The Cold Commands [Review]

The Cold Commands

by Richard K. Morgan
New York: Del Rey, 2011

The Land Fit for Heroes trilogy by Richard K. Morgan is a very odd and divisive fantasy series. Don’t let the title fool you. It is meant sarcastically. There are no real heroes in this book, or anti-heroes, really. The main characters are acted upon by circumstance and the society they live in — milieu-driven, as opposed to a character or plot-based work.  It’s a take on fantasy-based noire by the author of Altered Carbon, a hyperdark cyberpunk SF novel, all grittiness and cynicism. There’s some John le Carré in Morgan’s work and Phillip Marlowe too, as well as a strong influence from Michael Moorcock. However, I don’t think those elements gelled too well together in a fantasy setting. Or, rather they would work, if some basic precepts of the fantasy genre had been honored.

I pulled The Cold Commands from the library shelf because I was curious; I hadn’t read grimdark before, and from what I’d read the trilogy was the grimmest of the grim. The Cold Commands was the middle volume of the series so to bring myself up to speed I read a detailed synopsis of The Steel Remains and referred to the wiki so I wouldn’t be confused. For the most part I wasn’t. Off the bat I could tell the author was hell-bent bent on subverting everything about the fantasy genre that people love… the plots of good vs. evil as exemplified by 1980s and 1990s writers like David Eddings and Mercedes Lackey. The Cold Commands is the polar opposite of their kind of coziness, as well as Tolkien’s. But it’s also like beating a dead horse, burning it, and scattering the ashes, as the genre has moved on.

I do think that the author overlooked one of the most basic appeals of fantasy in the way he set up this series and this book. Which is not so much moral absolutes, such as good vs. evil, or ethics, such as law vs. chaos, individual freedoms vs. community responsibility. It’s the simplicity of its arc. Real life doesn’t progress in a straight line. We get sidetracked and jerked around by things beyond our control. Our goals change; we change. We spend long periods in frustration and inactivity, punctuated by shorter periods of bliss and terror. We feel angst and anomie. In short, most often we don’t have singular goals like destroying the magical McGuffin and banishing the dark lord. Sometimes it’s just getting through the day without having a nervous breakdown. Even Tolkien, whom the author derided, realized that. At the end of The Return of the King the looming menace is destroyed, but the world is changed and things will never again be the same as before the evil.

In noire, which most often has a mystery plot, the protagonist must navigate a corrupt world to realize their goal. Sometimes the goal is enlightenment to a sinister plot, sometimes wealth or vengeance. The reader wants to see the little guy go up against the odds to win, even if it’s for something venal or unpalatable, even if they themselves are unappealing as a character. It’s all about the fight – David and Goliath if you will.

In The Cold Commands the arc is nebulous, but neither are the characters fighting just to survive. Instead they’re muddling through a series of vignettes, some amusing to the reader, others off-putting, and oh, hey, there’s some alien creatures called dwenda who are trying to gain control of this world and take it over. But let’s do some other things which have absolutely nothing to do with this plot.

The plot revolves around three main characters: Ringil Eskiath, a gay swordsman ostracized for a sexuality which is very taboo in this world; Egar, a rough and tumble tribesman of the north; and Archeth, a black-skinned member of another alien race, the Kiriath, who are longtime human allies. The trilogy begins ten years after reptilian invaders to this world have successfully been beaten off, but at a great cost, and to an extent these three characters are presented as world-weary ones living day to day in the salvaged but corrupt new world their war victories have created. When The Cold Commands begins Archeth is an advisor to the Jhiral, the decadent emperor of the southern kingdom, Yhelteth, while Egar is hanging around the big city with her. Ringil is seeking revenge on the slave dealer who abused his cousin. These adventures continue closely with those from the previous book.

Up to a point I was enthusiastic about the book. The author can write, and write well; the action moves, and little ironic flourishes abound. I wanted to like it.  I felt I had to like it, to game up to its hipness. The subversions amused even as they were violent, misogynistic, and graphically sexual (but not erotically sexual.)  The very crassness of it was hilarious, like that over-the-top scene in Kill Bill, Vol. II where Beatrix Kiddo squishes her rival’s last eyeball with her dirty toes. The author even dared to subvert the subversion in a scene where Ringil has his revenge on the female slave dealer who’d taken his cousin. After letting his gang repeatedly gang-rape her, complete with screams, leering men, and dropped trousers, he goes to kill her himself with his dragon-tooth knife. But instead of being all sobbing and cowering she stands up to him, insults him to his face, and states the gang rape has been nothing to what she’s endured in the past, and furthermore, she’s twenty times the woman his cousin was! She refuses to give him the satisfaction of being broken, prepared to go to her death defiant to the last. A bold move by the writer, and I upped the book a star because of it.

But…it goes nowhere. The reader has been prepared for some grimdark denouement from all this buildup, and there is none. Ringil, impassive, lets her rave, and the scene cuts away before she is presumably killed.

The reader, at this point, does expect some resolution for all this buildup. A psychological one for Ringil, if not an advancement for the plot. There was none.

