A Crown For Cold Silver, by Alex Marshall

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Publication date – April 14, 2015


Twenty years ago, feared general Cobalt Zosia led her five villainous captains and mercenary army into battle, wrestling monsters and toppling an empire. When there were no more titles to win and no more worlds to conquer, she retired and gave up her legend to history.

Now the peace she carved for herself has been shattered by the unprovoked slaughter of her village. Seeking bloody vengeance, Zosia heads for battle once more, but to find justice she must confront grudge-bearing enemies, once-loyal allies, and an unknown army that marches under a familiar banner.

Thoughts: Do you know those days when you’re in the mood for something epic, something that hearkens back to the classic fantasy most of us grew up on, and yet still in the mood for something a little bit different? Something that offers creative twists on familiar tropes, something that straddles the boundary between the old and the new and comes out swinging. That’s A Crown For Cold Silver in a nutshell.

The trope twisting starts off fairly minor, and doesn’t look like much of anything at first. You’ve got a destroyed town and a woman who swears revenge against the person who did it, only instead of just being some random woman, she’s actually a retired general, believed dead by just about everyone, forced to come out of hiding when the massacre occurs. It leads on her on a path that really gets going once an old friend, someone who fought by her side decades ago, sends her on a quest to rescue his kidnapped daughter. On other branches of the plot, a man with a mysterious past escorts a group of rich idiots through treacherous territory, indulging their desire for adventure against his better judgment. A man from a tribal community leaves home with his grandfather, seeking his long-lost uncle with a reputation for cowardice and dishonour.

If all of those intertwining stories sound like generic plots from fantasy-themed video games, you’d be right. The secret lies not in the bare bones of the plot, but in the presentation and the little details that get built up as things go. That kidnapped daughter? Not quite as kidnapped as you’d think. (Spoiler alert: she left home of her own volition to pose as Zosia returned and lead a revolution.) You get a host of both female and male characters who can kick ass and take names, both on the “good” side and the “bad” side of the conflict. People are complex and flawed and brilliantly human, no one person has the full right of things, and everything mixes to create a fantastically compelling story that’s far more than it seems at first blush.

The world-building is absolutely exquisite. The characters are from dozens of different cultures analogous to ones in the real world, and by that I don’t just mean that the world is populated by white people who celebrate holidays a little differently in one village than the next. I mean you see analogues for India, Korea, places that range from central Europe to Africa. It’s diverse and complex, as a world should be. Same-sex pairings are as common, valid, and unremarkable as opposite-sex pairings. Men and women are treated pretty much equally, in accordance with their skills, but much like with same-sex pairings, it’s not a big deal. Why make a big deal out of something that’s so commonplace?

This is where I found Marshall’s writing to be amazing. So many books try for this, to present a modern cultural ideal as realised in a fantasy or future setting. let’s really make women equal in status and treatment to men, let’s make it so that same-sex couples are just as valid and okay as opposite-sex ones. But rarely does it come off as well as intended. There’s always a subtle element of… Not preachiness, exactly, but a little bit of muttering about how good it is that equality happens and how bad it is when bids for equality fail. There’s also some aside or subplot about why it’s bad. It’s meant to be a compare-and-contrast moment, a look at the idealized presentation versus how things are here and now. Marshall manages to avoid this, side-stepping it neatly by essentially saying, “Yeah, this is a thing, now let’s move on with the story.” It’s an element of world-building, not a subplot.

Now, I’m not saying that anything with an emphasis on same-sex pairings, for instance, is thus moral fiction because it does try to make a point of saying that it’s all fine and good. 999 out of 1000, that’s not the goal of such fiction. it’s equanimity versus equality, I think. Leveling the playing field versus the playing field actually already being level. In A Crown for Cold Silver, the playing field is level, and such things are equal. In the same way that women in the novel can smoke pipes and not be called unladylike for doing so, because it’s just a thing that’s done. (And who would really dare to call Zosia unladylike, anyway?)

I’m really bad at saying what I’m trying to say here. Maybe it’s best to just cut my losses and move on.

A lot of this comes into play when people describe this book as “trope-bending.” There are a load of familiar fantasy tropes in this book, so many that I’m hard-pressed to identify them all, but it still comes across as original because of all the subtle ways things are handled. Religion and secular government being at odds with each other, military folk with grudges against each other, loyal friends having agendas of their own, old legends rising from the mists of myth. You could break it all down into component parts and feel very sure you’ve seen it all done a dozen times or more in other stories. But this book still feels fresh and new, a different take on old elements, and it works wonders for indulging that craving for classic fantasy and something unique that very much stands on its own without needing to stand on the shoulders of giants to be great.

From drugbugs to massive battles, Marshall manages to achieve something wonderful with A Crown For Cold Silver. It’s a doorstopper of a book but it fairly flies by, and it’s hard to not get pulled into the rich and detailed world and the intricate plot that gets woven through it. It’s satisfying, it’s entertaining, and the humour is sharp and damn near perfect. If you’re looking for something new with action and intrigue aplenty, then look no further. A Crown for Cold Silver delivers it all.

(Received for review from the publisher.)