The Cold Commands, the second book in Richard K. Morgan’s ironically titled “A Land Fit for Heroes” series, follows the now-familiar trio of protagonists from 2008’s The Steel Remains — Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and Archeth Indamaninarmal — as the conflicts between and within their societies (and with the alien dwenda race) continue. The Cold Commands opens one year after the ending of the first novel, with Ringil trying to single-handedly demolish the slave trade on a promise to his cousin — who was sold into slavery in the first book — and being exiled from his home country for his efforts, Egar acting as Archeth’s bodyguard and housemate but bored and itching for a fight with the folks from the Citadel who keep coming around to harass them, and Archeth attempting to influence and guide the brutal young emperor Jhiral for the purpose of her absent race, the Kiriath, which is to develop and evolve earth’s civilizations toward a better future.
None of their respective missions are going well, as is to be expected, but they will all lead the protagonists down a path to being reunited against a cosmic, grander darkness lurking at the edges of the series. The problems of living in a society which does not want them — for Gil as a gay man, Egar as a perceived “barbarian,” and Archeth as a lesbian — are also constantly, painfully present.
The first thing to be said of The Cold Commands is that it follows in the footsteps of and builds upon the themes and plots of The Steel Remains; as such, readers who were not well equipped to deal with the brutality and darkness of the first book will be equally ill-equipped to deal with them in the second. The commentary of Morgan’s books is designed to twist the tenants of “epic fantasy” back on themselves with a gruesome realism, to deconstruct the wish-fulfillment fantasy common to the genre, and at the same time to critique his own use of brutality and extreme violence as something that should not be read as titillating.
That said, neither book in this series is easy reading. It is, perhaps, necessary reading, but it isn’t easy. The delicate balance Morgan strikes between brutality for realism and commentary’s sake and the much less forgivable brutality for brutality’s sake is managed by narrative which regularly undercuts the violence — for example, in one scene in the first hundred pages which I found almost unreadable, the gang-rape and execution of a slave caravan mistress, I was ready to put the book down. The line for me as a reader was very nearly crossed, until the scene continues with Ringil’s disgust and guilt with what he has allowed to happen, and Poppy Snarl’s own response to him after he stops the rape: she berates him and belittles him until the last. It’s a complex shift of power in the dialogue and narrative that undercuts what would have made the scene monstrously inappropriate — a sensation of victory for Ringil, or of some kind of righteousness; instead, Morgan makes clear that Ringil’s sanction of her rape as punishment for his cousin is not acceptable.
The presence of rape and the threat of it in this series is a danger for men and women alike, for anyone in a position of even temporary vulnerability; Morgan is remarkably careful to balance the scenes of sexual violence with commentary against it and writing that intends disgust and not enjoyment from the audience. Additionally, the underlying plot of Archeth and the young woman whom she was given as a slave in The Steel Remains, Ishgrim, provides a second commentary about consent in sex — a more positive one, a possibility for something better. Aside from the fact that Archeth could be executed for her lesbianism, which doesn’t seem to concern her as much as it does Gil in his position as a gay man — much the way the laws were enforced historically in our real world, women suffer less persecution by sheer fact of their perceived insignificance in patriarchy — she was unwilling to have sex with Ishgrim because the young woman could not say yes, or no, as a slave. After their continued bonding throughout the books and Ishgrim’s development as a person, they finally fall into bed together near the end of The Cold Commands. Archeth’s moral sense prevents her from doing a single thing until Ishgrim is clear with her that it is what she wants, and that she knows she can say no. It’s a touching scene, written well and respectfully (imagine that, a lesbian scene written by a male novelist that was good!), that balances the narrative a bit.
Gil’s consensual, often poignant sexual encounters in this book also add to the positive end of the balance; the time-shifting relationship with the sorcerer Hjel the Dispossessed and the short-termed relationship with the head of the King’s guard, Rakan, are both presented as emotionally healing, positive encounters — in fact, it is the relationship with Hjel, a relationship of equals who try to help each other, that provides Ringil with the tools he needs to harness his own power and beat back the dwenda at the end of the novel.
The sensitive and complex handling of sexuality in “A Land Fit for Heroes” is, rather obviously, what drew me to the series in the first place — it’s not exactly common to see an epic fantasy series where two of the three protagonists are queer, and even less common for them to have explicit sex scenes, and even less common than that for them to be placed in a society which is dangerous to the point of being deadly to them. The social setting, which is familiar enough to anyone who’s studied a little Eurasian history, is not imaginary — it’s been real, and it still is real for queer folks in many countries today. The resonant engagement with what it means to be queer in a world where you can be tortured to death for it in these books is extremely well-handled, and makes them read frequently as much like queer literature as like speculative fiction; Morgan thinks through the psychological effects on his characters and their engagement with and denial of their identities. There’s a particular scene, where Ringil is bidding farewell to a companion he’s been fighting alongside and traveling with, that catches this complexity:
“I, uh, wanted to say. All that shit they say about you? The corruptor-of-youth stuff, the queer thing. Just wanted to say. I always knew they were a bunch of lying fucks. Knew it wasn’t true. You’re no faggot.” He swallowed. “Sire.”
Ringil remembered the times he’d caught himself staring with something worse than longing at Eril’s exposed arse and shanks when they bathed in rivers on the way south. The hollow ache that stalked behind the lust.
He found the smile. Put it on once more.
“You neither, Eril. You neither. We’re true men, the both of us. Now get out of here while you can. Go home. Fare well.”
