Best Served Cold
by Joe Abercrombie
"You were a hero round these parts. That's what they call you when you kill so many people the word murderer falls short."
— Joe Abercrombie (Best Served Cold)
After being chucked off a balcony to her (supposed) death, Monza Murcatto swears revenge on the seven men who put her there. Along the way she gathers a rag-tag band of the usual morally vague mercenaries: a self-aggrandizing poisoner and his doll-faced apprentice, an OCD thug, a foppish old enemy/friend and expert swordsman, Vitari the redheaded torturer from the First Law series, and Shivers, the Northman who is trying to be a better man, but still needs to eat. They cut a bloody swath through Styria as each of Monza's murderers fall prey to her wrath. But revenge is not as fulfilling as Monza thought.
This book is not as complex as his first trilogy, but then again, he is trying to fit a story arc into one book instead of three. It took me a while to get invested, and due to the episodic nature of the book (a section per kill) I found certain sections lost my interest.
That being said, this was yet another fantastic book! Monza and Shiver's cross character development was incredibly compelling: as one was crawling tentatively up the morality scale, the other was sliding steadily down. And again, Joe Abercombie continues to create unexpected characters, for example, the monosyllabic, OCD thug who must compulsively count everything, lives his life by what number he rolls on his dice, and wants nothing more than to go back to the rigid schedule of prison.
When it comes to violence, there is no man better than Abercrombie. His training in film editing creates incredibly clear and morbidly creative fight scenes. I started to really pay attention starting with the macabre, Mardi-Gras-like slaughter at an upscale brothel.
He is also the master of plot twists. Just when you think you know the story formula, he turns the outcome on its head. Even when you think you've got Abercrombie's tricks down, he changes tactics. He then subtly drops plot hints like bread crumbs and the suspense is generated while you are waiting for the characters to realize what you have already seized upon. He creates moments where both Monza and the reader wishes to grant mercy, but he relentlessly serves the story alone, and gives no quarter.
Oddly enough, Joe Abercrombie at last gives the reader what passes in this world as a happy ending (compared to the ending of the First Law). The same ambiguity shrouds the denouement of this book as the other, but there is hope for redemption and change for good, rather than the threat of corruption. And a new player enters the game to potentially turn the tables on the evil done in the First Law Trilogy.
I definitely recommended it for those who love dark, gritty fantasy, or those who are bored with the hearts-and-flowers, "the good guys win and we all learn something uplifting about the world," done-to-death plots.