By cheating the reader of a conclusion, the whole scene felt arbitrary and too much like the writer was heaping contempt on his own character, and by extension the reader, for downbeat dramacakes. Ringil could have lost his temper and offed her in a rage, or given her an argument, or realize that that he’s wasted all his time. Psychologically, it could have been a comment on the futility of revenge, or the realization of a task completed. But all it does is showcase the slave dealer’s ugliness to the reader, and after this scene, Ringil doesn’t think of her or the incident again. We never find out if he’s been cut down to size by her, or grimly amused. Nothing. Nada. The author may, indeed, have been making a meta comment on the futility of real life and its pointlessness, but that’s not why we read a fantasy novel. We get pointlessness in real life. In fantasy we want clarity and conclusions: good, bad, or ambiguous.

All the main characters in The Cold Commands seem to lack this kind of conclusion-drawing skill and the ability to adjust their inner selves to what occurs in their  environment, which led, ultimately, to my becoming dissatisfied with the book. They lacked introspection. They were very much creatures of the present, which was at odds with how often they referenced the past: the war they fought, their childhoods, old friends and lovers. They never came into focus for me, never engaged, even as they were observant of others and sensitive to their motives. They just drifted from incident to incident, rudderless.

Here’s an excerpt the last fifth of book where nomad tribesman Egar bursts in unexpectedly on his lover, a married noblewoman, and she’s put out by it and calls him a Majak (a term used derisively by the people of the city for his culture).

[ … ]  Imrana stared at him. In the breathing space that followed, he discovered that what really stung was her apparent opinion, laid abruptly bare with this unscripted meeting. It lurched through the arrangement of his memories like a drunken thug in a spice market, scattering and trampling the little rows of jars and pots, the artfully opened, fine-odored sacks. Belch and curse and stagger, smash and spill. Everything he’d valued, turned over in this head—he watched it happen like a sack of some pretty hillside town. Thick-skulled big-cock barbarian bit of rough—was that all he’d ever been? Or was it the march of years, clawing them apart? Had passing time and age done this to them both, made them colder and more distant, wound up in their own affair and grasping scared at what was left? He cast his mind back, tried to remember. Found he couldn’t. Found he didn’t want to.

It’s a very nice piece of writing that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern literary novel. But, it has absolutely nothing to do with this story. Egar’s character does not change and Imrana herself bows out a few pages later. The slave girl Egar had rescued, who was the reason for the unscripted meeting, is also not mentioned again in the book. All that happens is Imrana’s philandering husband returns, gets mad, and Egar kills him, providing a plot device for Egar to get thrown in prison, forcing Ringil to take on the job of assassinating the emperor’s religious rival as payment for Egar’s pardon. That’s it… a whole lot of nothing.

Much of the book was like this, random incidents strung together, lurching and uncouth, the characters observing them dispassionately. At the end of the book, after Ringil assassinates the troublemaking cleric and his dwenda partners, (after a journey through dwendaland, I think) he kills everyone, destroys the temple, and declares himself the city’s protector. I was like wha…? The dude didn’t even like the city or its people that much. He was out for himself, now he’s a hero? I could imagine he may have been overcome by adrenaline and masculine bravado and wanted to shout his mastery, but it went totally against his character, and the book, to declare himself a savior.

The plot had other moments of confusion that made no sense. Some of it may be because I did not read the first book, only a detailed synopsis; some of it may be that I don’t enjoy psychedelic trip out scenes, where a character has delusions, fever dreams, or interdimensional wanderings through some trippy dreamscape and other characters, gods, demons, utter Important Things to him and of him. The dreamscape in question is the dwenda one, an alternate dimension like a giant, dreary swamp. Ringil goes there twice, and I just zoned out, in part because the swampland was dull to read about, and nothing in it made sense. Both times acted as a deus ex machina for Ringil when he was in a tight spot. I don’t mind a few small occurrences trip-out here and there, but in this book they go for pages.

Both times, he didn’t plan to go there, revealing a lack of character agency; he was just snatched. Other beings were working on him and the other characters behind the scenes, old gods, dwenda, intelligent machines that were servants on the Kiriath. All acted to confuse and obfuscate the characters, and the author made no bones about it. The speech of the Kiriath machines was especially annoying, treating the protagonists with  contempt as if they were sticking out their tongues and saying : “Nyah nyah nyah! I know Important Stuff and I’m not going to tell you!” As with the trip-out scenes, a little would have been fine, but the smug pontification of the machines just went on and on, to no purpose other than keeping things mysterious. And the contempt just went on and on too, heaped onto the characters by the author and I think onto the reader as well. Even one of the so-called Gods of the story heaped on the contempt, speaking in a distinctly unlikely way for a deity removed from worldly life. (I guess one of the unspoken conclusions of the story is that absolute power breeds not evil but contempt?)

Also tiring was the author’s focus on details instead of on advancing the plot. For example, there were two extended scenes of wall and rock climbing, one into a rather mundane abandoned temple, the other up a citadel wall, that went on freaking forever. In a book that should be jampacked with excitement and depravity, why waste words on climbing walls? The characters are supposed to be badasses; they can handle a wall. There’s nothing wrong with a jump cut to get to the action if they’re not in a life or death state.

There’s other filler too, of characters just walking through the city, interacting with its denizens, etc. Some of it is amusing, like Egar talking casually to a child outside an inn — in a typical fantasy reader might expect it to go in a heartwarming slice-of-life direction, but it’s subverted by the appearance of a gross, abusive innkeeper father who comes out slaps the kid, and says he was begotten on a whore, whom he also slaps. But sometimes it goes on just too much and too far, and in the end I have to honestly say most of the book was this kind of filler.

Not an enjoyable read for me.

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