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The Cold Commands Hardcover – October 11, 2011
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It is difficult and more challenging to find time to read a book that you have to make character notes for, and if you just have a handful of time, or are on a plane or something, forget it, The Cold Commands requires more attention than that. As a result, it took me a long time to read, and I had to do some reviewing each time I stepped back into it. That said, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The writing is rich and literary, more polished when needed in reflective moments, but just as edgy as it was in Steel Remains. The buildup here is so subtle and well done, that I noticed myself sucking a breath in through my teeth toward the end. Morgan set out to write a fantasy for grown-ups (I think he said somewhere), and he really has. This isn’t just a fantasy novel sprinkled with bad language and graphic sex, it’s a fantasy novel with difficult ideas that require thought and a narrative structure that doesn’t hold the door open for you. Despite feeling like more of a part one to a two part ending of this trilogy, I liked the Cold Commands better than the Steel Remains. It may just be that here, more so than in other similar genre novels, the characters really live and breathe. While I had only just begun to know them in Steel, I felt close to them now, like I also have something at stake in their well-being. On one hand, I’m eager to read the concluding novel. On the other, I fear for what comes next.
The Cold Commands picks up some months later after the events of The Steel Remains. Ringil Eskiath has forsaken his title and home to become a would-be John Brown in a world which could not give less of a **** about slavery. Egar Dragonsbane has abandoned his tribal homeland for one of soft living as a rich woman's lover while living in dread of her husband's return. Archeth Indamaninarnal continues to support Emperor Jhiral despite being a transparent stand-in for Caligula because she hates the Citadel (the setting's ersatz Catholic Church) that much more.
Richard K. Morgan regularly breaks the sacred cows of fantasy which have been mocked for decades by literary snobs with varying degrees of justification. It's a series which stars a sexualized gay man as its badass protagonist, a woman of color non-sexualized lesbian, and a more traditional barbarian hero who is usually the butt monkey of events. If Richard K. Morgan somehow became a female fantasy author then he'd sufficiently burn all of the expectations of heroic fantasy.
The Cold Commands is an excellent book and I have to give credit for the fact I could have probably read it first and enjoyed it every bit as much as the first book. It's the best kind of sequel which doesn't lend itself heavily onto what came before but tells its own story while enriching the pre-established lore. Indeed, part of what makes the book so good is it's an anti-epic. Instead of rising action, it's largely a series of unrelated events in our heroes' lives which should lead to a big enormous quest but somehow never manages to get off the ground.
Indeed, it feels like this novel is made as a deliberate send-up of many other fantasy novels. One large storyline in the middle of the book deals with a quest to rescue a slave-girl from the evil priests holding her captive. From the start to finish, not a damn thing goes right and it turns the traditional Conan the Barbarian pastiche story into complete farce. Another tale has a reasonable decent Citadel priest reach out to Archeth in hopes of developing a friendship with her despite their differences, only to be rebuffed completely with no hope of reconciliation.
Part of what I like about this book is even if the antiheroes are trying to make the world a better place, they may well not be. Ringil's resorting to banditry to defeat slavery wins him no support to end the institution, Egar's aforementioned farce is embarrassing rather than heroic, and Archeth's belief the Emperor is better than the Citadel is based on severely twisted logic which amounts to the fact she is hated by them personally so they must be worse.
I can't think of any complaints about this book save a few minor nitpicks. For example, the character Ishgrim is a trophy rather than a person. Archeth defines her morality by not taking advantage of the slave given to her by the Emperor but never bothers to actually talk to her and we never get any insight into her character until the very end of the book. Even then, this is somewhat questionable as we have no idea what her motivations for it is. Likewise, I felt a sympathetic Citadel character's death was a waste.
A warning for those of sensitive stomachs or who simply don't want a dark and depressing read. The Cold Commands, like its predecessor, is a gritty and visceral book. There's a lot of awful going on here and none of it is satisfactorily resolved. In simple terms, this is a hard R sort of book and even then I'd argue it'd probably be unrated because it crosses lines Hollywood (like mainstream fantasy) wouldn't be comfortable with.
Our antiheroes do some truly appalling **** in this book and the narrative is stronger for not shying away from it. It's not that the protagonists don't want to do good things, it's just the world warps and twists these things so it's all but impossible. How does one save a society which gorges itself on slavery, bigotry, fanaticism, greed, and depravity? Richard K. Morgan's answer? You don't. You just muddle through.
Just like in history.
And in the middle, there's a plot discontinuity that's on purpose - he's hiding something from the protagonist and the reader at the same time - or maybe trying to let the reader in on something that the protagonist hasn't himself acknowledged or recognized yet - but I actually had to say "wait a minute, WTF????" and back up to re-read a chapter or two, and it still didn't entirely make sense after. I was reading the Kindle version and worried that somehow the digital edition lost an entire chapter or was otherwise corrupted, it was that jarring.
Still, good author, very interesting (if ahem 'flavorful') characterization, unique fantasy setting and backstory that doesn't obviously lean on any predecessors. Still looking forward to the conclusion of the larger story arc, but this one left me scratching my head a little. I actually found some of the secondary characters taking on more interest than the 'main' one this time as well. Maybe he's got an overall plan that each volume will focus a bit more on a different one of the three predominant characters from the first.