Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie
As the title suggests, this is a tale of Revenge! - where Abercrombie's First Law trilogy had an almost Hanseatic League setting, the backdrop for Best Served Cold is the fantasy equivalent of some Mediterranean city-states, where warring dukes hire treacherous mercenaries, and bloody vengeance is the order of the day. Duke Orso's campaign of conquest is almost complete, largely thanks to mercenary general Monza Murcatto, so it is an unwelcome surprise for Monza when the Duke tries to have her murdered, and almost succeeds. Battered, broken and on the run, Monza's only aim now is to take her revenge; gathering a mismatched crew of assorted murderers and rogues, she plots the deaths of the people responsible. But seven deaths across seven cities takes time and planning, and before long Duke Orso has dispatched agents of his own to take care of the problem - not to mention the fact that mismatched murderers and rogues are not known for getting along well together...
So far, so cheesy; with the prim poisoner, optimistic barbarian, drunken mercenary and tick-list of revenge victims, in the hands of a lesser author this could have turned out as a rather jolly vengeance romp, like Kill Bill with Sicilians in place of ninjas. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but as it turns out, the story here is a lot more interesting. Abercrombie is a master at twisting expectations, and the familiar setup soon heads towards some very uncomfortable territory. There's violence enough for all, and some battle and siege setpieces to rival anything in the trilogy, but as usual, it's the character interactions that are the highlight. A surprising number of minor characters from The First Law turn up (more than I was expecting), and they are all nicely fleshed-out with human motivations and colourful backstories - even if that colour is often a dark, sticky red. Notable is the Northman Shivers, fresh from the battle of Adua and seeking a new life; at first he looked rather like another Logan, but his journey goes somewhere quite different. Cosca the mercenary is also back, with a sharp sense of humour and a raging thirst, and the new addition of convict Friendly shows that even institutionalised and obsessive multiple murderers can be sympathetic. Monza, while not quite a Glokta, is still well-realised and complex, and one of the most interesting female characters I've read in a while - and yes, this time the book is entirely Bechdel compliant.
Technically, this is not a direct sequel to the First Law trilogy, but considering the number of familiar characters here and the references to events of the trilogy, I'd still recommend reading the other books first. The world is expanded on and there are many hints about the broader struggle between the Bank and the Prophet, but in general the lack of magic and tight focus on the Styrian conflicts gives the book a closer and less epic feel, almost like a real bit of historical fiction. I imagine that Best Served Cold is on a lot of people's Most Wanted lists for 2009 - well, you've not long to wait now, and you're in for a real treat.