A Land Fit for Heroes, to give this fantasy trilogy of which the second volume has just been published its full name, is no such thing. The war is over, but alliances forged to fight a common enemy are strained in the aftermath of the conflict, the imperial coffers are drained, and the streets of the capital are full of soldiers, many crippled in the war, now reduced to begging. A year after the events of The Steel Remains, which saw Lord Ringil of the Glades House Eskiath charged with rescuing a distant cousin sold into slavery, the situation has not improved.
Having made his name in world of dirty science fiction, Richard Morgan was never going to write a fantasy novel with virginal damsels cloistered in enchanted towers confessing their unrequited desires to sympathetic fairies. Ringil and his Majak comrade in arms, Egar the Dragonbane, may be veterans of the conflict against the reptile people, but they do not see themselves as heroes. Outcasts in their homelands, disowned by their families, short on friends, both are getting older in a world in which the future is uncertain, and neither has mellowed their tempers since we last shared their company.
The precise circumstances of Ringil’s fall from grace are not detailed, but it is likely linked to his fury at the legalisation of slavery, and his unwavering stance to the contrary; in his first scene in the novel, he attacks a slaver caravan to free the captives, slaughtering all who oppose him, both with his blade, the Ravensfriend, and his newly acquired skill in ikinri ‘ska. Already regarded as a degenerate, is being a sorcerer any worse?
Present in the first novel only peripherally, the forces of the supernatural are more explicit in The Cold Commands. Rescued from near death to walk through the Grey Places once more, where possibility and time unravel, Ringil is apparently a favoured agent of the Dark Court. There he encounters spectres of friends, foes and family from past, future and never was, and while the glimpses can be enticing and illuminating, at times the structure of the novel becomes as confusing for the reader as for the protagonist.
The Dark Court are not the only entities taking an interest in the affairs of man. Archeth, half breed, last of the Kiriath, advisor to Emperor Jhiral, has long played host to Angfal, the remains of a Helmsmen, wilful and uncommunicative, pulled from the innards of a fireship, it’s iron body now housed in her study. Now it tells her that she must voyage into the wasteland where she finds another such Helmsman, Anasharal, who carries information not only of importance to the empire, but of personal interest to Archeth.
Like the monoliths of 2001, the Helmsmen can be infuriating and reassuring in turns, carrying knowledge beyond comprehension that they refuse to share except in riddles, but with the caveat that they have apparently always acted in the best interest of humanity. But, as in 2061, when an intimation is raised that they may be fallible, that there may be conflicts between them and that they may have goals not in accordance with the best needs of those they have worked alongside, their omniscient presence becomes unsettling.
This increased involvement of the fantastical is not entirely in keeping with the tone of the first book, where while the enemy had powers to slip between dimensions and change appearance, the defenders had only their blades and wits to repel them. When Ringil is asked, “What man doesn’t want the cold command of steel?” this apparent source of the title is misleading; the true source is not revealed until later, and is of an altogether different nature. The conclusion of The Cold Commands, while dramatic, relies heavily on the intercession of mystical powers rather than the skilled swordsmanship Ringil employed a year before.
The writing is swift and entertaining, the battles bloody and frequent, graphically violent and unpleasant. The laughs are few but genuine, often unexpected, such as the diversion of a philosophical debate between a religious zealot and an omnipotent pan-dimensional being, neither of them willing to concede any ground. Morgan knows his characters and their world, convincingly filling it with sounds, sights, smells and sensations, examining a society where slavery, murder, betrayal, torture and execution are endemic, and for most, making it to the end of the day alive is the only blessing they will have.
Morgan has said that The Steel Remains was structured with a definite conclusion as he hadn’t expected to revisit the world immediately, but that this was written with the intention that the next volume would follow more swiftly, and many pointers reflect that. While secondary characters from the first novel have not been forgotten, such as the mercenary Eril, still blissfully ignorant of his master’s personal preferences, it is a virtual certainty that we will be spending more time in the company of the newly met characters Noyal Rakan and Lady Quilien of Gris, both of whom could strongly drive the next chapter of Ringil’s life.
Ringil is fascinating and complicated, a man who refuses to compromise on the battlefield or the bedroom, yet who is constantly in conflict with himself and with his society because of it. Despite the venom of his final words to Seethlaw, he still broods over his death, but keeps his doubts and regrets silent. His energy and refusal to conform lights the page whenever he is about, fighting, plotting, arguing, drinking, or seducing captains of the Throne Guard. He can turn a situation around like no other man, and in the course of one scene, we see his anger at the world and empathy with the downtrodden as he comforts a dying slave, and then his ferocity as he avenges that death. Despite his lack of reverence to the Emperor and his court, it is no wonder that Jhiral, like so many others, takes a liking to him.
When The Steel Remains was published three years ago, it was understandably Ringil, the self proclaimed “faggot dragonslayer,” who drew the most attention, but the voices of Egar and Archeth contribute equally to the narrative. As good as the trio are separately, they are better when they are together, and it is to be hoped that The Dark Defiles, when it arrives, will see them working as a team as they voyage beyond the Hironish Isles to seek Ar-Kirilnar, the mythical Kiriath outpost that shadows the Ghost Isle as it shifts through the Grey Places.
The Cold Commands is available now from Gollancz
Richard Morgan was recently interviewed in the features section of Geek Chocolate