First, my heartiest apologies for the long absence – fall at work and school has proven busier than expected. Not that I haven’t been reading, but my writing time has been limited.
Alex Marshall, purportedly the pseudonym for a well-known author of other genres, makes his high fantasy debut with A Crown for Cold Silver. As if the critical accolades weren’t enough, the way the title rolls off the tongue built up the intrigue as did the ferocious cover, a perfect depiction of the bloody struggle for empire narrated in the book.
Feared conqueror Cobalt Zosia and her Five Villains tore and remade the Crimson Empire, until the Queen was stricken down and her mercenary army scattered. Presumed dead for twenty years, Zosia’s peaceful life is disrupted by the assassination of her husband and the massacre of her village. Vowing vengeance, she sets out to reconnect with old allies, discovering that loyalty is not what it once was, nor are her enemies the same.
That summary only captures part of Marshall’s sprawling story, which follows numerous characters across 600-odd pages. Unfortunately though, that’s a little too much reach, as the parts of Zosia’s past are more compelling a tale than the present. Her life has faded into legend, and it’s an interesting contrast to see how such a larger-than-life figure has aged. You don’t get a lot of fantasies with the protagonist in their fifties, as she and her villains are, and they still steal the show, unfortunately for the other characters.
Princess General Ji-hyeon, who is impersonating Zosia for her own glory, is a pale copy of the original, and her love triangle with the bland horned wolf Sullen and priggish Virtue Guard Keun-ju is nothing short of boring. Same with Sister Portales, a conflicted devil-ridden witchnun whose struggles with sinfulness are tedious at best. How can they compare to Villains like Singh with her martial skills and mighty mustache or Hoartrap’s uncanny wizardry and twisted humor?
Poorly, that’s how. I will admit that I admire the diversity found in the characters – I’ve never read a book so nonchalant about gender identity and sexuality. Males have arranged marriages to other men and spawn children. Multiple characters are open to bisexuality, and a few are happily androgynous. All of this is blatantly acceptable as is the crassness and debauchery you would expect from hardened soldiers. They flirt, they drink, they smoke – more attention is paid to this very human behavior than to the politicking and military strategy.
In fact, that’s another thing I didn’t like. Marshall often told rather than showed. Zosia narrates what her plans are, but we don’t get to see them unfold. We hear she’s a great tactician, but we don’t directly hear her and Ji-hyeon plotting war strategy. Hoartrap, Colonel Hjortt, Wan – all these men come across as cartoon caricature bad guys because they spend time declaiming their plots to their captives.
Meanwhile, we learn about all this intrigue, but other parts of this world are left unexplained. This is practically the only fantasy I’ve read that doesn’t include a map, so I’m boggled at the scope of the Crimson Empire from the Immaculates to the Chain. We know little to nothing about how devils work, which is acceptable because neither do most characters, but unacceptable when the horned wolves or the wildborn are thrown in without explanation about how they’re related to devilry. (If you didn’t understand this paragraph, don’t worry, because I don’t either even after finishing the book.)
So I concluded with mixed feelings. A Crown for Cold Silver is certainly unique, but between the length and my general confusion/boredom, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel.