Best Served Cold
Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 654pp, hb)
A man gets off a boat in a southern port. He was once a mercenary, but the war is over and he’s sick of violence. His friends are dead, and no one needs a fighter in peace-time. He wants a clean break with the past, a better life – food in his stomach, money in his pocket, a place to stay. He’s sold most of his gear to pay for his passage, but now he’s arrived, he finds that his friend, the merchant, has lied to him. There are no jobs for the taking, no one wants to know about a poor man from the north. He can’t even speak the language. He’s trying hard to lead a good life, but the odds are stacked against him. He steals to live, he fights to protect himself. When someone finally offers him a job, doing the only thing he really knows how to do, what alternative does he have but to say yes?
The economic migrant’s story is a familiar one; the news is full of people who have tried to make a better life for themselves, only to run into trouble because someone lied to them. Do they continue trying to make a new life, or do they stick with what they know? This is the dilemma that Joe Abercrombie presents the reader with; realistically, we know that Shivers will make a deal with the mysterious stranger, in part because this is what inevitably happens in fantasy novels, but as Abercrombie shows, Shivers’ hand is forced, because, however much he wants to lead a better life, the odds are already stacked too high against him, and he needs to survive. Thus, this transaction becomes not simply a fictional calculation, but an indication of an author’s awareness of how life moves beneath the surface of a novel, something that Abercrombie is very good at representing.
In some respects, Monza Murcatto is no better off than Shivers. While he was a Named Man who fought alongside Rudd Threetrees and Harding Grim, Murcatto has earned her own kind of fame as a mercenary in the south, acquiring the soubriquet, the Snake of Talins, for her perceived treachery and brutality. Her victories have made her too popular for her employers’ liking, and thus they sought to dispose of her. Impossibly, she has survived being stabbed and thrown down a mountainside. Her beloved brother, Benno, was less fortunate, and Monza is seeking revenge – no less than the deaths of all those involved in his murder. However, as quickly becomes apparent, Monza is driven as much by her childhood experiences, trying to bring up her younger brother after her father’s death, and the loss of their crops to raiders. Killing for food and money was easier than working the land. Again, there’s the calculation in the face of heavily stacked odds, and the inevitable decision about the best way to survive. Monza’s life as a mercenary may have so far been rather more glamorous and profitable than Shivers’ but the motivations are very similar.
If Abercrombie cuts across the grain of fantasy characterisation by loading Shivers and Monza with realistic emotional and economic problems, he also seems to enjoy undermining some of the dominant genre tropes. Thus, Monza and Shivers set off on their quest, in almost picaresque fashion, with only the vaguest plan, and a set of less than ideal companions. These include Friendly, the mass-murderer with an obsessive-compulsive fascination with numbers, and Morveer the dandyish master poisoner, in his own way as mercenary as the rest of them, but as he always insists, the best at his craft.
Morveer is a particularly interesting character for a number of reasons. Alongside his insistence on artistry – set against the brutality of some of the killings in the novel, it is difficult to argue against Morveer’s elegance in killing, but the end result is much the same – he is a man who represents himself as a rationalist. He strongly dislikes anything that smacks of magic, although in the eyes of some his remarkable feats as a poisoner make him appear to be a magician. He is, to all intents and purposes, a scientist, convinced that everything has an explanation if he can only reach it. Although he possesses a certain kind of imagination, developed to a high degree when it comes to solving certain problems of his craft, he lacks the rather more open mind of Shivers, who welcomes logic as much as the next man, but who is prepared to accept that some things defy rational explanation, and to deal as he finds, without worrying about an explanation. In the end, a failure to accept what he can’t explain is what will let Morveer down, but he provides another useful counterpoint to the traditional epic fantasy’s belief system.
Clearly, only their very peculiarity as a group saves Monza’s crew from early detection, and Abercrombie extracts a great deal of wry entertainment from their incessant squabbling as they travel. Abercrombie’s earlier novels were notable for their rather enjoyable dark humour – one thinks particularly of Glotka, the torturer, and his deliciously cynical outlook on life – and in this novel, his eye for absurdity persists. This in turn ensures that the reader is ill-prepared for what happens as Monza carries out several theoretically set-piece revenge killings.
This is intended to be a stand-alone novel, but Abercrombie reintroduces several peripheral characters from the First Law trilogy, again reinforcing the sense of a life beyond the page. These include Vitari, Glotka’s one-time assistant. The ‘cripple’ himself, alas, does not make an appearance this time, but instead, and almost shockingly, we catch a glimpse of Vitari as mother alongside Vitari as killer. Again, Abercrombie reminds us that killers have feelings too, though it seems difficult to imagine that a torturer might harbour such tender feelings towards her lover and her children. More significantly, we also become more deeply acquainted with the flamboyant and perpetually drunk Cosca, mercenary and conman, and one-time father-figure to Monza and Benno.
Cosca’s reappearance shifts the mood of the novel as if reminding Monza of her true vocation, and the nature of her desire for revenge changes as she begins to realise how much she has been misled. The question remains as to how much Monza is being manipulated by those around her, how much she allows herself to be manipulated ,and how much of it is unconscious acceptance of her due, so to speak. Monza’s life as a mercenary has been as much about glamour and about visibility as it has been about excellent fighting skills. There is no doubt that she is a brilliant swordswoman, but politics was her undoing the first time, and the suggestion is that it will be her undoing a second time. For Shivers, whose only desire as a fighter has ever been to get the job done and go home, this jockeying for political position remains mysterious and unpalatable. Even his own revelation about his relationship with his brother, while it mirrors Monza’s new recognition of the kind of man her brother was, is a more sturdy and practical understanding. It by no means gives away the plot to say that the couple’s ways will diverge, but the nature of that divergence says much about the ways in which they need to survive. In such a situation there are, and perhaps mercifully, no true happy ever afters, merely compromises of greater or lesser magnitude.
Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was, I felt, fantasy with a difference, in that he didn’t so much reinvent familiar tropes as skew them, showing their flaws while also playing with them to produce something at once affectionate and respectful but at the same time refreshing old ideas, as if saying ‘we know how this works, but let’s enjoy it and see what else we can do with it’. It was rather like being at a family reunion where one has to deal with all the more dreadful tics of one’s relations’ attitudes and behaviour while recognising that they are doing their best, and anyway they’re still family and they mean well. Best Served Cold continues in the same vein. Abercrombie’s narrative twists and turns, playing with but also against the reader’s expectations. His characters do likewise; as a result it is easier initially to identify with them, but their realistic unpredictability means that it’s almost impossible to determine what will eventually happen. Rather, in fact, like life, and for me, one of the great pleasures of Joe Abercrombie’s fiction is that his characters are lifelike.