Best Served Cold, coming this June, is the fourth book from British fantasy wunderkind, Joe Abercrombie. Abercrombie, alongside Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch, has spent the past three years redefining the fantasy genre - producing complex, stylish and character-driven books.
Mr. Abercrombie's first three books - The First Law trilogy - were perfect examples of the new face of fantasy. Eschewing prophecies, orphaned stable boys and epic destinies, Mr. Abercrombie created a cast of very real, very grounded and very flawed characters. Although some conventional fantasy tropes like 'high kings', 'demons' and 'wizards' all existed, they were all carefully subverted in dark and unusual ways.
I could go on about the new 'golden age' of fantasy, but let's get to the point... how was the fourth book?
Despite appearing in the same world as the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold has a few key differences in the characters, the plot and even the author's style.
Those that read the preceding books will be especially glad to see Jezal in a humorous cameo, but, otherwise, the key players in the First Law trilogy all go unseen. The lead protagonist is Monzcarro Murcatto, a female mercenary of uncanny ability and dubious reputation. Monzcarro has spent the last few years uniting the divided city-states of Styria until the banner of Duke Orso. Ruthless and pragmatic (and tarred with rumors of worse), Monzcarro begins the book on a single-minded quest for vengeance (thus the title).
Monzcarro is joined by Shivers (previously seen in Last Argument of Kings). Shivers is Monzcarro's opposite - he lacks focus and is drifting through Styria trying to rise above his base instincts and become a 'better man'. The two make an odd combination - Shivers is an emotional optimist and Monzcarro is steely pessimist.
The third primary character is another resurrected bit player - Cosca, the flamboyantly treacherous mercenary from Before They Are Hanged. Monzcarro's old captain (before she betrayed him), Cosca is thoroughly unreliable (and perpetually drunk). But he's unreliable with flair, so he invariably gets away with it.
The numbers are rounded out by a psychopath and poisoner. Both are much simpler characters, and, although quirky, their perspectives are secondary to the three characters above. Monzcarro, Shivers and Cosca are all fascinating and empathetic people, with the ability to grow and change with each turn of the page. They are perpetually surprising, yet never contrived.
From a plot perspective, Best Served Cold is broadly linear. Monzcarro is on a quest for revenge and the rest of the world is out to stop her. There are twists and turns a-plenty - certainly nothing ever seems to go as planned - but, upon taking a step back, the action does move reliably from point A to point G (passing B-F in order). This is a substantial change from the sprawling complexity of the preceding trilogy, but by no means an unwelcome one.
In fact, the (relative) simplicity of the plot allows the author to show off stylistically. Nowhere better is this shown in Mr. Abercrombie's approach to world-building. The author has a publicly-confessed aversion to sprawling fantasy worlds, with their emphasis on maps and the corresponding disregard to characters. Yet, in Best Served Cold, the characters travel extensively - virtually every chapter opens in a distinct location in war-torn Styria.
Mr. Abercrombie is more than up to the challenge and achieves the ideal balance of character and setting. Although each city is a unique and fascinating place, Mr. Abercrombie does not give in to the egotism of writing a Rough Guide. Rather, the reader sees the world through the eyes of the characters, and feels each location through its impact upon them. Whereas fantasy world-building has traditionally given us slide-shows and package tours, Mr. Abercrombie has crafted something intimate and expressly character-driven.
With Best Served Cold, Mr. Abercrombie proves conclusively that his unique voice won't be lost in the near or distant future. Best Served Cold is packed with engaging characters that pin the reader from the first page and refuse to let go. Through their dark hours and their (brief) moments of brilliant triumph, Monzcarro, Shivers and Cosca are funny, fascinating, inspiring and painfully, wonderfully human. Although it is a treat for the reader to explore Mr. Abercrombie's world, the real pleasure is in the company we get to keep while doing so.