Saturday, October 22, 2011

"The Cold Commands" by Richard Morgan (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Richard (K) Morgan is the acclaimed author of five science fiction novels including the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning “Black Man/Thirteen”, “Woken Furies”, “Market Forces”, “Broken Angels”, and “Altered Carbon”, a New York Times Notable Book that also won the Philip K. Dick Award. Both “Altered Carbon” and “Market Forces” have been optioned for film adaptation with the latter novel a winner of the 2005 John W. Campbell Award.

In 2008, Mr. Morgan turned his hand to fantasy in “The Steel Remains” which was so hyped including by the author who was a bit ignorant that fantasy had moved from Tolkien for a good while before 2008, that it simply could not live up to expectations; it made though a valiant try not by its very traditional subject, but by Mr. Morgan's original take with modern and very dark and explicit language in a pre-modern context that had sfnal elements too.

My opinion of The Steel Remains varied quite wildly over time - loved it on first read, then later thought more and saw its many weaknesses, then almost completely forgot it. I even expected to open its direct sequel, The Cold Commands, and put it down since recently I have moved away from traditional fantasy, but the author's extremely vigorous style hooked me. However I had a problem: I had forgotten what was what except for the strong beginning and the author's trademark twist at the end that appears in all his novels.

So I went back to re-reading The Steel Remains before continuing with The Cold Commands and today after the hype has vanished and enough time has passed, I would say that it is a novel with great parts, superb lines and well done and interesting characters, but it fails to fully cohere and it is considerably less than the sum of its parts. For convenience I will present FBC's 2008 take on the plot of The Steel Remains:

PLOT SUMMARY FOR The Steel Remains: Ringil Eskiath, the hero of the bloody slaughter at Gallows Gap, is a legend to all who don't know him and a twisted degenerate to those that do. A veteran of the wars against the Scaled Folk, he makes a living from telling credulous travelers of his exploits. Until one day he is pulled away from his life and into the depths of the Empire's slave trade, where he will discover a secret infinitely more frightening than the trade in lives...

Egar Dragonbane, a Majak steppe-nomad and one-time fighter for the Empire, is now the Skaranak clanmaster. Pining for the past, Egar finds himself entangled in a small-town battle between common sense and religious fervor. But perhaps there is some truth behind the tribe’s gods, the Sky Dwellers

Archeth, an abandoned 207-year-old Kiriath half-breed advisor to Jhiral Khimran II of the Yhelteth Empire, is sent to investigate a demonic incursion against the Empire's borders. What she uncovers is evidence of a terrifying new enemy that makes the Scaled Folk seem like children…

Anti-social, anti-heroic, and decidedly irritated, all three of these veterans of the War against the Scaled Folk are about to be called upon to fight again for a world that owes them everything and has given them nothing…

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Cold Commands starts almost a year later after the end of The Steel Remains though later we find out what happened in the meantime too. While Archeth and Egar star immediately, Ringil takes a while to make his appearance, but when he does, it is a with quite a bang and from then on he really takes over the book and makes it a much more memorable experience than The Steel Remains.

The Cold Commands also mixes sfnal tropes - directly as in the technologically advanced Kiriath and their AI-like Helmsmen, as well as in echoes of the Takeshi Kovacs series that made the author's name starting from his explosive debut Altered Carbon - Takavach and Dakovash - and indirectly in attitude and language with fantasy tropes like magic swords, empires, slavery, pre-modern civilization, ancient evil, etc...

The sfnal part works wonderfully and there are a ton of quotable lines and moments in the book, while the fantasy part is ok'ish, a bit boring as in very canned stuff I've seen a million times and with some of the least unsubtle and moronic but powerful villains around.

The Cold Commands coheres much better than The Steel Remains. For once, it is longer by 100 pages or so and that helps - let us remember that in The Steel Remains the main three characters stayed well apart from one another for like 90% of the book with the convergence in a pretty rushed climax - while here the characters come together and separate much more often, so there is more unity. I also think that The Cold Commands being Ringil's novel in a definite way is very important in ensuring this unity.

I quite liked Archeth's thread a lot too as it is both the most political and the most sfnal one, while Egar's deeds are more picaresque and while they add a piece of the puzzle to the storyline, this thread is less important, even tangential to a large extent. The secondary characters are better developed here too than in the first novel - again I think that having more than 500 pages and not having to introduce the world and characters helped a lot, showing again that there is a reason epic fantasy novels must go towards the higher page count and come as series if they are to be very good.

Most notable of all, the Emperor, Jhiral Khimran II, lights up each page he appears on. "The degenerate apostate" as the fanatics of the main imperial religion call him - and which Ringil gleefully enjoys as usually those epithets have been applied to him - is on a roll in this volume, but there are a few more others that add color and depth. Even the usual Morgan twist, while present as expected, is done in a subtler way and we find out about it later as back story. Only the villains are really cartoonish and one dimensional, but that is in many ways a traditional fantasy requirement since how could otherwise so powerful personages be defeated by the rag-tag heroes...

As highlights that show the brutality of the book and of the heroes, early on there is Ringil capturing one of his nasty enemies and giving her to his motley mercenary crew to be gang raped and then when he got tired of listening to her screams, personally cutting her throat, or Jhiral Khimran II also personally water boarding his enemies - though in a pool with the analogues of sharks/piranhas - and they are the good guys; what the bad guys do, well, you can imagine...

Overall The Cold Commands (A++) is a superior effort to The Steel Remains and an excellent novel, though one that's definitely not for everyone; a little more imagination on the fantasy plot and full coherence would make it one for the ages, but even so, the author's powerful writing style, the memorable characters, superb one liners and many other goodies made it one of my top 25 novels of the year.

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