Review: The Cold Commands, by Richard Morgan


(Gollancz, 9780575084872)
(Review first appeared in ASIM 54, April 2012)

It seems quite ungracious, in my mind, to conflate Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth—across three, soon to be five, movies—with the fantasy world which Richard Morgan has constructed in The Steel Remains (2007) and last year’s The Cold Commands. Ungracious because, quite clearly, Morgan’s high-born, low-living anti-hero Ringil Eskiath is no Aragorn, nor is his steppe-nomad drinking buddy and partner-in-crime Egar the Dragonbane in any way analogous to Gimli. And yet I cannot but picture Ringil as anyone other than Viggo Mortensen, nor Egar as otherwise than an appropriately-accented John Rhys-Davies. (It’s when I get to the third principal character in Morgan’s skewer-sharpened fantasy, the half-breed engineer Archeth Indamaninarmal, that I run into visualisation difficulties. Orlando Bloom? No. Cate Blanchett? Clearly not. Sir Ian McKellen? Not even close. But I digress …)

Actually, no, I don’t digress, not entirely. If Morgan’s world, for me, evokes Tolkien in some sense, it’s a measure (a) of the limited quantity of epic fantasy which I’ve absorbed in my half-century on this planet, but also, and more importantly, (b) of the detail and scope of Morgan’s fantasy worldbuilding. The world of TSR and TCC is a world with history, strife, rampant inequity and inequality, problems great and small in every crevice: wars, political intrigue, idealogical disputes, slavery, invasion. Whatever one might think of the foreground action, the backdrop is fascinating. What Morgan has concocted here is something like the fantasy analogue of hard SF, detailed, compellingly plausible, wonderfully grainy. (Is it appropriate to talk of ‘hard fantasy’?)

The Cold Commands seems at once a better and a less perfect book than its predecessor, The Steel Remains. Better in that Morgan feels more assured in his world this time around: the swordstrokes carry a weight that was not always evident in the earlier book, the characters have accreted into something yet more three-dimensional than they were previously, the sexual encounters less arch, less in-your-face, more real. Less perfect in that the second book is less compellingly propulsive, less dangerous than the first: if one arrives at the end of The Steel Remains with a sense of ‘bloody-hell-what-was-that?’, the reaction to The Cold Commands is more likely to be ‘so-is-there-more-to-come?’ Which is not to say that TCC disappoints, more that it sometimes loses its way. But the vista, at all times, remains fascinating, and for that I commend it. If you like your fantasy with grit, and if you can resist the temptation to populate your mind’s eye with LOTR outtakes while you read it, you’ll find a lot to like in Morgan’s latest.

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