So it is with Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. Set three years after the events of the excellent First Law trilogy, this stand-alone novel tells the story of the famed mercenary general, Monza Murcatto, who, having been betrayed and left for dead by her employer, sets out on a bloody quest for revenge.
Set in the war-torn Styria, a land with shades of the Italian Renaissance, Grand Duke Orso stands at the cusp of victory against the League of Eight. Unfortunately for Monza - the Snake of Talins, leader of the mercenary army The Thousand Swords, and Orso’s most successful general - the Grand Duke feels confident enough in his position to eliminate the threats closest to him, and that includes Monza, who he deems far too popular.
The betrayal leaves Monza a broken woman, her body shattered and everything she loves snatched away from her. Yet she is nothing if not a survivor, and once she recovers some level of fitness, she sets out on the bloody trail of revenge. There are seven names on her list, including Orso’s, all of them guilty of being present at the moment of treachery. There is the Grand Duke’s bodyguard, Gobba; his banker, Mauthis; the general of Orso’s armies, Ganmark; Monza’s own treacherous second, (not so) Faithful Carpi; and, finally, the duke’s sons, Prince Ario and Count Foscar. Monza decides that all of these men must die, no matter the cost.
It seems an almost impossible task, but Monza uses her secret wealth to hire a motley crew of skilled miscreants to help carry out her deadly wishes. Her unlikely friends include a barbarian-like warrior from the north; an eccentric poisoner and his apprentice; a former torturer’s assistant; an unhinged murderer obsessed with dice; and Nicomo Cosca, the alcoholic has-been Monza once usurped as leader of The Thousand Swords.
The story is told from the point of view of six of its starring characters, and it’s with them that the story truly excels. Monza herself is a likeable enough character, but she has her flaws. She starts off as quite a single minded, by-any-means necessary kind of girl, but as the story progresses and the costs of her revenge start to spiral out of control, the reader starts to see a deeper side to her - not that any of that puts her off completing her mission, mind.
Besides Monza, the rest of the cast provide a thrilling rollercoaster of emotions. Caul Shivers, the savage among the crew, is actually a really nice chap when things start out. He left his homeland with the solid intention of becoming a better man, but on this particular road to vengeance, no one comes out sunny side up.
Castor Morveer, the master poisoner, joins up for the challenge of killing those men beyond the reach of Monza’s blades. He hopes his deadly talent will make him famous - or at least infamous - but on the road to vengeance, he finds trust a rare commodity… especially for a man who can kill a person a million different ways. And without trust, what hope is there?
Then there's Friendly, a chap you wouldn't want to cross in a dark alley in the dead of night. Or even a wonderfully colourful alley at the height of daylight for that matter. Obsessed with numbers and the rolling of dice, Friendly is mostly indifferent to the violence asked of him, though he is brutally efficient when called upon. It says something about the road to vengeance when a man like this seems the gentlest soul in the story.
Finally, there’s Nicomo Cosca, the once famous mercenary now turned broken drunk, another character who raises questions of trust. He shares a history with Monza and not all of it is good, yet she finds herself having to call on his services one last time. On the road to vengeance, who needs enemies when you have friends like these?
The last POV character is a man called Shenkt, the world’s deadliest assassin and something of an unstoppable force. He's hired by the Grand Duke to eliminate Monza before she can finish her work. Yet there may be more to this mild mannered, enigmatic figure than meets the eye. After all, the road to vengeance is full of twists and turns.
I love this book. It’s fast paced and punchy, with lots of great scenes and memorable characters. Each of the POV characters added value to the story and there wasn’t one where I struggled to get through their scenes.
There is a strong tie-in to the original First Law trilogy, particularly towards the end, and I’ll admit, having only read those books once, some of it probably went over my head. That said, the story definitely stands up on its own, and, once you’ve read it, I’d wager you’ll be ready to invest far more of your time in the world of the First Law.
The title for the novel comes from the old Klingon proverb, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And while that may be true, another quote about revenge comes to mind when I think of Monza and her quest, attributed to the late, great Confucius. “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
In truth, Monza Murcatto needs far more than two graves, but you’ll have to join her on a glorious, rip-roaring rampage of revenge to find out why! Don’t miss it.
8/10 for sheer bloody satisfaction.
As a side note, if you listen to only one Audible book, make it a Joe Abercrombie book as read by Steven Pacey. And then you’ll listen to the rest. As far as Audible goes, pairings don’t get much more perfect.