Best Served Cold (book, Joe Abercrombie, 2009)
First published in Death Ray #19.
Fantasy: think it’s dull, clichéd and overdrawn on its debt to Tolkien? Read this, it’ll change your mind.
Joe Abercrombie’s made a big splash in the fantasy world, and, having read this, I can see why. There’s enough wit, pace and élan in Best Served Cold to entertain the most rabid anti-fantasist, let alone a simple lapsed believer like me. This is the crackling, bitter, bloody antidote to anodyne sagas. Spiked with cynicism and, indeed, spikes, Best Served Cold has as much in common with a Hollywood caper as it does with the rest of its genre.
The story concerns Monzcarro Murcatto, mercenary general in the fractured land of Styria. Dumped off a mountain by her employer, her brother (and lover) slain in front of her, she somehow survives, puts together a team of misfits and sets out for vengeance, whereupon everything gets horribly out of hand.
The setting, based on Renaissance Italy, is pitch perfect, as full of plague and poverty as it is heroism and swordplay. It feels genuinely late Medieval, only, if anything, grimmer. Even Monzcarro’s unlikely position as general is well explained (unlike those of oh-so-many powerful female characters in too many off the peg fantasy worlds). Moral ambiguity, hard violence, and that weaving of laughter, horror and pathos real life brings further make it breathe, though the brilliant characters are what really make it roar.
It’s too slick to be affecting, and the plot reversals, skin-of-the-teeth escapades, witticism and coincidences are all rather broad. In fact, although it seems more realistic than most fantasy, it actually is not. It has the hyper-real feel of a cynical play put on in the world Abercrombie describes. As a result, it struggles to say anything worthwhile, (that we think the author might be capable of it is compliment enough in this market), but this is the highest grade of adult, commercial fantasy we’ve seen for a while. Pure entertainment.