Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie

For me what little fantasy I read evokes feelings akin to a pleasant fuzziness. Neither good nor bad but not much of an experience. I have been reading them more recently but I haven’t read one as exciting as Best Served Cold.

Best Served Cold Book Cover

This book does for the fantasy genre what Clint Eastwood’s revisionist westerns like Josey Wales did for the western genre and gives it a dose of reality by stripping away unrealistic pastoral epics where getting shot means instant death and the respectable Confederate outlaws are played by John Wayne or Randolph Scott ignoring the harsh realities and the actions of psychopaths like Bloody Bill Anderson. 

It was like finally getting to the filthy reality of life. It is hard, brutish and short.

Put simply, the story focuses on a mercenary general named Monza Murcatto who wants to exact revenge upon her former employer after she and her brother are betrayed. She gathers a group of people to help her execute her task including barbarian Caul Shivers and former mentor Cosca.

The setting is akin to the real life renaissance Italy, where each city is like a state with its own character and they hire mercenaries and play power-politics. Every location has its own individual character and because it’s the renaissance, it is usually dirty.

It is earthy and the shocks are genuine, resonating throughout the entire book. Everything from a social slight to torture affects characters in a way some run of the mill fantasy I’ve read doesn’t explore. Indeed character evolution is tragicomic as hopes and dreams are altered or crushed by situations and people fight for the basest of reasons. Reading how these characters react to their changing fortunes provides a sense of connection which becomes stronger despite the fact these characters are mere types.

Monza proves to be an irresistible draw as she is a woman in a man’s world but comes across as realistic character – less Amazon, more realist and lucky strategist. There are no politically correct ripostes to unfairness and the reality of carving out a place in such a world delivers a lesson in world building that few history text-books or fantasy novels ever evoke. Characters use their brains and bodies and it is simultaneously sexy, disgusting and heart-breaking and delivered with graphic detail and inventiveness.

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