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Sunday, October 23, 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.


John said...

My issue with Morgan is that he frequently seems to be writing for shock value - shock for shock's sake. I'm not sure if he's afraid that he won't stand out if he doesn't do it, or if he just makes something as horrible as it can possibly be, because, well... hey.

I'm fine with a lot of writers who get into a lot of brutality and violence, but Morgan's has always seemed cheap and exploitative to me.

I also find it hard to take Morgan seriously when he's admitted that he doesn't really read fantasy. He thinks that by showing some brutality, it sets him apart. And with guys like Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence writing... it doesn't.

Liviu said...

There is some truth in what you say, but here in Cold Commands RKM strikes a better balance between the harsh premodern world of his heroes and the modern elements than in TSR; yes the fantasy stuff boils down to cliched plot elements and moronic villains, but the superb stuff outweighs it by a lot; i was skeptical too - i really expected to open the novel and either put it away for good or shelve it for an indefinite later, rather than be so absorbed and turn page after page.

As for Abercombie, his fantasy is much subtler, but the prose while funny and cynical lacks the vigor of Morgan to some extent and the characters while memorable, also lack a little the larger than life quality that especially Ringil and even Archeth have here.

John said...

I don't doubt that he writes well, I've read some of his Kovacs stuff.

But just look at that cover blurb: "Fantasy. Harder, faster, bloodier..."

It's a little condescending, don't you think? I mean, I get that for a while fantasy was a pretty "lite" genre in terms of violence, but that sort of went away when Terry Goodkind showed up in the early 90s. (Not that Goodkind's a quality writer, he isn't..)

So when Morgan marches in, admits he doesn't read fantasy, but goes out and writes it like he's the first person to "go there", I can't help but get a little defensive.

Liviu said...

You are absolutely right and I think that the hype surrounding The Steel Remains and the publicity claims (first adult fantasy, Tolkien for adults etc) that the author even supported for a while in various interviews until he got shouted down badly, left many hardcore fantasy readers with a bad feeling at best and an avoid Morgan at worst.

As for Cold Commands, well the cover blurb is not particularly unheard of (think of any and sundry covers comparing themselves with GRRM or Jordan) and thankfully the hype died down this time.

John said...

Want to clarify that I enjoy your reviews, and I'm not trying to be critical of you or your job or anything. Appreciate your work.

I understand your defense of the quality of the book itself.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words and no problem.

Sean said...

When I saw you gave The Cold Commands A++, I picked it up, as I often do. And I have to say it was quite a satisfying read, as it often turns out to be. :)

Like you, I had to refresh myself on TSR, and I remembered I liked it well enough at the time, but not thrilled to salivate for the sequel. Probably not knowing the hype around the first novel made it easier to like.

After reading TCC, I'm more convinced that Morgan's main appeal for me in this series is his characterisation. When it comes to books with multiple main characters, I often find myself gravitated toward one or two and bored with the rest. Not in this instance though. As you said having their plot-lines coincide halfway through was probably what made it work. His second characters like the Emperor are also quite delightful. As for the dwenda, while I get your point, I didn't mind it as much as you. I think it's more due to your current sense of ennui towards traditional fantasy really. :)

What wasn't always successful for me was his use of language. Granted mostly stylistic issues. For example, I wasn't happy with his switching b/w past and present tense. I do understand that some authors like this, presumably to give a sense of urgency and/or suspense with the present tense narration. But it usually doesn't work for me. perhaps it's a personal taste.

Overall as you concluded, I also found TCC elevated this series. And now he's also set the stage for the next conflict between the changeling and Gil on the Magic Island. I'm looking forward to it. Meanwhile though I'm going to check out 1Q84.


Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; I agree that Morgan excels at characters and that was ultimately the issue with TSR, that the heroes felt sketchy; the beginning in TSR is so strong with Ringil in the village, but then it only partly follows up.

