The Cold Commands
Reviewed by Brian Murphy
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:1 (#354) in January 2012.]
Quests are pretexts, Archeth. They are tales told, narrative blankets to wrap against the cold you cannot bear.
— Richard Morgan, The Cold Commands
I’ve been pretty hard on Richard Morgan, both of the writer and of his work, The Steel Remains. The latter I thought was well-written but lacking a soul, graphic for the sake of shock value, and falling over itself in its compulsion to eviscerate traditional epic fantasy. Coupled with Morgan’s wrong-headed evaluation a couple years ago of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (he called it a work for children and wondered why anyone adult would want to read it, and used his criticism as a crude platform to hawk his own book: http://suvudu.com/2009/02/the-real-fantastic-stuff-an-essay-by-richard-k-morgan.html) — I was more than a bit disenchanted with Morgan and none too keen on continuing with the second book in his planned trilogy A Land Fit for Heroes, of which The Steel Remains is the first.
But ultimately I did pick up The Cold Commands, partly out of curiosity, and also because I don’t like to drop a series in which I’ve invested significant time (unless it’s really awful and meritless, of course). Now that I’ve read The Cold Commands I have to give credit where credit is due: Morgan wrote a sequel that surpasses The Steel Remains and is beginning to show something of a heartbeat under its graphic and “GrimDark” carapace.
A Land Fit for Heroes straddles the line between traditional epic fantasy and the swords and sorcery subgenre. Although as a lengthy trilogy it shares the form of the former, its spirit and tone reside with the latter; think Glen Cook’s The Black Company rather than The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. A better comparison is a harder-edged Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser. The main protagonist of A Land Fit for Heroes is Ringil Eskiath, a mercenary who relies more on skill with a blade and speed than brute strength. He’s rakish with a sorcerous streak and a healthy sexual appetite, very much like the Gray Mouser. His sidekick is the boisterous, brawling, Fafhrd-esque Egar, a renowned warrior (a “Dragonsbane”) from the semi-barbaric Majak peoples.
The Cold Commands features several standalone episodes, including a raid on a temple, a slave revolt, and a battle with a hostile alien humanoid race called the dwenda. Each one of these could serve as a traditional swords and sorcery short story. Ringil wanders into a shadowy parallel plane of existence called The Grey Planes which could be something straight out of an Elric story. So too are the cold, inhuman dwenda, a race of conquering amoral alien beings with the pale, sharply angular features of Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans.
Overarching these episodes is a traditional epic fantasy plot with world-shaking implications. A dark wizardly being of great power with the portentous name of the Ilwrack Changeling has been discovered on a floating island far out to sea, and his awakening could mean the end of the world. A mission fitted out by Morgan’s third main character — Archeth, a female half-breed member of the non-human (but human-looking) Kiriath race, and a friend of Ringil and Egar — sets out to find the island and dispatch the Ilwrack Changeling before he arises from his sorcerous slumber. Unfortunately this plot never quite materializes in The Cold Commands, which ends with the bigger quest about to begin. Fortunately enough good stuff goes on in the interim that we can wait for its resolution in book 3. The narrative drive is strong: In the temple raid and slave revolt I felt a familiar stirring of the blood that good swords and sorcery delivers.
What A Land Fit for Heroes lacks is a necessary break in the grimness. There are plenty of sardonic one-liners, but these aren’t enough to relieve the omnipresent, near suffocating darkness and gloom. There’s no hobbit cheer, certainly, and that would be out of place here, but there’s not even a booming laugh of a Cimmerian, nor the light-hearted banter of a Mouser or a Fafhrd. Just unending darkness, which is why A Land Fit for Heroes and other similar grim-and-gritty works by authors like Joe Abercrombie have earned the moniker “GrimDark” among SF and fantasy fans. Morgan continues his deconstruction of traditional Tolkienian inspired fantasy in The Cold Commands. There are no heroes with destinies (or so it seems). Life is nasty, brutish, and short, with graphically depicted rape, torture, and violence making life pretty squalid all around for the denizens of this world. The cities are a hive of scum and villainy with rampant drug use, prostitution, and crimes both large and petty.
