Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Cold Commands review


    A Land Fit for Heroes is one of the "Holy Quartet" of grimdark which I ascribe to be George R.R. Martin, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie. In short, if you want to know what the grimdark genre is like then you could do far worse than picking up any of their signature series. The premise of the series is there has been a big epic fantasy war like the kind you usually see in these series only for it to be over before the first page and everyone trying to pick up the pieces thereafter.

    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.
   
10/10

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