I read this, Richard K. Morgan’s follow-up to The Steel Remains, right after finishing Before They Are Hanged. Each is the middle book of a trilogy. Of the two, I found The Cold Commands to be much the more compelling read, sustaining the promise shown by its predecessor. I can’t quite put my finger on why Before They Are Hanged fell down as a follow up to The Blade Itself, while The Cold Commands kept me excited, but it probably has a little something to do with pacing and a little something to do with how ready they were to fall into well-worn paths of fantasy plotting.
The three main plot lines of BTAH involve resisting a siege, warring in the wilds, and some highly stock questing. There’s a reason we come across these situations again and again in fantasy books — they provide instant conflict and opportunities for the author to write about thrilling deeds of derring do. Thinking about the book more, though, I feel like they were a bit of a safe option for Abercrombie — a little bit ‘build your own fantasy novel’. I’ve already mentioned pacing in my review of BTAH, but, to recap, one of the main strands involved a lot of walking and not much of interest happening.
Neither of these were a problem with TCC. Regarding pacing: one of the earlier scenes in the book involves Ringil continuing his quest to end slavery. After capturing a slave caravan he kills its leader, but not before letting her be gang-raped by his mercenary underlings. It’s brutal stuff, hard to read but utterly fascinating. It’s a bold statement of intent for the novel, and a powerful piece of character development for Ringil. Somehow, though it’s never presented as anything less than inexcusable, we are able to continue to sympathise with and root for Ringil after this shocking scene. Gripping scenes recur throughout the book all the way till the end, when, unlike BTAH, we are treated to a satisfying and exciting climax (though there is still much to be done in the final book).
TCC trumps BTAH in terms of ‘safe’-ness too. The mix of SF and fantasy elements adds an interesting frisson to things, the gaeity of the characters remains as powerful and unique a source of conflct as it did in the first book, and there are many trippy scenes involving spirit or time travel (and, this being Morgan, fucking).
I had two small problems. First, I was a little put off at the beginning — Morgan doesn’t ease you into the novel, and, since it was a while ago that I read TSR, it took some work to get myself back up to speed. A short story-so-far at the beginning would have been nice. Also, Egar and Archeth are great characters, but Ringil shines so very bright that it’s hard to appreciate just how good they are (true in this novel and the last). Having an embarassment of awesome characters is not the worst problem to have, though, I guess, and their plot strands still have lots going on and lots to offer.
In sum, I thought it was great. For me, it avoided the kind of middle-novel problems that beset BTAH, or, at least, had strengths sufficient to power through them. I can’t wait to read the trilogy’s conclusion and I’ve definitely been convinced to seek out his SF stuff.
When will the list get shorter?