TITLE: A Crown for Cold Silver (The Crimson Empire #1)
AUTHOR: Alex Marshall
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: September 15, 2015
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
I confess to having a slight mistrust of grimdark stories, mostly because the quality can be rather uneven. This is why I’ve dodged around the genre for a while now, dominated as it is by male authors, and indulged in it only when a female author comes out with something in the genre. In many male-written grimdark tales, to be a woman is to suffer, whether literally in the course of the story, or metaphorically because the author does not really value female characters enough to want to actually develop them.
Fortunately, that does not seem to be the case with A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall. First in The Crimson Empire series, A Crown for Cold Silver is set in the land of the Star, where, twenty years ago, a general named Cobalt Zosia, accompanied by five captains, a mercenary army, and a host of devils, managed to bring the Crimson Empire to its knees and sit upon a throne won with blood and death. Not long after that, however, she disappeared – leaving the throne to someone else, while she, her captains, and their devils all faded away into myth and legend.
But the truth is not as simple as it seems, for Zosia did not simply fade away. Instead, she sought a peaceful life in a country village, far away from the politics and backstabbing of the court she tried – and failed – to change. However, when that peace is shattered and the village is burnt to the ground, Zosia is more than willing to find out why that was done – and in doing so, reignite the flames of war, if that is what it takes to get her vengeance.
The most noticeable – and perhaps the most enjoyable – aspect of this novel is the character portrayal, especially for the female characters, who are portrayed in direct contrast to how women are usually written in grimdark fiction, especially by male authors in the genre. Take Zosia for example:
… She was brawny…with features as hard as the trek up to her house. She might have been fit enough once, in a country sort of way, when her long, silvery hair was blond or black or red and tied back in pigtails the way Hjortt liked… but now, she was just an old woman, same as any other, fifty winters young at a minimum. …
That age estimate is key. Recently there has been plenty of media that feature older people in action-centric roles, with films like Taken and No Country for Old Men featuring male actors who look like they ought to be taking things a bit easier on themselves running and fighting as though they were twenty years younger. While there are older female characters in many forms of media, they are not often given such active roles – or if they are, they are relegated to supporting characters (such as Helen Mirren’s role in the 2010 movie Red).
That is why Zosia is such a standout from the get-go; she is an old woman who is more than capable of wreaking as much carnage as she used to when she was younger. In the above description, as well as in other descriptions in other places throughout the novel, she is described as old, yes, but never weak or fragile. All too often elderly characters are depicted as requiring special care and attention so “they won’t break a hip,” as some people jokingly say, but Zosia shows that greater age does not necessarily equate to weakness. To be sure, her body is more worn down, physically, and she might not be able to accomplish some things with the same ease as when she was twenty years younger, but neither of those things makes her any less dangerous than she was before. Indeed, her greater age and experience might make her an even more dangerous opponent.
The other characters are just as much fun to read. Zosia’s captains all make an appearance, though their importance to the plot varies, with some having their own storyline and narrating that accordingly, and it is from them that the reader learns about what Zosia was like in her prime: a warrior to be feared, and a general of renown.
What is interesting, though, is how different their individual relationships with her are. Some are closer to her, others not so much, but each of them thinks he or she knows Zosia best – even though their own individual understanding of her is only a partial portrait of who Zosia actually is. This is an interesting technique, since it allows the author to develop not only the character being commented upon (by presenting multiple facets of said character, as seen by others), but also the characters doing the commenting (since the traits and quirks they find worthy of note, both for good and for ill, say a lot about their own personalities and traits).
In contrast to the older generation there is a younger cohort of characters like Sullen and Ji-Hyeon, who represent the way the world has changed since Zosia disappeared. As far as they are concerned, Zosia is a legend: an example to be followed, perhaps, or (and this is more interesting) an idea to be used for their own ends.
It is the latter idea that runs as a thematic thread throughout the novel: how perceptions can be appropriated and manipulated, for both good and ill, on levels as intimate as the personal to as wide-reaching as the political. Zosia is an excellent example of this: on one hand, her story is used to prop up the current government of the Crimson Empire, while at the same time being she is used as a symbol of the rebellion against that same government. Though there are indisputable facts about who Zosia is (or was, as the case may be) and what she did, different factions use those facts in different ways to support their cause. If this sounds familiar, it should: this is, after all, how propaganda in the real world works.
As for Zosia herself, what is interesting is that she is not above using the above situation for her own ends. Though she is not an absolute master at manipulating the perceptions of others, she is quite capable of identifying those perceptions, and using them to her advantage – especially if it’s got to do with how people perceive her. Throughout the novel, she either goes with or against the way others perceive her, sometimes unconsciously but more often deliberately, in order to gain some kind of advantage. Zosia, in other words, is the farthest thing from a saint, and that is something the reader had best keep in mind when thinking about her character and the impact she had – and continues to have – on those around her.
However, despite how fascinating the characters are and how absorbing the plot can be, this novel does have a few problems – chief of which is the world-building. While I have no problem with authors borrowing from real-world cultures to use as the inspiration for countries and cultures of their fantasy worlds, there is a difference between a real-world culture inspiring a nation in a fantasy novel and wholesale lifting of said culture and plopping it into a fantasy world under a different name. The latter, unfortunately, is what appears to be the case with this novel (and, therefore, the rest of the books in the series). To be sure, this makes building the world easier on the author, who can then concentrate on other details such as characterisation and plot, but it is still rather disappointing to pick up a fantasy novel expecting to be transported to another world and finding, instead, that the world of the novel and the real world are not much different at all.
Another issue I have with this novel is how the narration jumps from character to character in a way that creates issues for the [story's] pacing. While it helps that the characters who narrate the story are (mostly) fun to read about, there is something about the way the narrative jumps between them that creates a weird, stop-and-start effect for the novel’s pace. I suppose this is to be expected since for a significant portion of the novel most of the characters inhabit entirely different spaces and only come together in the latter third, but that still does not do the pacing any favours. Fortunately, it is not a very egregious issue, so most readers should be able to tolerate the narrative bumps fairly well.
Overall, A Crown for Cold Silver is a grimdark fantasy with all the blood, gore, and violence the genre entails, but with very few of the other, attendant issues that seem to accompany other novels in the genre. (Specifically, the treatment of female characters.) The characters are fascinating to read about and quite complex, and the plot is engaging and entertaining. There are some issues with the world-building and plot pacing that some readers might not particularly appreciate, but they do not interfere overmuch with the rest of the story so patient readers might be willing to overlook them in favour of the characters and the plot itself.