I also like Morgan's style - it is very vigorous, just pulls you in and here in TCC I liked that he toned down a bit what I perceived shock language for its sake from TSR. It is still brutal, but I felt it fit much better.

As for the fantasy plot - like with mil-sf (of the infantry/tanks/etc slugging it out, tough troupers kind, not space opera battles per se) which i read a ton or with alien invasion of Earth and the plucky resistance, I started finding it too repetitive (ancient evil, etc, etc) and in TCC that part of the plot was really by the numbers. But the book has way too many goodies not to be a big time favorite.

Anonymous said...

Morgan's Tak Kovacs novels have set the standard for intelligent action SF, no doubt about that.
His shoddy fantasy leaves me for dead.
As an example; Michael Moorcock's first four Runestaff books are so far ahead of Morgan's fantasy it's not funny. Back in the day they were highly original and classics in the genre.
I don't think anyone's ever going to say that about Morgan's fantasy.
I don't read fantasy to be bludegeoned with the same language, violence and brutality I can read about on the nightly news. I read fantasy to escape the world we live in.
Morgan is basically writing sword and sorcery but one only has to go back and read Robert E Howard's stuff to see how it should be done.
Plenty of the Conan stories had blood and gore, but REH just did it so much better.
I'd read another Tak Kovacs novel in a heartbeat, but no more of his fantasy efforts.
I suspect Morgan lost a lot of fans when he stopped penning the Kovacs stories. He says he ran out of things to write about Kovacs, but with such a wide universe to wander about in, I doubt that. More likely that the Kovacs novels take a lot more effort than his fantasy books.


Liviu said...

Hard to say about effort in writing sf vs f - RK Morgan's distinctive feature is his vigorous, hard charging, take no prisoner style and the strong anti-hero that comes naturally with it; the rest is rearranging furniture.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that Morgan's just rearranging the furniture. The Kovacs novels had so many innovative ideas, not least the cortical stacks and re-sleeving. Plus his Altered Carbon universe just came across as so real. You could get entire novels just out of the half hinted at histories and myths of the colonised worlds. Not to mention a lot of us would like to see Kovacs childhood and teen years, and then his entering the Marines and eventually being selected for the Envoy Corp. His training and some of his early assignments, from that point on.
His fantasy, if you take away the gutter talk, explict sex and violence, is just another sword (and sorcery)slinging tale that's been done better by other authors.
Whereas few modern SF authors have quite managed to conjure up a universe as detailed as that which Tak Kovacs inhabits.
It's not just the characters in the Kovacs world, it's the machinery, vehicles, weaponry, AI's, aliens.
The Kovacs novels wouldn't be half as good without everything else thrown into the pot.
That's why I say that his fantasy is easier to write than his SF, because the fantasy world his characters inhabit doesn't have the detailed depth of his Kovacs stories.
It would be interesting to know how many copies of his two fantasy books his publisher has sold, compared to how many copies of his three Kovacs novels.
Sure I'm biased toward the Kovacs books, but then nothing else Morgan has written and had published comes close to them.


Anonymous said...

Good review. I read this book right after Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged, and I thought this was much the stronger of the two 'second-parters'. I really like your use of the word vigorous to describe Morgan's prose -- I think you're spot on there...

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment

Anonymous said...

I think I got soured by the hype as well. I read TSR expecting something fresh and original ... and really didn't get that. I can't say I hated it, but it's far from "the best fantasy I've read all year".

Far from fresh and original, I found it somewhat tired and trite, but it was really the characterisation that was the biggest hurdle for me. Ringil just came across to me as all kinds of obnoxious git, and Morgan completely failed to sell him to me as the inspirational leader that could get soldiers to gladly lay down their lives beside him. I seriously didn't get it! I much preferred Egar and Archeth to Ringil, and I'd probably have liked the book much better if they had had more page time.

I had hoped that there'd be less Ringil in the sequel, but since this review suggests otherwise, I'll probably leave TCR until I've nothing else to read.


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