I've been re-reading Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and the First Law world novels.
My personal favourite is without a doubt Best Served Cold
, but perhaps his overall best is Red Country
. After deconstructing staple fantasy tropes in some very brutal ways for the previous few books, he finally starts deconstructing his own work. Nicomo Cosca's mask, as an affable if somewhat unscrupulous and completely untrustworthy mercenary finally falls away to reveal what should've been obvious from the very start - that Cosca is a man who would trample over an army of corpses to make money, so long as those corpses were in no position to fight back in the first place. The Company of the Gracious Hand make the Thousand Swords look like a well behaved, professional outfit by comparison.
A lot of the story seems to be about the tales people tell themselves to justify their own cruelty. Papa Ring thinks his cruelty and violence is justified because he always keeps his word. He may employ a small army of thugs, killers and child-snatchers, may use threats against loved ones to make someone throw a bout, but he keeps his word. Cosca, by contrast, thinks because he acts like he's above it all, and that he is upfront about his dishonesty, treachery and lust for coin, that makes him superior than the "hypocrites" within the Inquisition. The Dragon People justify their kidnapping on driving out the outlanders and defending their "way of life" (which mostly seems to revolve around kidnapping and brainwashing children in preparation to wage war against the outlanders).
But Best Served Cold
...ah, a tale of revenge and betrayal and how, once you start killing people, it's hard to keep it to a set number.
‘Revenge. If you could even get it, what good would it do you? All this expenditure of effort, pain, treasure, blood, for what? Who is ever left better off for it?’ His sad eyes watched her slowly stand. ‘Not the avenged dead, certainly. They rot on, regardless. Not those who are avenged upon, of course. Corpses all. And what of the ones who take vengeance, what of them? Do they sleep easier, do you suppose, once they have heaped murder on murder? Sown the bloody seeds of a hundred other retributions?’ She circled around, trying to think of some trick to kill him with. ‘All those dead men at that bank in Westport, that was your righteous work, I suppose? And the carnage at Cardotti’s, a fair and proportionate reply?’
‘What had to be done!’
‘Ah, what had to be done. The favourite excuse of unexamined evil echoes down the ages and slobbers from your twisted mouth.’ He danced at her, their swords rang together, once, twice. He jabbed, she parried and jabbed back. Each contact sent a jolt of pain up her arm. She ground her teeth together, forced the scowl to stay on her face, but there was no disguising how much it hurt her, or how clumsy she was with it. If she’d had small chances with her left, she had none at all with her right, and he knew it already.
‘Why the Fates chose you for saving I will never guess, but you should have thanked it kindly and slunk away into obscurity. Let us not pretend you and your brother did not deserve precisely what you received.’
‘Fuck yourself! I didn’t deserve that!’ But even as she said it, she had to wonder. ‘My brother didn’t!’
Ganmark snorted. ‘No one is quicker to forgive a handsome man than I, but your brother was a vindictive coward. A charming, greedy, ruthless, spineless parasite. A man of the very lowest character imaginable. The only thing that lifted him from utter worthlessness, and utter inconsequence, was you.’ He sprang at her with lethal speed and she reeled away, fell against a cherry tree with a grunt and stumbled back through the shower of white blossom. He could surely have spitted her but he stayed still as a statue, sword at the ready, smiling faintly as he watched her thrash her way clear.
‘And let us face the facts, General Murcatto. You, for all your undeniable talents, have hardly been a paragon of virtue. Why, there must be a hundred thousand people with just reasons to fling your hated carcass from that terrace!’
‘Not Orso. Not him!’ She came low, jabbing sloppily at his hips, wincing as he flicked her sword aside and jarred the grip in her twisted palm.
‘If that’s a joke, it’s not a funny one. Quibble with the judge, when the sentence is self-evidently more than righteous?’ He placed his feet with all the watchful care of an artist applying paint to a canvas, steering her back onto the cobbles. ‘How many deaths have you had a hand in? How much destruction? You are a bandit! A glorified profiteer! You are a maggot grown fat on the rotting corpse of Styria!’
That said, Monza, like Glotka, like Caul Shivers, like Logen Ninefingers (when he's not caught up in the battle frenzy) and like a few other characters, isn't anywhere near as dark as she makes out, or her reputation suggests:
You could forget about revenge. You could compromise. You could . . . be merciful.’
‘Mercy and cowardice are the same,’ she growled, narrow eyes fixed on the black gate at the far end of the blasted gardens.
Cosca gave a sad smile. ‘Are they indeed?’
‘Conscience is an excuse not to do what needs doing.’
‘No use weeping about it. That’s how the world is.’
‘The good get nothing extra. When they die they turn to shit like the rest of us. You have to keep your eyes ahead, always ahead, fight one battle at a time. You can’t hesitate, no matter the costs, no matter the—’
‘Do you know why I always loved you, Monza?’
‘Eh?’ Her eyes flickered to him, surprised.
‘Even after you betrayed me? More, after you betrayed me?’ Cosca leaned slowly towards her. ‘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.’
There was a long pause. Then she swallowed as though she was about to puke. ‘You always said I had a devil in me.’
‘Did I? Well, so do we all.’ He waved a hand. ‘You’re no saint, that much we know. A child of a bloody time. But you’re nothing like as dark as you make out.’
‘I pretend to care for the men, but in truth I don’t give a damn whether they live or die. You always did care, but you pretend not to give a damn. I never saw you waste one man’s life. And yet they like me better. Hah. There’s justice. You always did the right thing by me, Monza. Even when you betrayed me, it was better than I deserved. I’ve never forgotten that time in Muris, after the siege, when you wouldn’t let the slavers have those children. Everyone wanted to take the money. I did. Faithful did. Even Benna. Especially Benna. But not you.’
‘Only gave you a scratch,’ she muttered.
‘Don’t be modest, you were ready to kill me. These are ruthless times we live in, and in ruthless times, mercy and cowardice are entire opposites. We all turn to shit when we die, Monza, but not all of us are shit while we’re alive. Most of us are.’ His eyes rolled to heaven. ‘God knows I am. But you never were.’