8. The Cold Commands, Richard K. Morgan

13 Feb


Richard K. Morgan is another of my all-time favorite sci-fi writers, entirely for his ultra-violent, hilarious, future-porno Takeshi Kovacs series that started with Altered Carbon (see Charlie Jane Anders’ awesome review here). I have not loved his other work as much, and didn’t wholeheartedly love The Cold Commands, which is the second in a semi-steam-punk high fantasy trilogy starring a gay man.

But wait, let me provide the caveat that I read the book in one day, in one obsessed sitting, so Richard K. Morgan can tell me to suck his dick if I didn’t like it. Clearly it kept me reading.

And it did. All of this writer’s books have so much attitude, and stylish, scary, violence, and the characters have depth and heart.  Just flipping around at random, it’s easy to pick out great examples of voice. During a sunrise “the sun slid up over the slope of the volcano like an incandescent coin, unstuck itself from the skyline, and started to rise” (never mind that the woman watching the sunset has the no concept of incandescent).  Words are described as “rinsing out in their own familiarity” a face is “grim and gashed with something you couldn’t really call a smile.” A curtain in an opium den is “the hue of dirty honey.”

The shame is that Morgan is a better writer than the books he’s been writing. The Cold Commands does only a mediocre job establishing the characters and motivations of its two, difficult to distinguish, male main characters. (A third, female POV is easier to keep straight). And the formula—angry former soldier gone rogue—is the same as Kovacs, essentially, but less well developed here. The story itself is convoluted to irrelevant—these guys are going to kill a lot of people while investigating an evil plot. The back-story from the first book might be important, but is never telegraphed if, like me, you’ve long ago forgotten what you read in the first book.

And then, occasionally, Morgan does something with plot or character that just sings. Like, (spoiler alert), the book begins with a harrowing escape from a slave coffle, follows one of the escaped men for several chapters, and then kills him in service of giving Gil, the hero from volume 1, a dramatic entrance. That moment had the kind of sickening crunch Morgan is famous for. (I still flash-back to some of the ingenious torture scenes from earlier works, with a shudder, from time to time.) Most of the last 50 pages were excellent as well, and hooked me for volume three.

Random end note: Richard K. Morgan is the kind of guy to have a centerpiece torture-method in each of his books. Charming fellow! I found this one to be just on the edge of silly (not usually his problem), since it involved tying people to boards and floating them in a fountain to be eaten, very slowly, by octopi. While reading this book, I had to attend an event at my son’s preschool, where an artist parent I was chatting with said that he’d been really into octopi lately. And I had the whole flash of explaining the Morgan torture to this nice man sitting on a child-sized chair, and then wisely did not.

One Response to “8. The Cold Commands, Richard K. Morgan”


  1. 4., 5., 6. Ancillary Justice Trilogy, Ann Leckie | An Anthology of Clouds - January 17, 2016

    […] it could be. Well-executed deep space-opera with a mercenary and a love plot (see my forever-love, Richard K. Morgan) is almost my favorite thing to read of all time. And this one comes with the delightful twist that […]

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