I’ve been a big fan of Richard Morgan’s science fiction for a while now. When I heard about this (new in 2008), I was interested… and then I stopped being interested. It sounded too much like stock-standard fantasy: the down-and-out swordsman, the half-breed magician, and some barbarian. Really didn’t grab me.
I ought to have known better. I ought to have trusted Morgan’s sensibilities. I ought to have remembered what this man did with Takeshi Kovacs over the space of three novels, and realised that no way was this going to be some boring sword-n-sorcery weak-ass adventure.
I got the sequel, The Cold Commands, to review, and I figured if I was going to do it justice I should read the first book. So I sent my trusty sidekick to the library for it, and I opened it… and, of course, I fell right into this crazy world of ambiguous history and complicated characters.
There are three points of view presented turn-about, chapter by chapter, right up to the end where things finally come together. The down-and-out swordsman is Ringil, scion of an impressive family who are mortified by his homosexuality, while they ought to be bursting with pride because of his role in the recently-ended world-consuming war. The half-breed is Archeth, half-human and half-Kiriath, a race who have recently abandoned this world and taken most of their pretty technological toys with them; she too is homosexual, which adds (in the eyes of those around her) to her exotic, possibly dangerous nature and their disapproval. And finally there’s Egar, once mercenary for the sprawling and decadent Yhelteth Empire, now back home herding buffalo and sleeping with buxom young women of the tribe.
That paragraph highlights just some of the wonderful complexity and narrative twists Morgan places before the reader. It feels like one of those ten-years-later sequels, with its references to the war against the Scaled Folk (dragons, people, dragons; and Egar is known as Dragonbane) in which humanity was aided by the non-human Kiriath, with their technological mastery; now the Kiriath have left the human world, the alliance of disparate human empires and city-states is falling apart, and – of course – the veterans of that war are having to cope with a world that doesn’t necessarily appreciate their sacrifice or understand how they have changed. But it’s not – unless there have been short stories set in this world that I don’t know about, which is possible, this is a reader’s first introduction to it. It’s nice to be brought into a world that’s a complicated, messy place with seriously complicated history. It doesn’t always make sense, especially the somewhat complicated political situation, but Morgan writes with such finesse that I was quite confident it would all come together in the end. And it does… except for the bits that clearly pave the way for a sequel. And I can forgive that. Mostly.
So: the characters. Ringil is making ends meet in a village near his glorious last stand in the war against the dragons, getting pennies for telling stories, until his mother turns up to beg a favour in the form of tracking down a cousin who has been sold into slavery. This, naturally, turns out to be much harder than it sounds; in the first place it means going home and facing his father. And next, it brings him face to face (um… so to speak…) with something out of mythology. Archeth’s life is at the whim of the Yhelteth Emperor, Jhiral, being the left-behind Kiriath half-breed that she is. She goes where he wills if she knows what is good for her, which sees her in this case going to a harbour town where there has been a seriously weird sort-of invasion: sort of because someone/thing clearly came ashore and destroyed much of the city, but then… they went away. Archeth is very suspicious. The third protagonist, Egar, is on the face of it far less complicated than the other two. How complicated can herding buffalo be? … and then he insults the tribe’s shaman, and things go from bearable to fairly bad. With some supernatural prompting. (Seeing a pattern here?)
The plot barrels along at a brisk clip, moving neatly between characters and places, and the characters are captivating from the opening pages. Aside from those two aspects, the really intriguing part for me was the hint that perhaps this isn’t a straight-forward fantasy world at all. There are definite science fictional overtones, starting with the Kiriath and their obvious technological superiority, which is only regarded as sorcery by the clearly backward and superstitious; Archeth and others who fought with them are well aware that it is technology, created by creatures with superior ability, but not magic. Then there are the hints and allusions from various apparently-supernatural characters about other worlds, and travelling between worlds, and what that actually means. Consequently, I’m pretty wild to read the sequel, to see what Morgan does next.
Dear self: trust Richard Morgan. He knows what he’s doing.