Published April 14th 2015 by Orbit
Hardcover, 656 pages
Hardcover provided by Orbit for review purposes – thanks Orbit! You know the way to my heart is hardcover books 🙂
A Crown for Cold Silver is the first book in a new series by Alex Marshall, an ‘acclaimed author who has previously published several novels in different genres’ but is now operating under a pseudonym. A little of the KJ Parker/Tom Holt situation.
Crown is a schizophrenic novel – it’s all over the place, not really sure what it wants to be, not really sure how to execute its desires. It took me a couple weeks to finish, and I’m glad I’ve waited almost 24 hours to write this review after finishing; the retrospective time has let me consider my notes, consider a lot of what I thought about the book, and consider how certain elements cleverly made me forget about some of the negatives.
I’m going to try and do a quick plot summary here, but bear with me – this book is long, has a bazillion different storylines, and sometimes they get a bit confusing.
Cobalt Zosia was the badass leader of a mercenary army, and along with her five ‘villain’ leaders, fought across the countryside, with aspirations of overthrowing the tyrannical government and free the common folk and etc etc etc. They succeeded, leaving Zosia as queen, which is a position she soon finds herself unsuited for, as it interrupts her…badassery or whatever, with menial leadership tasks. As she struggles to implement the populace-friendly policies she quested for, she eventually loses interests, and puts her crown on the line in a duel, for which she ‘loses’, and disappears.
Years later, soldiers turn up at a remote village and go all scorched earth on it, for unknown reasons. The lone survivor is a wily woman who, shocking spoiler, turns out to be Zosia, although you don’t know that at the time. She swears revenge and sets out on a quest to find her scattered friends from her previous exploits. This sounds like something you’ve heard before, right? Albeit with different pieces maybe.
And while Zosia is set up as the most important character by the book blurb and most reviews, she frankly took a massive backseat to the plethora of side-characters that the book is full of. Several of Zosia’s group of ‘villains’ have POV chapters; the most interesting of which is Maroto, who we meet as he’s guiding a group of “dandies” through a hunting trip, suffering his way through their posh nature. Hoartrop is an aged wizard of sorts – or at least everyone treats him as such. Sullen and Grandfather are Maroto’s nephew and father, who set out on a quest to track Maroto down and make him answer for deserting his wife and family after a battle. The list goes on – there’s a member of the religion relevant to the area (pretty much blatantly Catholicism) who subscribes to a self-torture branch of penance.
I could spend pages and pages, thousands of words describing all the various characters. There are a billion of them – which is part of the problem with this novel. You’re thrown in headfirst, little real introduction, and before you know it, you’re having to keep track of a handful of POVs, and a boatload of ancillary characters who actually matter to the story. It’s similar to how I always hear the first book of Malazan, Gardens of the Moon, described. You’re expected to pick things up quickly, and background details are only revealed very slowly as the story goes on. However, during this time, you’re on the hook for keeping up with the happenings of a character cast equivalent to a circus-car.
I place myself somewhere in the “middle” of readership, in that I enjoy my books having some complexity, and putting some of the onus on the reader to fill in holes with imagination, and figure things out. I don’t, however, enjoy obtuse books that are all action, or have YA-quality characters. That said, this book had a lot of elements of a much ‘simpler’ book, while also being obnoxiously complicated and overworked. It’s definitely possible to write a book with a ton of characters that is cohesive – A Song of Ice and Fire or Red Knight are examples of this. Marshall’s book is not this way, unfortunately. What you’re often left with is certain characters taking the limelight for pages and pages and pages, followed by finally getting back to one character, whom you have to try and remember where you last left them, or what their place in the entire story is. I felt like I needed a CSI-style suspect whiteboard to keep up with all the pieces. I texted my friend Tracy at least 2 or 3 times during the first 1/3 of the book, proclaiming to him that I just could not seem to keep up with the characters – not generally a HUGE problem for me.
The worldbuilding is adequate, however it felt often like places and cultures were pulled directly off a normal world map, names changed, minor cultural changes (more on this later), and then thrown into the story. Names that were clearly Korean, Catholic, maybe Indian etc are prevalent pieces of the story, and feel more than a bit ripped off. The actual geographical locations tend to take a backseat to the characters, wars, drama, and creatures. Marshall has inserted a lot of elements into the story – some interesting, some crazy, some outlandish – that spruce things up quite a bit. A smorgasbord of made-up creatures are present, many presented during the early chapters, when Moroto is leading the dandy hunt. For example, the ‘horned wolf’ is a terrifying creature that hunts in packs and is incredibly deadly, however most people confuse it with a goat.
Many reviews have hit on the topics of equality – gender, sexual, caste. This is an omnipresent theme in the book; almost every character seems to be openly bisexual, thinking about sex with both sexes constantly, talking about it, etc. One area has prevalent same-sex political marriages, multiple fathers, the list goes on. There are tons of powerful, strong women in the story, including many of the protagonists, which is great.
Except when it’s not.
