The Cold Commands
Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey, 2011
After just about three years Richard Morgan’s The Cold Commands has been released. Picking up more or less where The Steel Remains leaves this dark fantasy (I almost want to say science fantasy) novel is a bit slower than the previous volume, forgoing major strides in plot advancement in favor of maneuvering characters and events so as they are positioned for further adventures, and likely more action, in the next volume(s). While this makes for a more intense study of our three main leads; Ringil, Arceth, and Egar; it does lend the novel a more meandering feel.
As the novel opens Ringil is working to disrupt the slave, more as an act vengeance for a lost relative rather than any sense of true altruism on his part. This early plot point offers one of the more troubling scenes of the novel in which Ringil allows for the gang rape of a slaver (Poppy Snarl) as an act of vengeance in an effort to break her spirit. I raise that point, and minor spoiler, here to remind you that Morgan’s fantasy novel is not one for the squeamish. There is no flinching away from violence at all. It should also be noted that while Ringil allows for that rape to occur there is no sense of victory in it, no sense of fulfillment on his part. Furthermore, once the rape is stopped Poppy goes on to explain to Ringil something about the reality of growing up as a poor female on the streets revealing that he couldn’t take from her what has already been taken. It is an uncomfortable scene and one that continues to unveil the troubling sexual politics of fantasy world that Morgan has created. That being said this scene was almost enough to make me stop reading.
While Ringil’s homosexuality in The Cold Commands is often shown in a much more positive light than Arceth’s homosexuality. Ringil’s sexual encounters are perhaps the only times we get to see him for who he really is rather than the mask he is constantly forced to wear. Meanwhile Arceth’s position as an inhuman, female, outsider places her in a more precarious position than Ringil. There is a palpable loneliness to her not just because she is last member of a vanished race constantly surrounded by the relics of her kind whose longevity dooms her to watch the people around her age and die, but also because she is a gay female in a society that places both women and homosexuality on the very bottom of the social rung. She walks a delicate line between her need to honor the legacy of her people, the Empire they helped create, while being constantly close to being rejected (and sometimes despising) that same creation. There is a tragic quality to her characterization that is powerful and difficult to ignore.
Egar the Dragonbane, the last of our major characters, is a sort of middle-of-the-road character. In one way he is a relic of the past growing nostalgic as he advances in years. He remembers with perhaps misplaced fondness the social ties of the Steppes where he comes from while at the same time struggling to navigate through apparently civilized society. Egar’s role in the story is one that helps illuminate the thin, nigh non-existing, line between civilized and uncivilized society. Like Arceth’s story it illuminates some of the difficulties women face in namely the fact that a husband with a mistress is an acceptable part of society but a woman having sex outside the marriage bed is an offense punishable by death. There is a bit a disparity there.
All three characters follow separate threads of the plot only converging towards the conclusion of the novel. In many ways Ringil, who for all intents and purposes is our “hero” character struggles against stepping into the role. His “square peg round hole” characterization reminds me of the willfully divergent character from Peter David’s Sir Appropos of Nothing (though certainly with less humor). Through Arceth and the Kirith Morgan introduces a strong “science fantatsy” vibe to the story that was definitely present in the last novel but comes far more to forefront here. The sort of divergent roles both Arceth and Ringil play leaves Egar as sort of foil to both characters as his characterization follows more along the line traditional barbarian trope (think Logen Ninefingers rather than Conan).
Ultimately while there was some strong character work throughout The Cold Commands I still felt a bit disappointed by the novel. It is a both the novel’s blessing and bane that I really just want more. More action, more detail, and more of the fascinating and often disturbing world that Richard Morgan has created. A Land Fit For Heroes is not a series for the faint of heart. It may not scratch your itch for classic epic fantasy. It is a series painted in shades of gray with a liberal spray of crimson further diluting the lines between good, bad, right, and wrong. If you liked The Steel Remains you’re going to like The Cold Commands but those on the fence after the first novel are going to have a difficult time with what felt like a increase in violence and sex across the novel.