“It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre.”
Some books hook you from the first line, and this new grimdark is one. But it took some time to convince me it was more than just an electric opener.
I struggled mightily with Alex Marshall’s
debut, A Crown for Cold Silver. Marshall is a pen name for a mysterious bestselling author making their supposed first foray into epic fantasy. But while the book has plenty of flair, humor and grit, its slow start almost sank me.
The story follows Zosia, an elderly mayoress of a backwater town, and the center of the opening line’s massacre. After slaughtering her townsfolk and beheading her husband, Colonel Hjortt confronts Zosia and her old dog, unaware that she is the former Cobalt Queen, who conquered the Crimson Empire a generation previous before vanishing, presumed dead. And the old hound dog, a demon named Choplicker that Zosia had bound to her service.
Needless to say, not the sort of person you should fuck with.
From there the story follows Zosia as she sets out for revenge on the Queen who slaughtered her village and husband, jumping POVs between Zosia and a handful of other players in this world-changing quest for vengeance.
- Sister Portolés, the “wildborn” battle nun who helped lead the slaughter of Zosia’s village, a supernatural anathema now bound in service to the Burnished Chain, a brutal analog to Catholicism that de facto controls the Crimson Empire and is sweeping across the rest of the world, known as the Star.
- Domingo Hjortt, the father of the doomed soldier who led the slaughter of Zosia’s village. A veteran who grappled endlessly with Zosia during her time as “Cold Cobalt”, he is also driven by vengeance, seeking justice for his son’s killer.
- Ji-hyeon, whose father was one of the Five Villains and, inspired by the folk songs and stories, has taken up the mantel of Cold Cobalt to lead her own rebellion in the Immaculate Isles.
- Sullen, a barbarian warrior from the “Horned Wolf” clan, who, along with his paraplegic grandfather seeks his missing uncle, Craven.
And best of all, the sellsword Maroto. One of Zosia’s “Five Villains” whose unrequited love for her drove him to despair and drug addiction, he is reduced to escorting a group of foppish nobles through the dangerous Panteran Wastes. Probably my favorite character, this washed up warrior reminded me of Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Sanjuro, leading a group of hapless followers who eventually transform into vicious warriors.
There was much that I loved about A Crown for Cold Silver. The snarky prose is filled with deliciously dark humor (one favorite involves Ji-hyeon’s armor of choice, a chainmail bikini), and the world is delightfully warped, filled with plenty of inverted tropes, from mustachioed women to an almost universal bisexuality with same-sex marriage the norm throughout the Star. The setting is mostly non-Western, the Star is filled with Chinese, Mongolian and Indian analogs, while the Crimson Empire represents a more European setting, with its battle between the Church and the Crown.
The worldbuilding is rich with other details as well, like Maroto’s “bughead” addiction — rather than getting high from smoking or injecting drugs, he (and one of his fops, Diggelby) swallow and get stung by poisonous insects, like one particularly nasty scorpion which they refer to as, “that brute I found in my slipper back in the Panteran Wastes.”
Another cool detail is the cultural obsession with smoking. Zosia is portrayed as an expert pipemaker, who presented each of her villains with a beautiful, handcarved pipe. At many points throughout the novel Marshall slows the action down as the various characters enjoy a heady pipe of tubaq, sensually describing the smoking with vivid descriptions of the characters’ pipes. A couple subplots revolve around the pipes as well.
This vivid attention to detail slows the story to a crawl, however. And that is my biggest complaint about A Crown for Cold Silver. I struggled mightily to get into the novel, bogged down for several weeks trying to sort through the characters and follow the developing plot. The text opened up eventually, and once the cast of characters were all assembled the action moved quickly.
But while I struggled, I never felt that I wouldn’t finish. I was too invested in the intriguing characters and unusual worldbuilding.
A Crown for Cold Silver is the first in a trilogy, and even as the ending provided some satisfaction, it did open more questions surrounding Maroto and one of Zosia’s missing pipes. With a lot of the worldbuilding complete and most of the players in one place, I expect I won’t struggle with the subsequent books.
And I still want to find out who Alex Marshall really is.