I wasn’t too kind to Richard K. Morgan’s the Steel Remains when I read it, and yet I found myself eager for its sequel, the Cold Commands. What happened? The initial shock of Morgan’s brutal world wore off, and I saw past my expectations for his protagonists. I say protagonists, and not heroes, because there is often little about these characters that’s heroic. They don’t stride victoriously through Morgan’s world. They survive it, and what that takes out of them makes them often highly unlikeable people.
Morgan’s trio are war heroes who’ve seen better days. As in the first book, their separate plot lines eventually converge. Along the way the world gets built up from the foundations laid in the first volume. We learn history at the hands of a sentient, sarcastic, and possibly disingenuous machine. There’s raw sex and enough adult language to make the writers of Deadwood sit up and take notice. The gods multiply, remain enigmatic, and perplex with their deus ex machina intervention. Magic is madness-inducing, or possibly just madness on the part of its wielder; and the action is fierce and bloody. Morgan knows how to turn a phrase and some of the dialogue made me chuckle out loud.
Yet as I read the Cold Commands, I often found myself asking if a protagonist needs to be likable? The main doubt for me surrounds Ringil, the swordsman whose homosexuality makes him hated where he should be famed. Early in the book, Ringil pays a slaver back by allowing her repeated gang rape at the hands of the mercenaries under his command. This choice strongly overshadowed any pity I wanted to feel for Gil. Yet I still followed his story to the end.
I’ve often thought that good fantasy should hold a mirror up to life, provide us with questions we ask ourselves, and take us down roads that we’ll never follow in reality. Compelling characters cross lines, inside themselves, outside themselves, and we watch them do this out of admiration or shock.
Gil, and his companions, cross every line imaginable. While not likeable, Morgan’s trio are more proactive than many protagonists, and it makes them compelling. They make the hard choices, bleed for it, and most definitely don’t walk away unscathed.
I suspect I’ll ponder this book for a good while, just as I pondered its predecessor, and about the time third volume is ready for purchase, I’ll be ready for it.