book reviews by Althea

A Crown for Cold Silver – Alex Marshall ***

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Looking for the next big fat epic fantasy? ‘A Crown For Cold Silver’ just might fit the bill. It looks like ‘Alex Marshall’ is a pseudonym, so I’m not sure if this is actually a debut – if it is, it’s a very good one.

Twenty years ago, the revolutionary warrior Zosia, known as Cold Cobalt, with the help of her Five Villains, managed to engineer a coup and install herself as Queen of the Crimson Empire. However, Zosia was better at fighting than ruling. Her idealistic plans for social reform and justice failed, and her reign was short-lived.

In the two decades since, the state of the Empire has not improved. The current Queen shares power with the Black Pope, leader of the religion of the Burnished Chain – who have been gaining in influence. The citizenry have taken to graffiti proclaiming the heresy that ‘Zosia Lives’ – in their hearts, if not in truth.

However, the rumor that Zosia might be alive in truth, and gathering another army, is spreading – and these rumors attract the attention of the now-aging warriors who once were known as the Five Villains.

In many ways, this is a very traditional fantasy. It’s got sorcerers, barbarians, warriors, royalty, demons… it follows the collecting-of-an-ensemble of characters and progressing through intrigue to a rip-roaring climactic battle. However, it also has a good number of original details, and the characters are far from stock… they’re engaging and entertaining, and really shine as individuals, even though the large cast means this is more of a ‘tapestry’ than a character study.

One thing I enjoyed about the book was its presumption of total gender equality. Lately, there’s been a deal of criticism leveled against some fantasy authors for hewing too closely to the prejudices of the past. In a way, I think this book was an experiment to do traditional fantasy without any of that.

There are quite a few different cultures portrayed in the book. I feel that one of the weaknesses of the book may be that although there is no parallelism with our (Earth’s) history or geography, the author uses linguistic ‘short-cuts’ to evoke the cultures rather than actually describing them. For example, one society uses Korean-style names, while another sounds like India. I would have preferred more fully realized, original backgrounds for the characters.

The author may have been trying to show that you can be ‘India’-ish, for example, without including the prejudices of India’s history – but I’m not sure that aspect worked all that well. However, I did like the total mix-up of normally gender-associated character traits. Here, you won’t find any girls who wish to be pirates donning boys’ clothes and running away. You won’t find any women struggling to prove themselves in a man’s world. No tribes of Amazons. No gender-swapped kept house-husbands. The book is not ABOUT gender at all. It’s about individuals, in a world where gender (and sexual preference) just isn’t an issue (except, well, as it affects individuals on a personal level.) And at that, it’s wholly successful. I’m not saying that every fantasy book should do this – far from it. But it should be an option, and this one felt fresh and interesting.

My only other complaint would be that at times it did drag a little bit. It’s a long book, and there were a few spots where it *felt* long. But at no point did I consider stopping!

The book ends – not on a cliffhanger, but with plenty of more story to come. I’d definitely read any forthcoming sequels.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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