Wednesday 2 January 2013

The Cold Commands

Richard Morgan, 2011
(December 2012)

              ‘Do I look like a fucking slave to you?’ he asked them.
              And though, finally, they would bring him down with sheer weight of numbers, none who heard him ask that question lived to see the dawn.

The sequel to The Steel Remains, which garlanded a substantial amount of praise and/or blurb quotes along the lines of ‘twisting the clichés of the genre’ and ‘shaking things up nicely’. And how exactly, you may well ask, has this paradigm shattering been achieved?

Well, for the first part there’s the language. The genre-standard oaths and curses based on confected deities and the like have been jettisoned in favour of a fucking shit-tonne of swearing. Not a wholly original stylistic choice but one that’s unusual enough in High/Epic/Dragons-Swords-Magic-You-Get-The-Idea Fantasy to stand out from the herd. It worked for Al Swearengen and it works here.

That’s not the real USP though. Nope, the thing that caused all the fuss is that the protagonist is gay. Openly, unashamedly gay. This is clearly a Big Deal, depressingly. It’s indicative of a sad state of affairs in a genre’s fan community when a couple of enthusiastically graphic descriptions of bum sex are enough to have people reaching for the ‘fresh approach’ label. Even more depressingly, apparently some readers felt ‘tricked’ into reading about the gays. Though the torture and the gang rape would appear to be just fine.

Both these books are problematic in any number of ways. But they’re problematic in traditional, comfortable ways. Aside from the language and the hero’s sexuality, it’s all pretty standard stuff, even if it is served with a laudable amount of brio. So problematic in ways which people don’t notice, then, or just don’t care about. I’m fairly certain that Morgan’s aware of that and is trying to deconstruct it, to an extent. It doesn’t always work though as that admirable intent gets overwhelmed by the urge just to have fun with the blades and monsters and killing. And it is fun. A lot of fun. That doesn’t excuse the problems, but it does raise the books above simple accusations of exploitation. Plus they’re funny, which always helps.

I was going to close by making a lame gag about the next book in the series following the same ‘definite article + slightly sinister ambiguous noun/adjective + ambiguous noun/verb’ formula, but it would appear the publishers have beaten me to the draw so the joke works less well now. That’s not going to stop me using it, of course. When has it ever?

1 comment:

  1. That'll be, whatshisface, Loreas or something? It's alluded to in the books, but far more in your face (ahem) in the TV series, iirc. That could be a sign of progress, but then again, it could just be the TV series pushing stuff as far as they think it'll go.