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Mercy and cowardice are the same.—Monzcarro Murcatto
Best Served Cold is a 2009 stand-alone Low Fantasy novel by Joe Abercrombie, set in the same world as his The First Law. It's set a few years after events of the trilogy, and a fair number of characters in it were supporting characters in The First Law.
As might be imagined, this is a tale of Revenge.
In Styria, a land of warring city-states based rather obviously on Renaissance Italy, mercenary captain Monzcarro Murcatto ("Monza") has come close to putting her employer, Duke Orzo, on the throne, which would realize his lifelong dream of supremacy. He's a suspicious man, though, and Monza's success has brought her renown; fearing that she may try to convert that into political power, he has her her and her brother brutally murdered and thrown off the battlements of his fortress.
Unfortunately for him, he fails to ensure that she's actually dead.
A mysterious stranger finds her broken body and nurses her back to health; suspicious in turn of his motives, Monza escapes as soon as she's able, and swears revenge on all the men present at her "murder"; seven in all, counting Orzo, his two sons, his general, Monza's treacherous second-in-command, Orzo's bodyguard, and the banker who's Orzo's financial backer.
To do this, she assembles a team of oddballs; a warrior Northman failing at becoming a better man, a numbers-obsessed ex-convict, a pompous poisoner and his gluttonous assistant, an ex-torturer, and the alcoholic old mercenary captain that Monza replaced. The task begins easily enough, but Monza soon discovers that going after the powerful has consequences — to her, to her companions, and to the fate of Styria as a whole.
This work provides examples of :
- Acquired Poison Immunity: Morveer frequently doses himself with his own poisons to keep immune to them.
- Action Girl: Monza. Vitari.
- Alliterative Name: Monza (Monzcarro Murcatto)
- An Axe to Grind: Shivers.
- Anti-Hero: Monza is a Type V; all that saves her from being a Villain Protagonist, in the beginning, is that there isn't a good side to cheer for. Sure, Duke Orzo is a villain, but Monza was his enthusiastic tool until he betrayed her, and her motives for revenge are all personal ones; that Orzo betrayed her, broke her body, and killed her beloved brother. By the end of the book, she's a better person, definitely at least a Type IV.
- The Apprentice: Day, who starts of as Morveer's apprentice and then is his assistant.
- Arc Words: Monza's "Mercy and cowardice are the same."
- Best Served Cold: It's a fitting title. You can count all the named characters who don't have some sort of revenge motivation at some point on both hands.
- Big Eater: Day.
- Black and Gray Morality: By the end of the book you won't be surprised by who murders, exploits, or betrays who, you'll be surprised that it's taking them so long.
- Book Ends: The book starts and ends with the words "The sunrise was the color of bad blood."
- Brother-Sister Incest: Monza and her brother Benna.
- Bullet Time: Shenkt can do this.
- The Butcher: Monza's epithet is "The Butcher of Caprile", because of the bloody sack of that city by her army. It turns out that she gave explicit orders not to sack the city, which were ignored in her absence while she was reporting to Duke Orzo.
- Character Development: in contrast to much of The First Law, there's a fair amount here, especially for Monza.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Duke Salier's torturers in Visserine, and what they do to Shivers.
- Dual-Wielding: Friendly uses a cleaver and knife to great effect.
- Duel to the Death: Several.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Monza ends up as Duchess of Talins, refuses to become beholden to any faction, and looks like she's going to make a strong but fair ruler with a strong practical streak. Certainly, one better than the standard run of city rulers one's encountered in the rest of the book.
- Eye Scream: Shivers
- Face Heel Turn: Shivers
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Styria is fundamentally Renaissance Italy, made up of warring city-states.
- Fantastic Drug: Husk, which Monza starts using to dull the pain of her many injuries. It appears to be a loose expy of opium.
- Good with Numbers: Friendly, who is obsessed with numbers, numerology, and counting to an OCD level.
- Gotta Kill Em All: All seven of the men who helped "kill" her.
- Hannibal Lecture: Ganmark gives one to Murcatto.
