I am a little late to the party reviewing Richard K Morgan’s Cold Commands, the second in his ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ series but I found the book so intriguing and the writing so well crafted that I thought a straggler wouldn’t be turned away..
The book, once again, centres around the main characters of Ringil Eskiath, Egar Dragonbane and Lady kir-Archeth Indamaninarma, three characters who neatly drive the three entwining aspects of the story. Ringil’s involvement with the dwenda, a dark and strange elder race who deal in magic and myth, brings to the fore the conflict left over from The Steel Remains. Egar’s boredom with living in the city spurs him into a strange adventure that results in the uncovering of the dwenda’s interference amongst the religious of Yhelteth whilst Archeth, still juggling her position in the royal court, attempts to make sense of the arrival of a new Helmsman, a type of AI that resides in alien technology. The strands of the story are beautifully spun together by Morgan. The three characters are eventually reunited as events draw them together in a fascinating web of action and mystery which, at its centre, cleverly sets things up for the final book The Dark Defiles.
What Morgan achieves is to blend a number of amazing and thrilling factors into one intense fantasy trilogy. We have an anti-hero in every sense of the term in Ringil, the homosexual, warrior warlock who has become twisted and changed by his dealings in the ‘gray places’ of the novel’s alternative and magical reality. We have Egar, a horse-tribe barbarian who is growing old and is beginning to use his brain before his brawn. And then we have Archeth, a half-human half-alien who was left behind when the Kiriath, her father’s people, left the planet hundreds of years before. The trilogy of tropes introduced by the trio of characters is wonderful. Magic and swords mix with science fiction and technology building a world with a rich and highly imagined history.
Each of Morgan’s actors has evolved since the end of The Steel Remains, changed by circumstance and age and the story reflects that. The individual attitude of Morgan’s players (and their actions) reveals characters that are all too human. Dealing within a society divided along political and religious lines, Archeth is constantly confronted by her own past as she tries to help the current emperor rule his lands fairly, constantly conflicted by her need to help her friends. Egar, now Archeth’s bodyguard, finds himself in the middle of a growing plot due to his own boredom and though he has grown wiser with age he is not so wise as to avoid getting into some serious situations – ones that require Ringil and Archeth to intervene – but which also uncover a sinister plot. Ringil, now an outlaw bent on destroying the slave trade, is the most affected of the bunch. Twisted by the events in The Steel Remains, and changed by his constant slipping between reality and the gray places, he has begun to master its magic, altering him even further. Whilst Archeth’s mission revolves around trying to make sense of the Helmsman and their cryptic messages, Ringil must once again face the dwenda if he is to save Egar from execution.
With such strong and deftly rendered characters leading the story along, The Cold Commands is an intense and gripping roller coaster of a novel. Morgan’s writing is gritty and realistic, never flinching from the grimy truth of the characters and world he has created. The braiding of each storyline into one is beautifully handled and in no way contrived and the wonderfully constructed races and realities Morgan has crafted are stunning. The Kiriath and their strange, alien technology, their immortality and helmsman is at odds with the brutal blood and guts of Yelteth whilst the godlike dwenda and their magic is a dark force that changes everything it touches. A muti-layered, multi-charactered mountain of a novel, Morgan has produced something that both affirms and subverts what fantasy writing is. I, for one, cannot wait for the next novel.