This review contains minor spoilers for The Steel Remains.
The Cold Commands is the much anticipated sequel to The Steel Remains, the 2008 fantasy debut of acclaimed science fiction author Richard Morgan. After a three year hiatus, the second installment of A Land Fit for Heroes has finally arrived—and it will not disappoint. No holds are barred in this fast-paced genre shake-up, its pages veritably bursting with passion, action, intelligence, and pathos.
Set approximately one year after the events of The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands reunites us with forgotten war heroes Ringil, Archeth, and Egar, albeit in somewhat altered circumstances. Exiled from his homeland and endowed with strange abilities from his time in the Grey Places, Ringil has taken to what he refers to as ‘abolishing slavery.’ However, as the slave trade is legal in Trelayne, his actions have marked him as an outlaw with a rather hefty bounty on his head. Hunted from every direction and with nowhere else to go, his last hope may be to seek asylum in Yhelteth with the Kiriath half-breed royal adviser, Archeth Indamaninarmal.
However, not all is well in the southern capital. In addition to dealing with the increasingly fanatic Citadel and serving the whims of her decadent monarch, Archeth is receiving strange warnings of approaching darkness from the Helmsmen. Furthermore, her house-guest Egar the Dragonbane, former steppe nomad, feels stifled by Yhelteth society and grows ever more reckless in his boredom. Tensions reach breaking point, old enemies plot, dark forces stir. And with an insidious plot penetrating Yhelteth society to its very core, never has the danger lurked so close to home.
Anyone for some edgy ‘retro dystopic sci-fi/fantasy noir?’
All in all, The Cold Commands takes everything that made The Steel Remains great and amps it up to the next level. It’s darker, faster, grittier, and more violent than its predecessor while providing the same generous servings of black humor, snappy dialogue, and cynical, razor-sharp wit. The fascinating alien technologies, strange powerful races, and science fiction elements introduced in the previous novel also receive enhanced focus. For instance, the self-aware mechanical constructs, the Helmsmen, play a much greater role throughout The Cold Commands, and we learn more about their abilities and purpose. The origins of their creators—the ebony-skinned, technologically advanced Kiriath—are also explored in further detail, as are those of their enemy, the reality-shifting Dwenda. The strange gods of the Dark Court also play a hand in events, and we see more and learn more of the significance of the Grey Places: the realm between realities full of unrealized possibilities and unchosen paths.
However, there’s more to The Cold Commands than strange creatures and sword fights. Morgan resumes his edgy socio-political satire and re-embarks on his poignant exploration of human nature. Themes of corruption, fanaticism, and bigotry are all addressed throughout the novel, and readers are forced to question their beliefs regarding concepts such as revenge, justice, love and camaraderie. Nevertheless, it’s not all darkness and despair. The Cold Commands also contains more tender, hopeful scenes to offset the bloodshed, providing a peculiar sense of warmth in a world more accustomed to the cold clash of steel. These stand as small reminders that perhaps there is still something worth fighting for in Morgan’s otherwise bleak version of reality.
Undeniably, Morgan’s main strength lies in his characters, specifically his ability to make the reader care about them even when their actions verge on the reprehensible and their motivations are morally suspect. Throughout The Cold Commands, we learn more about the damaged, imperfect misfits we first met in The Steel Remains. Ringil, Archeth, and Egar are undeniably and recognizably human and face greater challenges than ever before both in the events that unfold around them and from within themselves. They are not infallible and frequently make mistakes or allow their passions to cloud their judgement. Even if we don’t agree with a character’s actions in a given situation at least we can understand them.
Once again, there is no black-and-white morality in this series; everything and everyone is a shade of grey. For instance, we are reminded that Archeth—despite appearing superficially to be the least morally ambiguous of the protagonists—is instrumental in preserving the empire of a rather cruel and self-indulgent Emperor. As a near-immortal, she is able to take ‘the long view’ and overlook immediate corruption if it serves a greater purpose. Yet the answers to various questions are never clear cut. It may be corrupt and imperfect, but if not the Empire, what else? The fanatical Citadel? In some cases, one must be willing to choose the lesser of two evils. Additionally, like the reader, the characters are frequently forced to face that age old question: does the end justify the means? And what do you do if it doesn’t?
A conclusion that will leave you gasping for breath
While still relatively self-contained, The Cold Commands encompasses a much larger scope than its predecessor and is more obviously part of a trilogy. It lays down the foundations for the third and final novel while carefully avoiding the dreaded ‘second book slump’ that has some writers sacrificing the middle book as mere filler before the final installment. Although the plot slows down slightly around the middle to encompass some enhanced character development, all the pieces fall into place soon enough and the story continues on its path to a truly epic and relentless climax. For the last quarter of the novel, I found myself glued to the book, frantically turning pages and unable to look away. Morgan is not averse to killing characters and I must admit this was one of the rare instances in which I had literally no idea whether my favorite characters would even survive the next few pages. To top it off, the conclusion is absolutely stunning and left me feeling shell-shocked and hungry for the next installment.
You haven’t read gritty until you’ve read this
Those who have already read The Steel Remains probably know what to expect; however, any new readers should consider themselves forewarned. Those who pick up The Cold Commands expecting mindless escapism will be in for a rather nasty surprise. Morgan does not shy away from the depiction of graphic sex and violence, drug use or coarse language and although all are used within context, anyone adverse to gritty realism may want to look elsewhere. Some may also detect a rather cynical portrayal of organized religion. While this may alienate certain readers, I personally interpreted it as more disparaging towards blind religious fanaticism in general than an attack on any particular real-world faith. Additionally, those put-off by the homosexual aspects of The Steel Remains will find no respite here, as Morgan brings them back with renewed vigor. Nevertheless, I doubt anyone likely to be scared off by such content will have managed to make it this far into the trilogy.
Why should you read this book?
Richard Morgan is an accomplished author at the top of his game and The Cold Commands stands as a testament to this fact. While new readers should probably start with The Steel Remains in order to experience the books to their fullest, this work surpasses its predecessor on almost every front. While it may not be for everyone, A Land Fit for Heroes will undoubtedly appeal to anyone tired of the old fantasy tropes or just looking for something a little bit different. Sharp, fast, furious, and well written, The Cold Commands is a must read for anyone who likes gritty, edgy fantasy that is unafraid to explore complex or difficult issues. Lastly, it is the second book in what is shaping up to be an absolutely unforgettable trilogy and sets the scene for what should be a truly mind blowing conclusion in the third book. All I can say is this—bring it on!
Michelle received an advance copy of The Cold Commands courtesy of Gollancz Australia.