Picking up a year after The Steel Remains left off, our heroes have moved on, sort of. Ringil, now disinherited and branded a terrorist, is single-handedly waging war on the northern slave trade and has acquired troubling abilities, including entering the alternate realities of the Grey Margins more or less at will. Egar has moved in as Archeth's bodyguard and discovered that hot baths, close shaves and good sex aren't enough to stop him getting bored; and a newly-sober Archeth is trying to make sense of the almost-lucid pronouncements of the Helmsmen (whose nature is unclear, but possibly some sort of organic Kiriath AI). In the background, mysterious ancient forces – the dwenda, the Helmsmen, and the grim northern gods – are manipulating events, but to what end?

If The Steel Remains was self-aware grimdark with a flicker of conscience, The Cold Commands starts by snuffing that conscience out with Ringil's considered assault on Poppy Snarl's slave caravan. Ringil is fighting for a good cause here, but his retribution crosses a line and is difficult to swallow in terms of character motivation. While Snarl's self-possessed, defiant response turns the tables somewhat in terms of who has the upper hand, it remains highly uncomfortable reading in trying for a vanishingly thin line between exploitation and black mirror commentary, and there's a reason some people walk away at this point (although the scene is not graphic – Morgan is making several points here, and one of them is that this is not and should not be titillating – so the focus stays on Ringil, who ultimately cannot cope with what he has done) .

I was appalled the first time I read it and the shock hasn't diminished. But Morgan is setting up his tent early on: this will be darker and more disturbing than the first novel (which is saying something). What he doesn't necessarily deliver is a well-paced novel that stands alone. The Cold Commands – even more so than The Steel Remains – feels like a lot of set-up and a heap of new possibilities, with a slightly engineered climax rather than closure as such that requires the final novel in the trilogy to balance it out.

If you can stomach the increasingly grimdark trappings, there's still a lot of dry humour and entertainment here along with some pointed side-swipes (my favourite probably Archeth's acid retort "I'm getting a little fucking tired of hearing men explain to me what my real motivations are"), although the final act ditches humour in the interests of moving events along and spilling a lot of blood.

I will move straight on to the final book in the trilogy, which I've never read. I'll set out my predictions here – I think this is an inverted hero's journey; instead of a humble farmboy elevated to prominence and destiny (and there's an entertaining swipe at this within the alternate realities of the Grey Margins explored in The Cold Commands), we have a noble hero who has successfully defended his people against invading dragons and whose god-touched journey will subvert him into a Dark Lord with dubious moral framework and an appalling mastery of death-bringing. His choices may be justified in terms of self-preservation or even the greater good, but this is a fall from (albeit questionable) grace, not a redemption or vindication.

For the record, once I got past Poppy Snarl, I enjoyed this a lot. It doesn't glorify what it does, and it does it with panache. If Ringil is increasingly hard to sympathise with, I can't help but enjoy Archeth, the Helmsmen, Lady Quilien – and, unexpectedly, the dissolute Emperor Jhiral.

****1/2