- Heroes Prefer Swords: Monza has her trusty Calvez rapier, not a showy blade but of the highest quality.
- Heroic Sacrifice: deliciously subverted with Cosca's apparent death in Visserine. He is found by the invading soldiers, mistaken for a friendly casualty because of the uniform he stole and wore to infiltrate, and nursed back to health. He then proceeds to reclaim leadership of the Thousand Swords, right from under Monza's nose.
- I'm a Humanitarian: Shenkt and Ishri, continuing the proud traditions of the Eaters.
- Irony: Holy shit, where do we start? With the fact that half the betrayals in the book are by accident? Or how Morveer does more to aid Monza after turning on her than he did when he was working for her? The only constants in this story are that almost any slight will be avenged, almost every trust will be betrayed, and that you can't stop the consequences of your actions. That leads to a lot of irony of the situational, cosmic, and tragic varieties.
- It's Personal: Duke Orzo killed Monza's beloved brother Benna (as well as almost killing and permanently maiming Monza herself.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Monza. Cosca nails it, near the end, after she repeats that "Mercy and cowardice are the same": "Do you know why I always loved you, Monza? Even after you betrayed me? More, after you betrayed me? Because I know you don't really believe any of that rubbish. Those are the lies you tell yourself so you can live with what you've done. What you've had to do."
- Magic Versus Science - Morveer is a strong advocate of science, and magic is not strongly believed in Styria.
- The Man Behind the Man: A magus. Always.
- Master Poisoner: Morveer.
- Meaningful Name:
- Castor Morveer: the castor bean is the source of ricin, a lethal and hard-to-trace poison.
- Day, Morveer's apprentice, is blonde and appears sunnily innocent.
- Caul Shivers, like all Northern Named Men, bears a meaningful nickname. He's named 'Caul' for being born with a caul (part of the amniotic sac) on his head, but 'Shivers' is thanks to falling in a freezing cold river on his first raid and climbing out shivering with cold. He tells people sometimes that it's because his enemies shiver with terror, but this is a lie.
- Mismatched Eyes: Yoru Sulfur.
- No Kill Like Overkill: To make sure Mauthis is good and dead, Morveer goes ahead and poisons every single ledger in the bank, killing an extra forty or so people in the process.
- Not Quite Dead: Monza, who Duke Orzo is convinced that he killed. Later, Nicomo Cosca.
- Perfect Poison: the opening scene for master poisoner Castor Morveer shows him showing his apprentice, Day, the most potent poison he knows, "The King of Poisons", a toxin that is both completely undetectable and impossible to build up an immunity against, and should only be used against someone who is protected against all else to keep the secret. However much to Day's later dismay, the "King of Poisons" is merely a sham concocted by Morveer in case the apprentice betrays him, and is in fact harmless.
- Perky Female Minion: Day, to Morveer.
- Poison and Cure Gambit: Used several times by Morveer and Day, sometimes played straight, but other times there was in fact no poison at all; in one of those cases, the "antidote" was actually the real poison, tricking the victim into consuming it themselves.
- Poisoned Weapon: Morveer and Day use poisoned needles as weapons.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Monza's revenge crew.
- The Rainman - Friendly, with his obsessive-compulsive counting.
- Revenge: Monza's motivation.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Monza systematically works her way through the list of those who participated in her brother's murder and her attempted murder.
- Scars Are Forever: Abercrombie loves his scarred and maimed characters, and this is no exception; Monza is stabbed, crushed and broken before being thrown off the battlements of Fontezarmo and down a mountain, and there's a limit to how much you can be repaired after that. Her right hand is ruined, her face and body scarred all over, and she is in almost constant pain.
- Straight Gay: General Ganmark.
- The Reveal: Shenkt is the bone thief from the start of the story.
- And Orzo's fears were well-founded, as Benna was planning to overthrow him without Monza's knowledge.
- Where It All Began: Monza confronts Orzo in his fortress of Fontezarmo, where he had her "killed" in the beginning.