You may recall that my less-than-stellar review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains had created quite a stir in the Blogosphere back in 2008. Especially my back-and-forth with editor Simon Spanton, which came to be known as the Hype Files.
Although I felt the book was good, given the expectations I had it turned out to be a disappointment. Even if it was an entertaining and action-packed read, sadly it was nowhere near as groundbreaking as advertised. Which probably explains why it took me such a long time to give the sequel, The Cold Commands, a shot.
I feel that Morgan relied too much on shock value in The Steel Remains. Instead of focusing on multilayered plotlines and his habitually superior storytelling skills, the author's main problem with his fantasy debut was that he went only for the grit, the nastiness, the explicit language, the "in your face" violence, the gore, the drugs, the sex, homosexuality, etc. Morgan now refers to The Steel Remains as "Previously on gay elf fucking," which shows that he has a wicked sense of humor. But the sad truth is that, when one took away all those "shock value" factors, The Steel Remains didn't have a whole lot to offer in terms of plot.
I'm glad to report that The Cold Commands is an improvement in terms of storylines. Indeed, there is a story moving forward and a number of aspects hinting at a bigger, more ambitious overall plot. Problem is, there is once again a lot of filler material in this book, and it creates a lot of pacing issues along the way.
Here's the blurb:
With The Steel Remains, award-winning science fiction writer Richard K. Morgan turned his talents to sword and sorcery. The result: a genre-busting masterwork hailed as a milestone in contemporary epic fantasy. Now Morgan continues the riveting saga of Ringil Eskiath—Gil, for short—a peerless warrior whose love for other men has made him an outcast and pariah.
Only a select few have earned the right to call Gil friend. One is Egar, the Dragonbane, a fierce Majak fighter who comes to respect a heart as savage and loyal as his own. Another is Archeth, the last remaining daughter of an otherworldly race called the Kiriath, who once used their advanced technology to save the world from the dark magic of the Aldrain—only to depart for reasons as mysterious as their arrival. Yet even Egar and Archeth have learned to fear the doom that clings to their friend like a grim shadow . . . or the curse of a bitter god.
Now one of the Kiriath’s uncanny machine intelligences has fallen from orbit—with a message that humanity faces a grave new danger (or, rather, an ancient one): a creature called the Illwrack Changeling, a boy raised to manhood in the ghostly between-world realm of the Grey Places, home to the Aldrain. A human raised as one of them—and, some say, the lover of one of their greatest warriors—until, in a time lost to legend, he was vanquished. Wrapped in sorcerous slumber, hidden away on an island that drifts between this world and the Grey Places, the Illwrack Changeling is stirring. And when he wakes, the Aldrain will rally to him and return in force—this time without the Kiriath to stop them.
An expedition is outfitted for the long and arduous sea journey to find the lost island of the Illwrack Changeling. Aboard are Gil, Egar, and Archeth: each fleeing from ghosts of the past, each seeking redemption in whatever lies ahead. But redemption doesn’t come cheap these days. Nor, for that matter, does survival. Not even for Ringil Eskiath. Or anyone—god or mortal—who would seek to use him as a pawn.
The worldbuilding within the pages of The Steel Remains were, to a large extent, quite barebone. Morgan doesn't play his cards as close to his chest in this second volume and we learn a lot more about his universe. These revelations provide more depth to a series that really needed some. I liked how the author used some science fiction elements such as aliens and artificial intelligences to give A Land Fit For Heroes its own distinct "flavor." We learn more about the mysterious Kiriath and their technology. Morgan also opens up a bit about the Gray Places, but most of their secrets remain undisclosed. The cover blurb can be deceiving, though, as the entire Illwrack Changeling plotline, which appears to be at the very heart of the tale, doesn't play much of a role until the very end and will only be explored at length in the forthcoming The Dark Defiles.
Like its predecessor, The Cold Command is another character-driven book and the various story arcs focus on the three main characters: Ringil Eskiath, homosexual hero of the infamous battle of Gallows Gap; Archeth, a kiriath half-breed abandoned by her brethren and now advisor to the Emperor of the Yhelteth Empire; Egar the Dragonbane, who fought for the Yhelteth Empire during the War against the Scaled Folk and was driven away by his own people. Although all three were more or less well-defined in The Steel Remains, by trying to make them too edgy and over-the-top Morgan sort of shot himself in the foot and the whole thing backfired. I felt that the author had created a cast of morally and sexually ambiguous characters, but had failed to inject enough life into their personalities and back stories to make them memorable. Character development is much more present in this sequel and we learn a lot more about all three protagonists. So much so, however, that all this sort of gets in the way of moving the plot forward and it breaks the rhythm of the novel, especially in the middle part of the book. There are constant inner monologues occurring inside every character's mind, which at times can get a little annoying. I may be wrong, but I don't remember there being as much of this in the first volume.
The pace is likely my biggest problem with The Cold Commands. The novel starts strong and is a page-turner for about a third of its length. Indeed, with a Kiriath A.I. falling from orbit with dire tidings that humanity faces a new menace, it sets the tone and keeps the plot moving forward. Trouble is, the middle part of the book sort of becomes a meandering, drifting ensemble of chapters whose only purpose seems to be to somehow bring the gang back together. As a result, the pace slows down to a crawl and the reader is often left wondering what the heck is going on. Especially the Ringil chapters, as he travels through the Gray Places. Fortunately, the book regains its lustre at the end, and it sets the stage for what should be a very interesting third installment.
It's no secret that epic fantasy became nastier and more violent in recent years. Dark and brooding epics have irrevocably altered the sub-genre, or so it seems. And yet, though it features its fair share of blood, violence, and sex, in The Cold Commands Morgan avoided the pitfall that made The Steel Remains offputting at times by creating a better balance between all that grit and the actual storytelling. Too bad the author seemed to lose his way for about a third of this work, for the beginning and the end were very good.
Although the first two installments suffered from a number of shortcomings, it appears that all the pieces are now in position to make The Dark Defiles the sort of fantasy offering Morgan fans have been awaiting since it was announced that the author would jump genre. I'm intrigued and I definitely want to discover what happens next!