One of the big issues I have with a lot of ye olde Sword & Sorceress type stories is that the women hauling around the swords just aren’t that scary. I can’t explain this except to say that, you know, I’m a fan of the cheesy awful that is Conan, and… I’m looking for a heroine that can kick the shit out of him.
Best Served Cold‘s heroine, Monza, is that heroine.
This book was an easy sell with the cover, but not so much the first few pages. The first 11 or 12 pages are kinda dull, really. Insipid people, insipid conversations, completely generic fantasy lite setting. Seriously, the setting was making me yawn. But according to the cover copy, this was a pretty solid rampaging revenge story, so I stuck it out.
I was not disappointed.
By page, what, 36? you’re going, “OH HOLY FUCK YO!” and Abercrombie gives you the big book opener you need to have to drive a revenge plot. You know, the thing that somebody does to you that’s so terrible that it can drive the whole bloody book all the way through. And trust me, it’s tough to justify the blood in this book. The big book opener goes a long way toward getting you there.
This book isn’t for everybody. It’s savagely brutal (I’m not making apologies for GW gore ever again). The people are decidedly unlikable. They’re the types of people who would survive and thrive in a world at perpetual war, and that means they are NOT NICE. So if you’re looking for nice people in bad situations, well. This isn’t it.
But they’re *interesting* people, and that’s what kept me reading. The cast is classically well done (reminded me of when I read my first Dragonlance novel… in a GOOD way). Folks are always backbiting, backstabbing. There are constantly shifting alliances and folks trying to play people off other folks. Old wounds and past events come into play. They’re wacky, driven, crazy folks, and I enjoyed watching them bicker (that said, there were some rather useless “fan fiction” scenes which added nothing but character squee. But not so many that I threw the book out. Just enough to roll my eyes).
I loved the main character, Monza, our sword-wielding heroine, primarily because she was not nice or honorable, and she was very, very scary. She’s out for herself. There’s no huge realization or change at the end. Just sort of a slow ebb and flow that made the ending satisfying but not syrupy. I loved, loved, loved the reversal between her and her initially optimistic sidekick. I found the fact that she’s supposed to be very good looking rather annoying (I do wonder how truly model-looking anybody in this world would look, but then, attractiveness is relative, so who knows what her face really looks like out there?), but Abercrombie made up for this with a few very nice, telling details about what it’s like to be a woman leading men (no easy comraderie with your men, who might take a pat on the back as come-on; always have to be the hard ass to keep from seeming too soft and having guys take advantage; always careful who you sleep with [if you sleep with anyone at all], etc.).
And that brings me to another plus for this novel. At one point, the team on board for the revenge plot has three women and three men. The balance shifts as the book goes on, but I was genuinely startled to realize that there was an entire scene central to the plot (a torture scene, no less!) which consisted entirely of female characters (our heroine, a mercenary, a poisoner, and a courtesan). Yes, it sucks that something like that is so surprising. But still neat when it happens. You just don’t see it a lot in fantasy epics.
The book was plotted like a dream, and I keep paging back through it to look at what Abercrombie did with this plot. My biggest complaint, as noted, was the bland fantasy lite setting. Incredibly disappointing with a well-plotted story like this with such great characters, brutality – and have I mentioned the plotting?
So, if you’re looking for new weird, this is not your cup of tea. But if you like strong female heroes, bloody battles, complex and twisted anti-heroes, and… if you just want a good, page-turning romp with cool but nasty folks, this is definitely the book for you.
Recommended, with aforementioned reservations.