Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: The Cold Commands, by Richard Morgan

This review contains spoilers for The Steel Remains

Is it weird that my favourite character in this book was Ringil’s longsword, Ravensfriend? That’s right folks. No longer merely content with crafting some of the coolest human(ish) characters around, Richard Morgan is now imbuing inanimate objects with more personality than your average fantasy author could dream of.

But of course, there’s a lot more to The Cold Commands than just scene stealing weaponry. When last we left them it seemed that Ringil, Archeth and Egar would heading south together to Archeth's house, and given how fun it is to watch the three play off each other I was looking forward to seeing them share page space. So I was a little disappointed when the book opened, much as the first one did, with the three friends involved in three separate story lines. But come on, there’s only so long disappointment can last in the face of Richard Morgan’s awesome prose and clever dialogue.

By the time I hit the midway point my initial feelings of disappointment were a distant memory, and I was enjoying The Cold Commands even more than I did The Steel Remains. (And I really liked The Steel Remains). I spoke in my review of The Steel Remains of how well Morgan handles backstory, and here he continues to show his prowess in that area. The war with the scaled folk is fleshed out further, but it’s done very organically without the use of clunky flashbacks and the like. We also get a few tantalizing glimpses into the battle that earned Egar the title of Dragonbane.

And can I just stop here and say what a fantastic example of characterization the whole Dragonbane thing is. Because Egar and Ringil both killed that dragon, but only Egar is known by ‘Dragonbane’ title that killing a dragon gets you. Ringil, perverted degenerate and corrupter of youth that he is (can you feel my sarcasm from over there?), is conveniently left out of the tale. Where a lesser author would make a huge deal out of it Morgan doesn’t, and it’s very effective. You can tell a reader that your hero is an outcast for x reason until you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t mean squat unless you show it too.

I think the main reason I enjoyed this book more than its predecessor is a simple one. Whereas Ringil spent much of The Steel Remains wandering around the grey places with Seethlaw, understandably way out of his element, here he spends the bulk of the novel in the “real world.” Watching Ringil (and Ravensfriend) interact with Morgan’s well developed cast was a real pleasure. Really, I can’t overstate how much fun I had watching Ringil charm, intimidate and terrify everyone around him in turns. (I did miss Seethlaw though…) His interactions with the Emporer (who remains one of my favourite non-sword shaped characters, if only for how impressive I find the way Morgan uses him to play with our expectations) was a particular treat.

I will say the plot is very much the plot of a middle book. Whereas the Steel Remains can and does stand very well on its own, The Cold Commands is clearly setting up the events of the trilogy’s final volume. Which didn’t bother me, but it might others. Plot elements introduced in books one, namely the whole “dark lord” business are also further explored here. When it comes to subverting fantasy conventions Abercrombie has nothing on Morgan in my opinion, and I’m very interested to see where this dark lord thing leads. It’s like a wicked inversion of the “chosen hero” trope, and I’m getting a real kick out of it. I also think the subversion is entirely intentional on Morgan’s part. Ringil’s reaction when that creepy crossroads dude (which, wow, what an awesome scene) calls him a farmboy was priceless, but also telling.

So, incase it’s somehow unclear, I loved this book. I really can’t see anyone who enjoyed The Steel Remains not getting, at the least, the same level of enjoyment out of The Cold Commands. I just can’t wait to see how Morgan brings this thing to a close. I’m also hoping to see a Ravensfriend spin off. What? It could happen…

I bought this book

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