Easily distracted, PC Peter Grant is a probationary officer with a dull future of tedious admin ahead of him – until he takes a witness statement from a ghost in Covent Garden and finds himself recruited into the Met’s little-advertised supernatural division…
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.
A re-read for me, and my first dip into grimdark for quite some time. I have an abiding attachment to Richard Morgan novels, largely for the cynical, bared-teeth rage that blasts off the page. His unexpected turn from scifi to fantasy took me by surprise, but is entirely successful – if not to everyone's taste.
Grimdark is typically a brutal tapestry of antiheroes fighting the odds in deeply divided environments – often committing reprehensible acts along the way. The Steel Remains is different only in that Morgan attempts to subvert (some) grimdark as well as fantasy tropes. Don't expect much in the way of untarnished victories, however.
Three friends survived the war with the Scaled Folk. Outcast hero Ringil Eskiath is summoned home by his mother to find a cousin sold into a newly-legal slave trade, with family and old friends surprisingly unwilling to help. Skaranak clanmaster Egar Dragonbane is dissatisfied with his simple post-war life on the plains, his longing for the civilities of the southern Empire fomenting discord amongst his tribe. Half-breed Archeth, abandoned by her Kiriath kin, cautiously navigates the politics of the imperial court and the whims of a dissolute Emperor. But ancient powers are returning, and human politics will need to be set aside if they are to remain free.
The Steel Remains embraces ultraviolence and swearing (oh so very much swearing), takes place in harsh societies that place no value on the lives of the poor, and is powered by jaded heroes (anti-heroes only in the context of the societies they live in, and in which they are all to some extent outsiders). It's unusual for the mainstream genre in that 2 of 3 leads are gay, and the sex scene(s) and only (on-page) rape are between men.
This isn't to say women are well-treated here: far from it – they are the victims of much of the casual violence along the way. Ringil's investigation into the League slave trade makes it clear what women can expect; an early scene on the plains involves an assault on a prostitute; and the Yheltethi Emperor spends much of his day in his slave harem (so any consent is highly questionable). The misogynistic grimdark underpinnings are all in place, and reinforced with much of the language throughout.
In spite of Ringil and Archeth's preferences, the setting is also intensely homophobic. The only people not to punish homosexuality are the enemy dwenda (also the only egalitarian society) although it seems likely that Archeth's Kiriath kin would have been similarly open-minded. The message seems to be that humanity sucks (which is pretty much why the pure-blooded Kiriath left), and the often bitter POV we get from our heroes backs this up. Again – so far, so grimdark.
And I've generally run dry on grimdark (I failed to re-read The Blade Itself recently, which I enjoyed on first publication), but I still really enjoy this. I think what wins me over – aside from the biting humour – is that while the setting is oh so typical, the main characters' attitudes and actions consistently reject it. Consent – and the right to it (sexually and otherwise) – is implicit in their ethical framework, as is a rejection of warfare for political purposes. Our heroes (and the author) are conscious of the physical and psychological cost of violence – and who pays it, Morgan's regular anti-authority theme a constant bass note underpinning the narrative.
In a nutshell then, I think Morgan successfully plays with the tropes he adopts and delivers self-aware grimdark and concise, effective world-building on the back of it, rather than fiction that simply revels in the awfulness of it all. It's not entirely successful – Egar's narrative is rather slow with little pay-off for the mileage – but I still enjoyed revisiting it and will bound straight on to the sequel, The Cold Commands.
The short version: some good character work (especially on the lead women), clear definition of 4 cultures on an alien world (1 alien) including different takes on gender and sexuality, and interesting ideas (cultural isolation, culture exchange, managing the impact of high tech on low tech society, and re-casting science as magic). On the down side, it's flabby, I couldn't help but feel it was lazy in the world-building, and it's overly simplistic in its conclusions. Ultimately entertaining but not stellar.
For those who can bear it: