Best Served Cold is Joe Abercrombie’s best, and worst, book.
In case you don’t know Abercrombie, the best part of his books are his characters. Best Served Cold has some of the best characters he’s ever written, like Friendly, the cleaver-wielding cook who gets along with everyone, unless they insult his dice. There’s my personal favorite, the depressed poisoner, obsessed with poisons and getting people to like him. And of course there’s the strong female main character, Monza, the Butcher, the Snake of Talins. Favorites from previous books also make an appearance.
Abercrombie forces his seven characters together with wildly different motivations. Sex, money, revenge, the antidote.. Then he makes them hate each other, revealed through murderously philosophical dialogue. I hung on to every unrealistic word. He ratchets up the tension to unbearable heights (or lows), and at times I had to put down the book and remind myself not too get too attached because you know someone is going to die (which doesn’t happen how you think it will).
And oh, the fight scenes! Abercrombie does some amazing fight scenes, and the plot of Best Served Cold – revenge on seven powerful men – gives him a chance to write not one, not two, but seven action packed fights to the death.
Now for the bad. This is Abercrombie’s first book after his hugely successful First Law trilogy. He’s experimenting, and he makes everything extreme. It works with the characters and dialogue, but other parts are borderline unreadable. I admire Abercrombie’s clinical precision in describing fights and injuries. No unimaginative screaming from his characters. But in Best Served Cold, he goes on for pages and pages of this stuff, how ‘the silky smooth sword penetrates the flesh’, bones, blood, yada yada. Pages of the stuff.
There’s torture scenes. They do have a purpose, to provide motivation or show the evilness of a character, but to spend several pages on them, while you the reader wince at every detail, it’s just too much. You wonder if he enjoys writing this. In the dedication to Best Served Cold, Abercrombie warns us that we will read this book and worry about him.
And then there is the mandatory sex scene. He doesn’t do just one, but three or four. Again, he goes too far, and pushes it from borderline rated-R to blatantly X-rated. I don’t want to read about a guy’s cock. (Does anyone??)
Abercrombie also throws in some weird supernatural elements, supposedly foreshadowing events of future books, but it just comes across as forced, out-of-place. Best Served Cold lacks the polish and precision of all his other books.
My advice? Read the prologue, the first ten pages or so. It’s the best scene in the book, second only to when Friendly avenges his dice. If you are hooked, then keep reading. If you find yourself wincing once too often, then skip Best Served Cold.