Hugh Reviews The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

I don’t really read fantasy books any more, having overdosed on that particular saccharine pleasure in my youth, but a few years ago one of my favourite speculative fiction authors (in fact one of my favourite authors full-stop) released The Steel Remains, described by Joe Abercrombie as not so much twisting the cliches of fantasy as taking an axe to them and then setting them on fire, which, along with the name-brand recommendation, piqued my interest enough to cough up $25 and the eight-or-so hours it would take to read.

It was… alright. The quote from senior Abercrombie was perhaps a bit generous, what it really did was twist the cliches of fantasy. It did it well, it cannot be denied, but it was really just that; a twist on a tired and flagging genre.  There were a couple of interesting ideas in there and the elder races were definitely a worthy alternative to the usual, but it lacked a lot that all of Morgan’s previous books had.

I didn’t even realise at the time that it was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine how I could have been that naive. The sequel came out a few months back and I bought it despite my lukewarm reaction to the first book, because, well, it’s a trilogy, and I’ve started it now, and I’m going to have to finish it no matter how painful that proves, and, hey, maybe the sequel will be better.

It’s not.

The characters are just as interesting as they were the first time around (reasonably so), the ideas are only a little less dark and creepy, and the panache that typified Morgan’s spec-fic works is still absent. This tale could’ve been written by anyone, it’s lacking the Morganness that drew me to his works in the first place. I’m a bit over half-way through at the moment and I get the feeling it’s going to be one of those stories where you spend the whole book waiting for it to actually start. Iain M Banks does this a lot as does the entire Chinese film industry: all beginning, tiny bit of end as an afterthought, no middle. The middle is the meat! This kind of story is like a sandwich with no filling; it’s just two bits of bread! Now maybe the second half of the book is going to blow me away but it seems pretty unlikely.

Perhaps part of the problem with fantasy is that it tends to (but doesn’t necessarily have to) demand a certain story be told, and we’re pretty sick of hearing that story, as a bunch to curmudgeonly responses to Avatar proved, so we try to twist it, generally succeeding only in removing what was good about it in the first place. Morgan’s previous books have told ‘whodunnit’ stories, war stories, and ‘entropic-tumble-from-grace’ stories, all through the filter of futuristic societies and ideas, this was a big part of their success. Even without the cool technologies and the disquieting images of dystopian futures, these stories would have been great stories, you could have read the same story set in the modern day world, and it would have been awesome. The same cannot be said for his fantasy; if you stripped away the Dwenda and the Kiriath and all the other funny names and the subtle magic you would be left with… well, pretty much nothing.

Sadly I am in invested in this now, and it seems likely that when the next sequel comes out I will go and buy it and I will take the time to read it and then I will put it on my bookshelf next to The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands, where they will remain neatly whole but untouched until I feel the need to upset a teenage niece or nephew who’s discovered fantasy writing. My advice to you would be to avoid this whole franchise, go read the Altered Carbon trilogy or Market Forces or Thirteen, and hope, like me that Morgan returns to writing bleeding-edge spec-fic when he’s done with this little misadventure.

Edit: Debrief

Well I finished it the other day, and I need to make an adjustment or two and provide final thoughts. The style really warms up in the last 1/4 of the book, ringing much truer to the Richard Morgan I know, so I’ve adjusted the breakdown accordingly. My main gripe with this book, that the whole book is spent setting up a story that never happens, remains and was in fact reenforced by the latter part of this book. It’s like the first sequel to a film where the second sequel is already written so the first is used purely as a foundation for the plot of the second. Based on this, the wrap up to this trilogy will hopefully have a more interesting plot (a genuine fantasy quest/adventure tale) than the books leading up to it, and perhaps it will be a stronger book for that, but given the performance so far, I’m not holding my breath.

Verdict: Seriously, do not bother. 2 superfluously gay main characters out of 5.

The Breakdown (explanation)

Characters: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Style: 3.5/5
Ideas: 3/5

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