Review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

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Well-Known Member
Oct 20, 2013
12th May 2012 12:44 AM

Brian Turner


Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” is a standalone novel set in the same world established in his “First Law” trilogy.

Therefore if you’ve read that, some of the references and characters may be familiar. If not, you’re in for a treat anyway.

The whole story is based on a plot of vengeance, which is established in the first scene of the book.

And then, slowly, a group of characters come together in which to ensure this is carried out.

At first, it looks all too predictable – band of adventurers, a clear mission, and over the first few chapters, a sense of a clearly defined structure that will trundle along until conclusion.

Even more striking, those who have read the First Law trilogy may be unsettled by the familiarity of the archetype base for this merry band of aventurers: a rugged northerner looking to be a better person; a cold-blooded female warrior, a dandy swordsman, a master magician, a cripple …

Such comparisons soon become superficial, and just as happened in the First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie sets up a seemingly predictable situation – and then proceeds to make it unpredictable.

Chapter by chapter, the story evolves, the characters develop, and surprises occur. The plot moves away from initial safe presumptions and ensures a deeper and much richer work.

By the end of the novel, it feels as though the wheel of expectation has been thoroughly turned. What began as a simple-looking story has been turned completely on its head by the end.

Unlike the First Law trilogy, this book has some notable strengths:

- as a standalone novel, it’s concise and tells a full tale in just one book,
- the characterisation is very differentiated and frankly very well done,
- the storytelling begins with a simple precept, and turns it into a more complex development.

At times, the story does sometimes hang a little too grim, even a little too gratuitous with violence and gore. That’s Abercrombie, really.

Yet it is also comedic, in a dark and dangerous way that verges on the cartoonish at times. Sometimes the authors tongue is so much in their cheek you wonder if he isn’t toying with you.

The mixture of grim reality and dark humour with an intelligent plot manages to ensure it is both entertaining and gripping.

The main criticism is that while Joe Abercrombie’s writing tries to bring a sense of reality to his world, it feels like it is only just starting to develop properly – that the realism in the narrative has yet to be matched by the realism of the world building, not least when it is graced by small anachronisms that divorce it from the historical mediaeval reality.

Even this isn’t enough to distract from the story itself, and there is detail enough that clearly elevates Best Served Cold above the hideous twee fantasies that the fantasy genre has been subjected to for far too long.

Ultimately, this book is about exploring the human condition, not least the complexities o moral development, in a fantastical setting with mediaeval roots, and it works very well.

And as a wordsmith Joe Abercrombie is really starting to distinguish himself: there are some truly brilliantly sections of writing in this.

Overall, this is a compelling novel with compelling characters, that while takes a while to demonstrate it’s potential, it makes every effort to fulfill it, mostly with grand success.

For discussions on Joe Abercrombie, see our Joe Abercrombie forum.

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