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The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

Golllancz, 2011, 406p.

 The Cold Commands cover

In Morgan’s last novel, The Steel Remains, the previous in his Land Fit for Heroes sequence, it was the differences between it and the usual fantasy opus that stood out. In The Cold Commands what struck me instead were the similarities.

For we have a mediæval type setting, an emperor, background wars, Dark Lords, sword wielding and sorcery, eldritch enemies from out of time; all soaked in blood and guts. The swearing also seemed a little overdone this time. There is, though, a hint at a science-fictional gloss to it, but only a hint. Yet unlike a fair swath of fantasy it is a convincing world Morgan has created here. But I wouldn’t want to live in it.

It is all revealed in the same gritty way as in The Steel Remains. We still have two gay agonists – though neither of them actually gets much sex here – and there is fine writing, if a touch too digressive at times. Morgan is at pains to describe his world, and it is a very detailed setting, every minor character has a credible past, and his or her own motivations, every muddy environment is suitably filthy.

Deep in the mix are musings on the impossibility of determining the difference between a demon and an angel except by their actions and on the inefficacy of torture.
The ending, when it came though, was rushed, the final confrontation over quickly. A pity, after nearly 400 pages.

It was only a minor scene in the narrative, but I found the gang rape problematic. It is not enough to have one character tell another, “Soldiers rape.” Perhaps they do. It is quite another matter to have your protagonist abet the act – encourage it even – whatever sins the victim may have committed against him or his family in the past; and for her to reveal that she has been raped before (as if that ameliorated anything) – and not just the once – whether she is being truthful to her past or only defiant. Yes, this reveals a degree of ambiguity in our identification with the protagonist, and at his moral complexity but…

Our heroes may have feet of clay and may have to do unspeakable things out of necessity, but when given a choice, don’t they still need to be better than the bad guys?

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2008, 345p.

The Steel Remains cover

This is the most unusual Fantasy I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. Not only does it have two gay main characters, there is also a high (but realistic) degree of swearing, both of which are normally conspicuous by their absence in the worlds of the Fantasy novel.

Ringil, a hero of the finally triumphant war against the lizard folk, grown tired of the political and social disappointments that peace time has brought, now lives quietly in a rural backwater, apart from dealing with the occasional corpsemites which inhabit and animate dead bodies in the local graveyard. A master swordsman, he dispatches the corpsemites with little difficulty. He is drawn back to the capital city when his mother asks for his help in rescuing a female cousin who has been sold into slavery as a result of the debts incurred by her deceased husband. Ringil does not suffer fools gladly and before embarking on his search manages to upset more than a few of the city’s bigwigs. He is also warned that a semi-mythical species known as dwenda may be behind the strange occurrences in the region where she has been taken.

Two of Ringil’s former wartime comrades, Egar, a plains-dwelling nomad chief, and Archeth, last of the Kiriath, are also given narrative strands. All three are fully rounded, Ringil and Archeth in particular seeming like real people with all their flaws.

If I have criticisms then they are that the dwenda, when they appear, despite their ability to flit in and out of the grey spaces, seem to be too like humans – indeed it might be possible to read The Steel Remains as Science Fiction rather than Fantasy – too many of the asides outstayed their welcome, it is a pity there is still a default mediaevality to the setting and the resolution is much as you might expect from a standard fantasy. But it’s all good rollicking stuff.

Morgan deserves huge credit for taking on the Fantasy genre and thoroughly shaking it up. If all Fantasy were like this I might read more of it.

Black Man by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2007
This novel is published in the US as Fearless.

The first thing is to ponder on the reason for the alternative title. Black Man obviously does not carry the same freight in Britain and Europe as it would have in the US. I do not know for sure but suspect that Morgan’s US publisher took fright at the thought of a restricted readership had the title been the same in the US as in Europe. Perhaps now, with the change of President, that reasoning may no longer hold so true, but only time will tell.

In the book, the US has fragmented into several parts including the Angeline Freeport, the Rim States (most of the seaboard) and the Confederated Republic (or Jesusland, effectively a fundamentalist version of the old Confederacy) and a rump Union.
Carl Marsalis is a variant thirteen, part of the Osprey programme, a human genetically modified to be in essence effective fighting machines, a throwback to an earlier form of human supposedly bred out when agricultural settlement took place. In this world other genetic modifications exist, such as hibernoids (who sleep for four months but are active the other eight) bonobos (sexually compliant females) but because of their nature (unnature?) all such ‘twists’ are looked down on by “normal” humans but it is variant thirteens who are feared by the general populace. As a result they are either exiled on Mars or quarantined in areas called tracts. That Osprey and its American equivalent Lawman failed in their attempts to gengineer effective soldiery was because thirteens do not like obeying orders.
Marsalis also happens to be black, and British, though the action is set almost wholly in the Americas. He is employed by UNGLA to track down other thirteens who have escaped the reservation and to kill them if they do not surrender. Returning from one such mission he is arrested in Florida – part of Jesusland – held for months and released only when agents of the Western Nations Colony Initiative (COLIN, who seem to run the tracts and Mars colonies) need him to help find a renegade thirteen from Mars, with an interesting sideline in cannibalism, who has been brought back to Earth as an assassin.
The book is intricately plotted; indeed a less complex novel than this would have finished about 7/10ths of the way through when Marsalis finally catches up with the quarry. It is a measure of Morgan’s confidence that the book does not stop there. The viewpoint characters are various and varied with believable (mostly) motivations.
Given the scenario it is not surprising that there is violence here similar to Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels. (I must say however that I preferred the, to me, more grounded and slightly less visceral Market Forces.)
Having said that, in Black Man Morgan is more assured than in any of his previous outings. This world seems deeper, richer, more textured. One of his (non gene-enhanced) characters states that there is no more war because humans have learned the cost is too high. This is notwithstanding the assertion by another thirteen that they, not the milque-toast cudlips (the pejorative name variants use for normals) are the true humans. The high body count in the book also runs counter to the argument.

However, there seems no good reason why Marsalis is black. Other thirteens do not seem to be – or at least are not described as such. Is it solely as a metaphorical representation of the menace inherent in thirteen status? If true, that decision is surely worthy of examination. But I will trust Morgan’s intentions as stated in his dedication that he hates bigotry, cruelty and injustice with an unrelenting rage. His sympathy for the variants does shine through.
This was a world I was immersed in and did not want to surface from. As an example of the SF thriller Black Man is seriously good stuff.

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