The Cold Commands review

Friday, February 3, 2012

In 2009, Richard Morgan decided to venture into Fantasy. Judging by his comments and the readers expectations of Morgan's work, many were hoping that the execution would be ground breaking.  Even though it was slightly shocking (in reference to the numerous discussions about the sexual orientation of his characters), the result was a new fashion gritty and morally ambiguous character driven Fantasy novel that didn't break the barriers. At the end of 2011, Morgan presented the follow-up to the trilogy, The Cold Commands:
Ringil Eskiath, scarred wielder of the kiriath-forged broadsword Ravensfriend, is a man on the run - from his past and the family who have disowned him, from the slave trade magnates of Trelayne who want him dead, and apparently from the dark gods themselves, who are taking an interest but making no more sense than they ever have. Outlawed and exiled from his ancestral home in the north, Ringil has only one place left to turn - Yhelteth, city heart of the southern Empire, where perhaps he can seek asylum with the kiriath half-breed Archeth Indamaninarmal, former war comrade and now high-up advisor to the Emperor Jhiral Khimran II. But Archeth Indamaninarmal has problems of her own to contend with, as does her house guest, bodyguard and one time steppe nomad Egar the Dragonbane. And far from gaining the respite he is seeks, Ringil will instead find himself implicated in fresh schemes and doubtful allegiances no safer than those he has left behind. Old enemies are stirring, the old order is rotted through and crumbling, and though no-one yet knows it, the city of Yhelteth is about to explode ...
Let's throw off the presumptions first, especially if you have read Richard Morgan before: Is it dark and gritty? Yes... Punctuated by scenes of explicit love making (even homosexual)? Yes... Ironic, uses profane vocabulary, accented by brutality and violence inherent to his cruel and gloomy imaginary world? Yes, yes, yes... Now, to the core of things.   

Despite the fact that I expected Cold to be distinctive from a bridging novel, my assessment changed marginally.  Far from being a negative aspect and interestingly enough, the book follows the same pattern as the first one.  Ringil, Egar and Archeth are evolving in separate storylines for most of the novel, with their threads eventually merging. At that, Ringil is late to the party.  The main attraction takes several chapters before making his first appearance and it was about time. Hopefully, as was the case with Steel Remains, when things start to go ugly and they decide to take the matters into their own hands, the pace escalate and the story becomes more gripping, an aspect where Morgan is in his element.

If you didn't like the fact that not everything was detailed in the first novel, meaning that there's several gaps between PoV situations/locations that are bridged by recaps at the start of the next chapter to bring the reader up to speed, you won't be pleased here either.  Personally, I feel that a lengthier novel would have been easily possible and the book is slightly longer than its predecessor, but the author chose to get to the point and the story doesn't really suffer because of it, it's actually tighter and there's still enough room for the protagonists to ponder.

The Steel Remains was exploring the post-traumatic life of war veterans struggling to find a new meaning to their life and flashbacks from the war against the lizard folk were in abundance.  They are less frequent in Cold Commands but the theme is still approached. Following the provoking events of the first book, anger is now emerging even more energetically. The three protagonists are exasperated at their situation and the means they take to overcome their problems are not mimicked from the typical behavior of the honorable knight in his shiny armor, they kick asses.  You're not really shouting for the good guys, you're experiencing the harsh reality of ex heroes mingling their way blindly with unforgiving forces, even if this mean several murders.

However, that experience was somewhat marred for me in some instances. Ringil spends a lot of time in the grey places.  These scenes are not always explicitly comprehensible, probably simply because of their nature, the grey places being alternative realities. I love the dedication and the 'throw it in my way I don't care' attitude of Ringil but in this weird dimension, his reactions seem a bit out of character, even though he becomes more pensive. My only explanation would be Seethlaw's remembrance is twisting his feelings. Sadly, again in connection with the grey places, there's a part of his narrative where some of his special powers are greatly improved and without understanding them they actually help him save the day, for himself and for his quarry.  A bit easy without certain explanations aside from the assumption that a master puppeteer is holding some of his strings.

Egar's story is more straightforward, as is the man himself.  City life and age are creeping up on him but he still tries to make something of his days. His progression is less intangible, the influence of the dwellers seems to have less impact this time around. He has time to play the veteran lecturer and it suits him even if it ends up quite bloody. As for Archeth, she is bored but that doesn't mean that her actions are monotonous. Even if I feel that Morgan is much more skilled with male protagonists, her presence is essential in driving the plot forward and her connection to the Kiriath adds some perspective to the sci-fish world of the author.

For all three, what's Morgan's hinting at is something of bigger proportions or implication but it's not fully witnessed in the second book of A Land fit for Heroes, which can be seen as a complete novel with a climax/ending but with tentacles spreading toward a third book.  You feel that there's a meta story creeping up on the characters and more specifically on their world and it's significantly closer than at the end of Steel. Therefore, the looming prospect of things is the most compelling element of the series.

At some point, the name of the book was The Dark Commands and eventually Morgan optimistically announced that he found a way to switch it back to Cold. When you read the novel, you'll understand the implications and I think he made the right choice.  The reference is toward the Dark Court. Their motivations in the first book were shrouded in mystery and it's not totally clear after two books what their ultimate goal really is or why they are meddling with the Dwenda's return and Ringil's "development". By the way, I think he should have more inkling by now that his path is being guided.

So, are we reading a story were the world will be saved by an unlikely redeemer or the creation of a new sinister overlord or unconscious deliverer?  I may repeat myself but having to ponder this even after two books is what makes this great. More so since it's through the characters themselves that this interrogation occurs.  When I started reading the book, I had some difficulties remembering the story of Steel Remains.  In a comment concerning that topic on Twitter, Justin of Staffer's Musing mentioned that it could be because the characters were strong and overrode the plot. I think he was spot on and that it shows again in Cold Commands.

In conclusion, I really feel that Morgan's writing transpire intelligence. He uses a peculiar way at times to render his dialogue but I felt that there was serious thinking behind all that is being said or thought of by the characters and where he wants them to be. The second time around, I think that he didn't try to disturb, shock or write a revolutionary work of Fantasy and it created a better novel.

Technically, I think that the dagger on the cover is indubitably sharp (sorry for the pun...), with no real connection to the cover of the first book but anyway it looks better.  You can take a look at the map of Morgan's world here. The Del Rey hardcover edition of the book stands at 512 pages.

The Cold Commands review score :

Characterization.............  9 /10
World building...............  8 / 10
Magic system.................  7.5 / 10
Story..............................  8 / 10
Writing...........................   9 / 10

Overall (not an average) 8.5 / 10


The Steel Remains review
Richard Morgan Page


Bets Davies said...

I'm applauding on the basis of the use of explicit sex, and homosexually explicit sex from the first. I find it disturbing that for all his grit and violence the book goes up as risk taking because of love making, by whoever. I found my publisher was great with me chopping off heads but didn't like someone giving head.

Totally messed up values.

I of course love the character here, and correct use of irony. This series is a daring shift in writing.

Anonymous said...

I for one am not interested in reading about explicit homosexual acts. I do not find it edgy or forward thinking.

I will be passing on all this authors work.

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