Best Served Cold is a stand alone novel by Joe Abercrombie set in the same world as his First Law trilogy with a different set of main characters. It takes place sometime after the end of the series, although I’m not sure exactly how much time has passed other than it must have been at least a couple of years. Although I enjoyed the First Law trilogy, I preferred Best Served Cold since it seemed tighter and better paced, for the most part.
Monza, the infamous leader of a band of mercenaries called the Thousand Swords, fights on the side of Grand Duke Orso of Talins in his war to become King of Styria. She and her brother Benna visit Orso to deliver the news of her latest victory, and as expected, Orso is greatly pleased by the tidings. However, Orso is not so grateful that he wishes to risk his throne being taken over by the two when he realizes Monza’s popularity with the people far outreaches his own. Due to this potential threat, Orso has planned to have both of them murdered. Benna, who was never much of a fighter, is killed rather quickly and thrown from the terrace. After a struggle, Monza is thrown down the mountain where she lands atop her brother’s dead body, and she survives even though she is terribly injured.
Once Monza recovers, all she can think about is vengeance and she will not rest until all seven men who were present during her attempted murder are as dead as her brother. For that purpose, she hires a small group of assorted men and women to help her with her cause – a master poisoner and his assistant, a former torturer, a convict fixated on numbers, a drunken ex-mercenary, and a Northman looking to make a new start in a new place as a better man. Together they plot to take down each of the seven men, one by one.
Whether or not I would recommend beginning with Best Served Cold instead of the First Law trilogy depends on reader preference (and I wouldn’t recommend either to readers who have issues with violence, language, sexual content, and reading about people who aren’t exactly noble). Best Served Cold is a more tightly focused novel about vengeance (of course). The First Law trilogy is traditional epic fantasy with more magic, a wider view of the world, and larger scale events. Overall, I did prefer Best Served Cold to the First Law trilogy, but it also does have some parts that are more fun if you are familiar with characters from the previous novels. Also, starting with Best Served Cold then reading the trilogy means you may know some of how it ends, although I don’t think there are enough details mentioned that any big events would be spoiled. Most of the references to major characters from the series are so vague that I suspect I would have forgotten about them by the time I went back and read the First Law had I begun with Best Served Cold. Of course, Best Served Cold is also shorter despite its length since it is self-contained rather than being composed of three volumes, each of which is longer than the previous one.
Best Served Cold follows a clearly defined structure for the entire novel once the prologue is complete. Each section is prefaced by a few pages about Monza and Benna’s past, with each section revealing more about the two and how you may not know as much about them as initially thought. Due to this method of weaving past and present, the fun dialogue, the not-so-morally-good characters, and the early plot’s focus on using more brains than brawn to reach an end goal, it reminded me a bit of The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch at first. Further into the book, there was a lot more focus on fighting and battles, though, and it reminded me less of Lies the more I read. The middle actually got a bit bogged down with too many fight scenes and it slowed the pacing down, but I tend to enjoy reading about battles of wits to battles involving weaponry, so perhaps others won’t feel those parts dragged out as much as I did.
Like the First Law trilogy, most of the characters are not people you would want to be friends with since they are on nobody’s side but their own. In spite of that (or perhaps because of that, depending on your point of view), they are all very interesting and fun to read about, particularly since the banter between them is very entertaining and often made me laugh out loud. They each have their own little quirks, such as the mercenary who lived for drink, and the Northman who ended up as a part of Monza’s set of hired killers when he came to Styria to get away from killing. What I particularly enjoyed about the characters (in addition to their cynical but oftentimes hilarious outlook on life) was the way in which they were presented. Some of them are revealed to in fact be far better than they appear the more you read – while others end up being far worse. (Even so, none of them are exactly angels – they are all part of a group of hired killers, after all.) Yet I never got the impression that any of them were pure evil but rather a product of circumstances, their past and present situations. They were just doing the best they could to survive in a harsh world where the law is every man for himself.
Best Served Cold is a darkly humorous tale of vengeance filled with schemes and skirmishes. The characters are not models of goodness but also did not seem too despicable since they all had reasons for their behavior. They were certainly amusing enough to keep it from feeling too depressing even when events were not turning out in their favor.