Morgan, Richard K. The Cold Commands.

NY: Ballantine, 2011.

Morgan has almost invented a new flavor of sword and sorcery adventure with this saga of the three dragonbanes, all of them flawed and at times untrustworthy — Ringil Eskiath, exiled and outlawed nobleman from the north, stone killer and queer as a three-dollar bill, and Egar, the Majak barbarian from the steppes who never feels at home in the southern cities but still can’t leave (and a much simpler soul than Gil), and Archeth, last remaining member of a technologically advanced alien race, left behind when all her people departed after the successful war against the Scaled Folk (and far more complex than her two comrades).

The operative word for this tideless world without a moon, with a “band” instead of stars (which, I assume, is meant to locate it closer to Galactic Center), is “gritty.” It’s a world of bloody-handed merchants, aristocrats, and religious extremists, where a new, young emperor carries on paranoid purges and debtors are auctioned into slavery. Not a pleasant place, but very interesting as a setting. Earlier in the extended story, the three protagonists were a trio, each supporting the other two in their fight against the Dwenda, who live in the Gray Places between the human world and somewhere else, and who are very scary indeed. This time, each of them gets a chapter in rotation for most of the narrative. For the first few cycles, that’s pretty confusing and it’s difficult to keep track of what’s supposed to be happening.

And there are other problems. This is meant, one understands, to be the second volume of a trilogy — but where the first volume had an actual beginning, middle, and semi-end, the first three-quarters of this volume seems to consist only of a series of middles. I enjoyed The Steel Remains a good deal, but stylistically, this volume bears almost no resemblance to the first one. The pace for much of the book is excruciatingly slow and the writing is much too purple and waxes much too mystical. In places, Morgan’s prose, especially his exposition, is so thick, so glutinous, it’s like wading through a lake of waist-deep cold oatmeal. The expedition the flap copy claims is the centerpiece of the story still hasn’t gotten under way by the end of the book, nor is it entirely clear what its purpose is. I guess that will be the focus of the third volume.

Anyway, I was optimistic and I stayed with it. And, eventually, about 150 pages from the end, the pace picked up, the three main characters came together, and the action became much clearer. The fight scenes are chilling indeed and Gil’s gradual metamorphosis into a sorcerer (or whatever) is generally well done. But I really think the story would have been improved by the excision of a couple hundred unneeded pages.

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