Bear with me here. I’m going to start my review of Best Served Cold by talking very briefly about another of my favorite books, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.
My favorite aspect of PSS was Mieville’s relentless use of language to impart an overwhelming feeling of grime. For all its cast of entertaining characters, for me the star of the book was New Crobuzon’s overwhelming aura of dingy decay, filth, and muck.
Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold gave me the same sensation, albeit with a different focus. If one were to make one of those word cloud thingies from BSC, I’m certain that “blood” and “shit” would be front and center. Abercrombie’s metaphors for just about everything are laden with brutality and violence; he wants us to live in a harsh, cruel world, and he does that not only with dozens of scenes where people are butchered, but by describing everything from architecture to sunsets in terms of blood, guts, and excrement.
Even more than that is his use of his “camera.” Consider than in any scene of a book, there are hundreds of sensory objects an author could show us, a dizzying array of sounds, sights, smells, actions, movement. The same underlying tale could be told in any number of ways, with any number of stimuli in focus.
In one particular scene of Best Served Cold, a battle leader sits upon a majestic horse, ready to lead a charge of men into battle. But in service to his goals, Abercrombie points the camera at the horse’s rear, showing us that in that moment it’s taking an inglorious dump. “Hey, look over here. There’s a lot going on in this scene, but I want to make sure you get a good look at this horseshit.”
For six hundred pages the book is like that: a tale of violence and revenge told in the basest, roughest, most brutal way imaginable. Not that I was not surprised by this, having read (and greatly enjoyed) Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. But I was struck even more by the unrelenting river of ferocious language used in service of a blood-soaked tale.
The “heroic” characters ranged from serviceable to excellent. The poisoner Castor Morveer is an absolute joy, and I adored Caul Shivers, the mercenary Cosca, and the killer/math savant Friendly. I was less inspired by Monza – her chapters drove the story more by her compelling circumstance than her character. I was driven to root for her more by the wrongs inflicted upon her than by her personality, which was unlikeable and without the enjoyable quirks of the others. (Now that I think upon it, the author, I think, had an easier time with his male characters than his female ones. Day, Vitari, and Monza were all flatter and drier than Shivers, Cosca and Morveer.)
My experience of the story was a tiny bit uneven. During the first few chapters I felt as though I was settling into a comfortable, guilty pleasure. What could be more straightforwardly entertaining than an Abercrombie revenge fantasy? Sometime around the 20% mark, though, it felt like the story was losing its meaning, tottering very slightly on the edge of a “paint-by-gore-soaked-numbers” sort of letdown. But it pulled itself out of that a short while later, and became the engrossing tale full of colorful characters I had expected, with a plot arc that rose above the simple structure promised at the beginning. By the midway point I couldn’t put the book down, and the final couple of chapters were an edge-of-my-seat delight.
As for the actual ending (spoilers ahead):
I thought it suffered from the same thing that slightly marred my enjoyment of the First Law trilogy’s end: it’s revealed that all of the convolutions and contortions and bloody battles were secretly driven by mysterious characters with godlike abilities, giving me a mild aftertaste of “so no one’s agency truly mattered?” But on the other hand, there were some marvelous revelations and a satisfying sense of the greater story neatly coming full circle.
Overall, Best Served Cold is a marvelous book, filled with clever battlefield philosophy one-liners and powerful visual images, but mostly with severed limbs and crushed skulls. Abercrombie isn’t “Lord Grimdark” without good reason.