The book ends up in a bit of a “when everyone wins, no one does” situation. EVERY female character is a strong, masculine-type warrior of some sort, who is bisexual and does very strong things. Many of these female characters could VERY easily have been replaced with men, without changing ANYTHING other than their gender pronoun and some genital descriptions. Zosia is essentially a standard male character in many fantasy novels – thinking about having sex constantly, attempting to mate with nearly any female around her, constantly thinking about drinking or doing drugs, etc.
It’s awesome to have diversity in your novels. I praised the everliving crap out of NK Jemisin for the incredible diversity in her book The Fifth Season. I love to see viable, strong female characters in fantasy and sci-fi; hell, even novels just treating women as people. However, many of the ‘strong females’ in this novel are just caricatures of generic masculine males, except as females. In an attempt to make badass women, Marshall has made every woman a generic ‘badass’ in some way, whether it be the sagey Zosia, leader of the Cobalt Company, or the young princess who has been masquerading unofficially as Zosia, while trying constantly to prove how badass she is by sleeping with anyone she can, doing as many drugs as she can, or fighting anyone she can. The ‘diversity’ just came across as homogenized, and felt wholly unnatural – diversity ISN’T unnatural, that’s how life is, there are a lot of different people, types of people, types of strengths. But they all felt kind of the same in Crown.
I feel the need to stop at this point, call a ‘timeout’ if you will. I’m spiraling a bit into negativity, but this book was most definitely not all negative. Not by any means.
The first thing that I need to say is that I enjoyed the hell out of Marshall’s prose. It’s not complicated, but is clearly professional. While some of the phrasing choices felt EXTREMELY modern (not direct quote, but at some point it was something along the lines of “Zosia was completely out of fucks to give“), I was very, very enamored with the lighthearted nature of the dialogue, especially in conjunction with some darker elements.
Which is a great point of conversation – I’d seen a lot of reviews compare this novel to Joe Abercrombie. While I can see why people would say that, on the other hand, it’s not even close. Abercrombie’s prose and style are unmatched in my opinion; Marshall’s novel certainly has some of the grit and “adult” themes of Abercrombie’s. There’s ample profanity, sex, drug use, violence. Which is great – it’s right up my alley. As I mentioned, the dialogue was – most of the time – pretty great, and highly entertaining. People bickered with one another, dropped snappy one-liners, generally summed up how I imagine soldiers and the like would have spoken in these situations. I’m relatively sure I heard the phrase “It smelled like burning hair, and pungent semen” at one point, which made me nearly spit out my coffee. There were several lines like that which made me burst out laughing, or at the very least, put a smile on my face.
The wit alone is one thing that kept me engaged with this novel. When things were dragging a bit, I always still found myself entertained by the dialogue and banter, by the funny descriptions and verbiage. It’s not a secret that I like gritty, ‘realistic’ fantasy novels, and this fit the bill. On top of the witty writing, some of the drug use was very creative, and hilarious. Many characters, especially Maroto, use ‘bugs’, which are exactly what they sound like – bugs with psychoactive compounds. This lead to one of the funniest scenes and scenarios I’ve ever read, as Maroto took the wrong kind of worm before a battle, and ended up going through the battle while tripping balls. Hilarious.
With that creativity and fun came some moments of brilliance, but also some quirks. As I mentioned above, the sexual freedom and openness was almost so omnipresent that it felt homogenized. There was also some odd obsessions, such as Zosia’s ridiculous fascination with pipes and pipe carving, which seemed to come up at least once in every damn scene she was in. What began as a cool little character trait quickly became a repetitive, Nynaive-pulling-braids style annoyance.
On the brilliance side was Marshall’s introduction of devils – essentially they were bound familiars, who obeyed their masters until their masters, essentially, made deals with their devils, which would set the devils free. Several of the prominent characters had them, to interesting consequences.
There were a lot of great ideas in the book – even if you subscribe to the school of thought that Marshall ripped a lot off from real life cultures or religions, how they were used and executed was often quite good. The repentant-religions character, Portoles, was extremely fascinating, even her strange BDSM-style self mutilation.
Ultimately, the overall package lacked polish. It bogged down badly at times, and the book honestly could have easily been 100 pages shorter and still accomplished the same thing. The characters were too numerous and too confusing, and long periods would go in between chapters featuring some of them. The cultures and geography are a bit derivative, and some of the idiosyncrasies are overdone. The ending was a bit of a letdown – the novel just kind of…fizzled out. However, the writing itself is entertaining, lively, and funny at times; the dialogue was great, and really held the book up. There were long periods of the novel that I really enjoyed it, and it was honestly not until a day had passed and I had time to digest the book, read up on it a bit, and really reflect that I realized a lot of the pieces that annoyed me along the way.
With the amount of negativity I wrote, it would come across as if this was a bad book – it’s not. It’s got a lot of problems, but it also has a lot going for it. Aside from some slow parts, it was ultimately quite entertaining, and a lot of fun. It could have used some really big editing, but in the end, I understand why a lot of people love it, and I also understand why a lot of people didn’t.
A lot of potential.
Rating: 3.5 / 5