The early modern world meets artificial intelligence in The Cold Commands

The Cold Commands, out in October in the States, is the sequel to Richard Morgan's hard-boiled, fantasy-scifi tale of swords and evil elf aliens, The Steel Remains. If you enjoyed the first novel, or just like unconventional, violent, and occasionally satirical dark fantasy, this novel should be on your must-read list.

We begin several months after the action of the first novel. Sword-swinging, gay hero Ringil has hooked up with a hot young wizard who has taught him a few tricks (not just in the sack), and he's on a bloody mission to stomp out the slave trade that destroyed his cousin's life. Meanwhile, his old friend and war buddy, the steppe tribesman Egar, has managed to get himself entangled in a love affair with the wife of a prominent military officer while working for the mysterious alien Archeth in the city Yhelteth. Archeth, if you recall, is one of the last members of her species left on the planet — she's half human, but still lives for hundreds of years and has access to ancient technologies that make her a valuable adviser to the semi-psychopathic Emperor.

All of our main characters have been scarred by a long-ago war with the group they call the scaled folk — basically, superstrong lizard people led by dragons. It was in that war that Ringil and Egar became war heroes for slaying a dragon, but Ringil's sexuality and Egar's propensity for violent boredom have left them at the edges of the society they once would have given their lives to protect. Now, however, a new war is brewing. Soldiers and priests representing the Citadel, an extremely religious and patriarchal society, are threatening to storm the Emperor's lands. It's not as if the Emperor is liberal — in fact, he's a big fan of torture — but he doesn't exactly want priests running things, either.

At the same time, something extremely strange is going on with the artificial intelligences left behind by Archeth's people. In fact, a new artificial intelligence shaped like a giant, unwieldy crab has slammed out of the sky and told Archeth she needs to quickly bring a fleet of ships to a legendary, invisible city left by her people deep in enemy territory. Because The Cold Commands isn't your standard epic, where all the tools of a quest are whipped up out of nothing, getting this search underway isn't easy. Archeth has to raise the money for the journey she'll take, find a ship builder who can make a decent fleet, and try to get powerful figures at court to back the whole thing. In the process, she also brings together her old friends, Ringil and Egar — though not in the best circumstances.

So, basically all the elements are there for a classic Morgan story: religion versus the State, a world riven by ethnic and class divisions, mysterious aliens, even more mysterious technologies and cities, plus a lot of fucking and swordplay. Sometimes there is even fucking at pretty much the same time as the swordplay. Morgan likes his fantasy raw and real; his elf-haunted twilight worlds aren't sparklepony territory. Cities are littered with drug dealers and homeless war veterans. Dragon-slayers deal with homophobia. Barbarians are accused of being country bumpkins. Perhaps we are privy to these details because authors like George RR Martin have made it possible to inject realistic politics into fantasy. Or perhaps it's because Morgan isn't really writing fantasy at all. Unlike the first novel in the series, which flirted with being pure fantasy until we got to the very end, The Cold Commands is more clearly science fiction set in a world on the cusp of modernization. The politics are medieval, but science and trade have reached a stage of development that resembles Europe's early Renaissance. Plus, like I said, there are aliens.

The early modern world meets artificial intelligence in The Cold Commands

Despite the presence of lizard people and aliens, Morgan has nevertheless created a world saturated with what feels like dark, elemental magic. What we know to be teleportation doorways are compellingly described as magical gateways; and snarky artificial intelligences come across as arcane oracles. Morgan artfully allows us to read every piece of magic as a kind of futuristic technology — but at the same time, we can easily read the technology as magic, too. And indeed, in the final showdown between Citadel and Empire, it's truly impossible to say whether there are forces of wizardry or alien intervention at work.

Morgan's ability to blur the line between magic and technology isn't the only genre mashup in this novel. What we think will be a quest story becomes a kind of urban mystery, which then becomes a tense political story of espionage and assassination. While this makes for fun reading, it occasionally feels like a bit of a cheat. Especially because the novel ends somewhat abruptly, closing out one narrative thread but leaving several others dangling off a cliff. My point is, Morgan is working on a third novel in the series and he definitely wants you to know it. Possibly, the ending could have been handled with a little more finesse.

It's likely you could to read The Cold Commands on its own and make sense of it, but I would highly recommend reading The Steel Remains first. Both are terrific novels, and a lot of the world building in The Cold Commands will be much more pleasurable for people who started with the first book. The more we understand about this world, the more we get of the enticingly complex big picture — geopolitically and astropolitically, because it seems that other worlds are trying to influence who wins in the clash between Citadel and Empire.

This series is fast becoming one of my all time favorites, not the least because it's damn hard to write intelligent escapism the way Morgan has here. There's just the right amount of realistic detail, juxtaposed with hallucinatory fantasy sequences; plus, there are sentient swords and dirty sex scenes and people taking drugs in a world full of magic and dragons. Imagine a drawing by Frank Frazetta, come to life in an intelligent story full of dry wit and characters you actually care about. It's like that. Pulpy and hard-core, but with a heart of gold.

You can pre-order The Cold Commands via Amazon.

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