Morgan attacks targets like the use of torture, religious fanaticism, and corrupt political leadership with a bright fury. For example, The Cold Commands features a hideously effective scene of prisoners executed by squid consumption; with the victims chained to a wooden board and floated into a shallow pool it has unpleasant connotations of waterboarding. These are laudable targets but rather easy marks, especially as portrayed in The Steel Remains/The Cold Commands where it seems that every religious figure is fanatical, everyone in a position of authority is corrupt, and torture is uniformly hideous.
The Cold Commands is more successful when it sticks to story and world-building. One of its strengths is its portrayal of a military ethos in a world of omnipresent war. Veterans of a previous war against an invading race of lizards know the truth inside combat and the brotherhood forged in times of crisis. In a dog-eat-dog world where no one is to be trusted ex-soldiers treat each other with a mixture of deference and mutual respect. “‘Seventeenth, huh?’ He racked weary brains for the memory. ‘You were at Oronak than, that first summer when the Scaled Folk came. Before the dragons,’” says Egar, dropping into easy conversation with a street beggar wearing a cavalryman’s cloak and missing several fingers from a saber-cut. The rich background and continued references to the war against the Scaly Folk and a great victory at Gallows Gap leads one to believe that a prequel may be in the offing, if A Land Fit for Heroes proves successful enough.
Morgan also succeeds in bringing his main characters into a greater focus (they were rather hazy and ill-defined in The Steel Remains). Egar in particular becomes a much more fully realized character; we feel his dissatisfaction with the corrupt city and the call of clean open plains living — competing against his primal needs for easily obtained drink and feminine flesh, which the city affords. Egar’s blood ties and hot-headed temper land him in trouble, realistically, in The Cold Commands, and this becomes a major plot point. Morgan also succeeds in channeling David Gemmel’s Legend: Egar’s awareness of his increasingly creaky joints and gray-flecked beard is very reminiscent of Gemmel’s aging but still dangerous Druss. Ringil remains compellingly mysterious, and Morgan offers more details about his youth and days in the military that continue to round him out as a three-dimensional character. Archeth however continues to suffer; outside of some superficial details (her preference for women, her dark skin, and her drug use) she suffers in comparison to the two men.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, one of the weaknesses of The Steel Remains is its nihilism: It is anti-religion, anti-authoritarian, but pro-nothing, it seems. Friendship and loyalty (perhaps?) emerge as values that are worth fighting for. It’s not clear what the characters value, if anything, but it’s also debatable whether this even matters — escape is one of the functions of sword and sorcery, and the presentation of an amoral world has an intrinsic worth of its own, if done well. But the problem is that this type of fiction is hard to take in large doses, unless one enjoys being immersed in suffering.
But the end of The Cold Commands gives us an intriguing preview of a possible new direction in book 3. Ringil becomes a tool of vengeance for the thousands of victims of the dwenda after he is imbued with a sorcerous power called The Cold Commands. Fueled by the injustice of their deaths and burning with a cold flame of vengeance, he strikes back in their name, giving voice to voiceless victims. To acquire this power Ringil undertakes a three day journey that leads him to the Grey Realms of undeath, a strange journey that — intentionally or not — evokes something of Christ’s suffering on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Morgan borrows a scene straight out of Arthuriana when Ringil retrieves his alien-metal sword Ravensfriend from a lady of the lake, although the latter looks like something out of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It’s a remarkable sequence in which Ringil channels something resembling traditional heroism (albeit hate-fueled) and a life of broader responsibility. It’s a pale ray of light in an otherwise dark universe.
It is still not clear what the moral center of the trilogy is, but we are starting to see signs in The Cold Commands that there may be something worth saving after all. It will be interesting to see what Morgan does with his concluding volume.