The Cold Commands
by Richard K. Morgan
Cover Artist: Jon Sullivan
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345493064
Date: 11 October 2011 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Cold Commands is the eagerly awaited sequel to Richard K. Morgan's gritty, blood-soaked first fantasy novel, The Steel Remains. In this novel, we once again alternate viewpoint characters between Ringil Eskiath, a war hero disowned by his family for his homosexuality, Egar Dragonbane, a steppe tribesman and old comrade in arms of Ringil's, and Archeth Indamaninarmal, a half human and half Keriath, a black skinned race of mechanists who abandoned the world decades ago leaving her abandoned among humans. All of these characters stories are rejoined some time after end of The Steel Remains, letting us see the fallout of the events of the novel.
I enjoyed the first novel in this series a great deal, and the sequel has many of the same strengths. The characters are engaging, the action scenes are fantastic, and the novel faces head on the brutality of its medieval setting rather than sweeping the unpleasant parts under the rug. However, despite these strengths the novel suffers under an almost non-existent plot and a disastrously disappointing ending, leaving this the weakest of Morgan's novels yet.
The problem with the plot is that none of the characters seem to have any long-term goals or plans. They simply drift from situation to situation. Egar, for example, gets involved in a daring raid on a temple mostly because he is bored. In the process, he rescues a slave girl on a whim. Once she is rescued, he must find somewhere to hide her, which leads to further problems and so on. None of it feels important or connected, so none of the individual scenes strung together gain any urgency. The plot never gains steam, it just simmers along in an endless procession of seemingly disconnected events.
I spent almost all of the novel waiting for the plot to get started, but it never really did until the last sixty or seventy pages. To compound the problem, the reader is not privy to any particular threat or plot that would unify the narrative, so its not as if the reader can see a purpose in the events of the novel that the characters themselves are ignorant of. At the very end of the novel, there is an attempt to draw together the various seemingly random events of the novel and show that they are a part of a larger pattern, but by then it was too late for me to work up any interest. The only character whose story seems to have any coherence and direction to it is Archeth. Unfortunately, her story barely gets underway in this novel; it seems clear that the importance of her storyline will only be apparent in the final novel of the trilogy. This makes the whole novel feel like it is just set up, with no real payoff.
The ending is another major disappointment. After hundreds of pages of aimless wandering, a dire plot by the Dwenda, the otherworldly villains of the first novel, is revealed at the very last moment with minimal foreshadowing, only to be foiled through an unsatisfying dues ex machina.
These failures are all the more painful because of the promise this novel shows. The action sequences are sheer brilliance, and the characters are grizzled, disillusioned, and somehow still entirely sympathetic. Morgan's writing has a power and energy that few can match, and he mixes with just enough introspection to make you think even as you cheer on his sword swinging protagonists. Still, none of these strengths can overcome the numbing boredom of the disjointed, unfocused plotting and last-minute ending.