagonist of Best Served Cold will see the light before she's brought an already-troubled nation to its knees. The Speculative Scotsman certainly hopes so, because as inventive and entertaining as each of the gang's assassinations have been thus far, I can see myself growing tired of their disconnected, episodic quality short of some underpinning moral implications to tie all the bloodshed together.
Stay tuned to the blog for a full review of Joe Abercrombie's latest novel next week.