A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall (pseudonym of Jesse Bullington)
A Crown for Cold Silver is a big, brassy, gut-buster of a fantasy, weighing in at over 650 pages. Alex Marshall has crafted a multi-layered tale (or song, if you prefer the parlance of The Star) of bloody vengeance, personal glory, and the unimaginable consequences of a single careless wish. Clear your calendar, stock up on snacks, and silence the phone — this is a serious investment of time, but one which is well worth your attention.
A Crown for Cold Silver opens with the massacre of an entire village. Kypck is a little town at the foot of the Kumbutan mountain range, and for murky reasons that only grow more complicated as the book unfolds, the Fifteenth Cavalry of the Crimson Empire has arrived to murder every last man, woman, and child. The Mayoress, a fifty-odd-year-old woman who introduces herself as Vivi, escapes with her dog into the mountains; as it turns out, Vivi is really Cobalt Zosia, a truly fearsome warrior who once ruled the Crimson Empire before her death at the hands of her successor, Queen Indorsith. Twenty years of idyllic existence have been erased in a single afternoon, and Zosia embarks upon a year-long process of gathering allies, calling in old debts, and betrayal, all with the goal of destroying the Empire which took her happiness away.
In the two decades since Zosia’s supposed death, her former Captains (known as the Five Villains) have all taken on new lives of their own: one has settled into familial routines, one is waging civil wars against their neighbors, one is a guide for wealthy nobles who wish to go on lavish hunts, and the other two are setting separate (and possibly conflicting) plots into motion which may change the entire known world. Marshall does not do things by halves, and even if A Crown for Cold Silver were badly flawed, I’d still applaud this level of ambition.
There are many named characters, and luckily, they’re all discrete and interesting. A sampling of Marshall’s rogues gallery includes: Zosia, Ji-hyeon, Maroto, Sullen, Ruthless, Tapai Purna, Sister Portolés, Baron Domingo, Queen Indsorith, Pope Y’Homa III, Fennec, Hoartrap, Singh, Kang-ho, and Captain Bang Lin. Each and every one of them has their own personalities, wants, motivations, emotional baggage, background, fighting style, native language, etc. — even down to whether they prefer to smoke tubāq or saam. That individuality prevented the names and faces from blurring together for me, providing a complex tapestry of shifting allegiances and questionable motives. Marshall also makes no negative distinction between male, female, and androgynous characters, casually placing them all in positions of power and influence regardless of plumbing or identification. This is not a world in which men are men and women wait in the kitchen; The Star is blisteringly equal-opportunity, and I can think of some other authors who would do well to take a lesson or two from Marshall’s example.
Personally, I felt most invested in the storylines of a handful of characters, but there are so many to choose from that readers should easily find someone to root for (and against). At the top of the list is Princess Ji-hyeon Bong, who undergoes a tremendous and laudable personal transformation from impetuous teenager to respected military leader; close behind is Zosia, through whom Marshall explores the consequences of a life lived at swordpoint. All too often, fantasy novels focus on the thrilling and glorious aspects of the young hero or heroine’s quest to conquer a kingdom, without taking into consideration what personal toll would be asked of that person later in life. Marshall contrasts Ji-hyeon’s excitement and immaturity against Zosia’s regret and heavy burden of experience. These two women are formidable, and a welcome respite for any reader who is weary of fantasy novels dominated either by men of varying ages or women who vanish once they’re old enough to show a few wrinkles.
The Star, as this world is known, is vast and peopled with many tribes and cultures, as well as a wide variety of climates and biomes. There are farmers, seafarers, priests, soldiers; deserts, forests, an intriguing area known as the Frozen Savannahs, and many other places which are mentioned, though not explored, in this volume. The world map (provided by Orbit books) provides many tantalizing clues for possible future adventures — what makes The Worst Marsh so bad, and how did The Witch Wood get its name? If readers are interested in the map-making process, Orbit has also provided an interview with Marshall and Tim Paul, who collaborated on the map for A Crown for Cold Silver.
Obviously I enjoyed many aspects of A Crown for Cold Silver — characterization was strong and unique and the world-building was intricate and unexpectedly interesting, from the large details like geography/language/culture/society to the small, like ingesting bug venoms for their psychoactive properties rather than abusing drugs. There’s also an intriguing amount of information which hasn’t been revealed yet, leaving plenty to bring readers back for the next installment. The middle section, roughly two hundred pages or so, focused more on conversation and travel than action, and I felt that it could have benefitted from a little tweaking. Had the novel itself been a little more tightly constructed, I would recommend it without hesitation; as it is, I will merely say that readers who are patient through the slower-moving center will be greatly rewarded.
Crimson Empire — (2015-2017) 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. FIVE VILLAINS. ONE LEGENDARY GENERAL. A FINAL QUEST FOR VENGEANCE.