The painful directness of that denial of self and the hollowness it instills is emotionally wrenching. Gil does not have an easy path, and while he rarely denies his sexuality in the book — in fact, he occasionally trades on the shock and disgust people display toward him — this scene shows the destructive line queer folks in this world (and, by corollary, ours) have to walk to survive. It’s a commentary on passing, worked into an epic fantasy novel. Similarly spot-on characterizations include the delicate back-and-forth of Ringil and Rakan trying to figure out if the other man is interested, when there is no way to actually ask without danger of exposure and potential death. Similarly, we have Archeth’s painful jealousy of the men who can indulge themselves as they wish (and constantly do) with beautiful women while she must remain celibate for a religion she knows is false.
The implicit commentaries on patriarchy in the book are also brutal but yet somehow sensitive to the issues; Egar’s fear for his lover, who could be executed by torture for her adultery despite the fact that her husband has been out at the whorehouses all night, is real and grounded in the knowledge that women are perpetually in grave danger from men in patriarchy. Egar is complicit in many ways in this culture, but even he sees the ways in which it can be monstrous. Better yet is Ringil’s conversation with an alternate-reality version of his mother, in which he comes to understand how she survived and the ways in which she was forced to survive because of her gender, and how she might have been trying to help him survive the same way before he even realized his sexuality.
I’ve managed to avoid talking about the plot entirely so far, but this book has so much going on under the surface that it’s hard to drag one’s attention away from all of that subtext. In the plot-sense, this is very much a second book; it trades mostly on engagement with each character’s storyline as they weave closer and closer together. The climactic confrontation with the religious Citadel and the dwenda they’ve been courted by occurs in the final 100 pages, with the rest of the book primarily devoted to a larger, more terrible threat that will be explored in the finale of the trilogy. There is, as I’ve said, a climax in The Cold Commands, and it’s a show-stopper, but the book ends with far more questions open than answered — in relation to the universe itself, Ringil’s power (as he seems to be building a new pantheon of gods with himself at the center), the expedition to the re-emergent floating Kiriath city in the Northern oceans, a millennia-undead sorcerer on a vanishing dwenda isle, et cetera. However, that doesn’t make it unsatisfying; I don’t believe all books should be stand-alones, and while The Cold Commands certainly isn’t, it’s perfect as the middle book of a series. It manages to build the through-line plot while still providing its own conflicts and resolutions. The climax itself is breathtaking in its stakes and the display of power on Gil’s part, and the final lines of the book are appropriately chilling. Ringil is not well, and the more of a sorcerous myth-god he becomes, the more of himself he seems to lose.
Of course, this theme is the over-arching one of “A Land Fit for Heroes,” hence why I’ve said the series title is ironic. It isn’t a land much fit for “heroes,” because heroes don’t exist, and heroes are not what the land needs. The metatextual commentary on the tropes of epic fantasy contained in the book is equally sharp; Dakovash (a Dark Court deity) complains that the idea of the gods training up a back-water farm brat to be a chosen one is moronic, and they don’t have time for that sort of thing. It comes up again and again that the chosen-one plot common to epic fantasy is idiotic, within the text about the text’s own myths. It’s a fabulous rhetorical twist that allows for some great metatextual play.
Ditto the bleeding of science and magic, SF and fantasy, into and across each other in The Cold Commands, even moreso than in the first book. This universe is, forgive my apropos language, fucking fascinating. It’s brilliant, and I adore the complexity and unanswered questions about where and when this world is, its relation to our world, to a cosmic reality, and to the squabbling insignificance of humanity in comparison to the vastness of alien species and possibilities. The Kiriath are obviously alien, and the dwenda might seem fantastical but their Gray Spaces and inbetween universe is presented as SFnal as well, with a dying sun in the sky and a time-travel/spacial-temporal rift thing going on in their homeland. At the same time, those Gray Places Ringil too learned to travel are hallucinatory and fantastical, with ships of the dead, shapeshifting wolf goddesses, mermaids, common divine intervention, and all sorts of non-scientific occurrences. The magic and the science in this series interweave so intricately that it’s impossible to sort them out, and I love that. Very, very few books manage to be both science fiction and fantasy, but Morgan has quite a world-building talent, and he’s got it down pat.
Additionally, the little hint that this earth could potentially be our earth extremely far into the future is juicy — whether or not that’s a misinterpretation, the level of cosmic-time at play in this universe and the rise and fall of massive alien existences on the battle-ground of the human world, while the humans scrabble amongst themselves and forget the histories, is grand. The dangers of religion and imperialism are on full display as well in the rather misanthropic interpretation of human nature, which I find sympathetic, but I suspect will not please a religious reader — in case, of course, they entirely miss the corollaries to our own histories.
The complex thematic arguments about religion, society, sexuality, morality and what becomes necessary for survival that underlie the book make its adventure-and-intrigue plots emotionally engaging, the world-building is absolutely genius, and the characters are gripping. The Cold Commands does what a second book should do: resolves a conflict of its own while opening up a greater, much more dangerous challenge for the next book. The naval expedition to the Kiriath island, which Archeth’s own Helmsman has advised her might not be such a good idea — though it’s limited from telling her anything more directly — and the Helmsman which has fallen from space is advising her to undertake, is sure to be fraught with peril. The darkness which is coming, or which might already have come, in the form of the dwenda or of Ringil or of something cosmic and terrible out of space — or all the above — assured that I put down this book hungry for the next, with my heart aching for the characters, Ringil in particular. Morgan’s brutal, frightening universe is not welcoming, but it is engaging, and I was satisfied with this second novel.