It’s one of those things with a very nebulous definition. There are a few mostly agreed upon parameters of the term though. It’s generally thought of as the polar opposite of the White Hat fantasy that ruled the day from Tolkien up through the 90s. The term didn’t exist back then, but GRRM’s A Game of Thrones was probably the first to buck the trend. It’s hard for me to say because by the time I was in college buying my own books, I was looking for something much fresher than high fantasy was back then. The term low fantasy didn’t exist back then either. There was just fantasy. Done. Got a sword and/or a dragon? You’re all lumped together.
Getting off my tangent there, grimdark is bad people doing bad things, often for bad reasons. They’re usually violent and bloody. “Bad” people and “bad” things are grey areas though. That leads to a lot of debate over who counts. I’ve seen GRRM, Sam Sykes and Peter Brett all included in grimdark even though I wouldn’t consider any of their characters or writing despicable. The one person who is universally considered the ruler of grimdark, however, is Joe Abercrombie aka Lord Grimdark. No really. Go use twitter. That’s his handle.
Today we’re reading Best Served Cold and heading straight to the back of the book!
War may be hell, but for Monza Murcatto, a soldier of considerable fortune, 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 and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.
I picked up Best Served Cold in large part because it is a standalone novel. That’s not something that happens a lot anymore. Trilogies or more-that-that-ologies are all the rage lately and while that’s all well and good when I find a series I love, sometimes I don’t want to get lose between books or be tied down to one set for weeks on end. My reading time isn’t as prolific as it used to be. Best Served Cold is a stand alone but the fourth book set in the same world. That kind of thing is growing on me more lately. You get some of the benefits of sequel, a shared world, familiar sights and characters, but without feeling like I need to take notes for the later books.
So that’s why I used this book for the first Abercrombie grimdarkfest. Let’s get back to that back of the book summary there. Pretty short eh? You really don’t need more than that. It’s a very succinct summary of the first chapter of the 880 page book. Monza, the mercenary general, is hanging out with her boss. She’s betrayed. Stabbed. Beaten. Stepped on. Cast forth to the harsh mistress of gravity. It’s pretty bloody. It’s one of those “Wait… you’re alive how?” kind of moments.
That’s pretty much it right there. For the next 800 pages Monza is on a tear to kill the seven guys that were in the room when she was defenestrated from it. Of course, after she heals up she doesn’t have a mercenary army anymore. She recruits herself a team. There’s the slightly crazy ex con, the spymaster, the drunk (who used to be her boss), the poisoner and his apprentice, The most important of all the supporting cast around Monza, because it really is her story and hers alone, is Shivers.
Shivers came from the north as an immigrant to get away from the clan warfare. He wanted to be a better person. The world doesn’t seem to want that for Shivers. Ever. He’s constantly stuck in situations where the only way forward is compromise. His bad luck with fate isn’t what makes him the most important of the supporting cast though. Shivers is Monza’s moral opposite. He is the juxtaposition that really lets you see where Monza is exactly. When they first meet up, Shivers is constantly talking of being a better man. Monza is terribly cynical about the whole deal and is telling Shivers to toughing up and deal.
But thought all the stabbing, double dealings and and rivers of blood, Monza has a real character arc that kind of snuck up on me. Her quest seems to grind her down and the Monza at the end of the book is very different than the Monza that first vows revenge. Shivers tracks opposite of Monza the whole time. I don’t think Monza’s emotional arc in this book would have worked at all without Shivers around to balance things out. I wouldn’t call Shivers her anchor, but he would definitely be her reference point.
Best Served Cold kind of wore me down a few times. Not all of Monza’s hit list are so easily shanked in a back alley. Some of the assassination schemes were fantastically detailed. The battles range from the grand down to the gritty. A couple times in the middle of the book I really wanted to just yell at Monza “Just frickin’ stab them already!” The reveal always justified the set up. I never felt unsatisfied with any of Monza’s hits even if the set ups took their time on occasion. The betrayals and double dealings with Morever, the poisoner, were particularly great.
So how would I sum this up? Well, Best Served Cold is a kung fu movie done up in fantasy digs. The entire time I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but make the huge, glaring parallels with the Kill Bill movies. Some people die up front. Main character is left for dead. Time to go after EVERYONE and get a couple feelings along the way. Kill Bill even starts out with the quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Actually, from now on, I am going to picture Monza in yellow and black Bruce Lee armor. It doesn’t really work as an image, even in my head.
Best Served Cold is a violent story about amoral people. It will grind at your psyche a bit. But it wouldn’t affect people if it wasn’t fantastically well written. It’s a good book but you can’t go into this one blind. You really need the right mindset pick up on all the depth going on with Monza’s revenge quest.