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The Cold Commands: A Land Fit for Heroes, Book 2
Richard Morgan
Gollancz/Del Rey, 408/499 pages

The Cold Commands
The Cold Commands
Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan was an English language teacher at Strathclyde University. Thanks to the advance for film rights to Altered Carbon, he is now a full-time author living in Glasgow.

Richard Morgan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Steel Remains
SF Site Review: Thirteen
SF Site Review: Thirteen
SF Site Review: Woken Furies
SF Site Interview: Richard Morgan
SF Site Review: Market Forces
SF Site Review: Broken Angels
SF Site Review: Altered Carbon
SF Site Review: Altered Carbon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

The publicity materials for The Cold Commands, Book Two of presumably a trilogy ironically titled A Land Fit for Heroes (in which the land is neither fit for heroes nor populated with behavior typically classified heroic) by Richard K. (whose middle initial is used on book jackets only on the American side of the pond for some reason) Morgan describe it as "genre busting." That's not just some publicist's hyperbole.

One genre buster that's perhaps gained the most attention is that two of the three central protagonists are homosexual (the book earned an Amazon Best Gay and Lesbian Book of the Year citation) whose proclivities, particularly those of the male character Ringil Eskiath, are explicitly detailed. This has been pointed out in every review I've seen of the first book in the series, The Steel Remains (which I am now guilty of continuing) and has generated some controversy (though apparently nobody objects to the lesbian sex scenes, perhaps because they are in comparison less frequent and graphic and/or because well, that turns straight guys on in ways the other variety doesn't). Given that fantasy is the haven for the socially excluded, you'd kind of think the immediate community might be a bit more tolerant. My guess is that for those whose sword and sorcery is grounded in the Conan the Barbarian variety fantasy of overly muscular warriors battling evil while espousing Nietschean philosophy, this kind of sexual description might hit too close to something lurking beneath the fascination with men at arms with bulging pecs.

To be clear, this isn't gratuitous pornography. Making Ringil homosexual is brilliant on a number of levels. To begin with, it establishes his alienation from both his family and the larger society, even when it becomes convenient for that society to cast him as a hero in a war against a race of dragons. It also immediately puts Ringil into anti-hero mode, though some might object that considering homosexuality a "flaw" is offensive; however, the fact is that while some states now allow gay marriage does not mean homosexuality has become universally accepted (else there would be no reason to have this discussion in the first place). Besides all that, Ringil's homosexual encounters are written in a very positive, dare I say erotic, way that provides a literal connection between Ringil and a being from a shadowy alternate world called the Grey Places. The larger point here is that the sexual orientation shouldn't matter, the fact that there is a sexual connection does. The day when we can focus on that is the day we'll all be better off. In interviews Morgan has said that the overall reaction has been more positive than negative, so perhaps we are closer than I think, and kudos to Morgan for helping us move along towards that.

Personally, I'm less put off by graphic sex than graphic brutality, which here also includes a disturbing rape scene (just one of several themes related to sexual abuse, oppression and hypocrisy). But this also is not gratuitous. Morgan is part of a bleak gritty subgenre (e.g., Joe Abercrombie, Mary Gentle, Michael Moorcock) which takes pains to point out that swords have highly bloody purposes used for ends that are not as glorious as some chroniclers would have us believe. That the world is all too often a not very nice place is, alas, no fantasy.

While a second in a series typically concludes in a cliffhanger, The Cold Commands actually has a story arc that begins and ends in the one volume, albeit framed by loose plot points. The self-contained story involves Ringil's efforts against slave traders and the rescue of one of its victims from a fate that goes beyond indentured servitude. Meanwhile, the paths (and separate narratives) of three former comrades who fought together in the Dragon wars -- Ringil, Egar the Dragonbane and Arceth Indamaninarmal -- begin to intersect towards a quest to find a mythical island that shares existence with the Grey Places that may be a bulwark against a threat to civilization (such as it is).

On top of this, Morgan whips in elements of science fiction. Arceth is a half-breed (once again, an outsider) offspring of Kiriath, an alien species that for some reason has left Earth, but has left behind a technology called the Helmsman reminiscent of hybrid pilots that appear in space operas from Cordwainer Smith through Battlestar Galactica. And when I said Earth, there are hints that Morgan's mythos here could be some future Earth of ours, with possibly a connection to the future depicted in Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs SF series which also feature an anti-hero killer for hire.

Though the narrative switches from the perspectives of Ringil, Egar and Arceth, Ringil holds the center. The interchanging viewpoints can sometimes be confusing as to exactly what is going on, which I assume is by intent, though for what purpose beyond to keep you intrigued I'm not sure. Also, though Ringil is "first among equals," I found the parts where he again (as he did in the first book) ventures into the Grey Realm the least interesting, and the most puzzling. Whenever I started reading Ringil's section, I found myself wondering what was going on with the other two characters.

As with the middle of any trilogy, it's hard to know exactly where this is all leading. Presumably this gets wrapped up the projected The Dark Defiles. So far, it's an interesting journey.

Copyright © 2012 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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