A Crown for Cold Silver is, I suppose, grimdark, but it’s not a novel that takes itself too seriously, which is refreshing. While there is a lot of violence, a lot of moral ambiguity, and things end on a decidedly pessimistic note, these are balanced by a real sense of humor, anachronistically modern-sounding dialogue, and a tendency to outright mock some of the genre’s standard tropes. It’s not quite a true pastiche and not quite a satire as it does tend to follow most of the ordinary grimdark story patterns, but ACfCS plays with the genre in a lot of really fun ways that make it a much more entertaining read than some of the more gloom and doom stuff on the market.
Possibly the most notable facet of ACfCS is its inclusive take on gender, sexuality, and race. Definitely it’s a progressive work in regard to the first two. There is a pretty even split of men and women among the large cast of characters, and women and men seem to be pretty equally present in all roles without gender stereotyping. Diverse sexuality is also on display, with bisexuality in particular seeming to be largely the norm in the world of the Star. Sex is talked about frankly and sexual violence seeming to be pretty much non-existent, which is also a refreshing change from the norm in a genre where rape is commonly used as a cheap way to add “grit” to fantasy worlds.
Race in the world of the Star is a little more complicated to comment upon. Most of the characters are not given much physical description, and what they do get is generally more to indicate age, wealth, athleticism, and gender expression. Instead, race is indicated by cultural descriptions and names–there is one culture that uses Korean-sounding names and another than seems Indian-inspired. There is also the “barbarian” culture of the Horned Wolves, which I at first took to be a normal sort of fantasy “Northern barbarian/viking” culture, but which in the later part of the book turns out to be not that at all. There are also the “weirdborn” or “wildborn” who can be of any race, but are people who are believed to have demon blood.
It’s a strange mix of wholly original races and cultures and some use of real-world cultural markers as shorthand to differentiate between people groups, and I’m not sure that it entirely works as well as the author might hope. That said, I didn’t feel like any of the various races were fetishized or unduly othered. There are multiple characters of every ethnicity in the book, so no one character bears the burden of being representative of their race, and while you definitely get a sense of the characters’ shared cultures, they are also shown to be very different individuals with complex relationships to each other and to their peoples. In short, even if Alex Marshall relies a little too much on recognizable markers for defining races on the Star, it’s still a damn sight better than most similar fantasy worlds that are overwhelmingly white and heavily European-influenced.
The plot of ACfCS is fairly straightforward-seeming. Zosia is a retired warrior queen who has been living in obscurity for over twenty years when her husband is killed and everyone in the village she’s been living in is massacred. She wants revenge and to that end starts looking up all her old warlord friends, who are also mostly retired or otherwise settled down to live peaceful lives. And hijinks ensue as literally nothing goes as anyone has planned, because this is a grimdark novel and there’s literally no one who doesn’t have a secret agenda of their own. There are some slow-ish spots in the narrative, which I think is to be expected in a book of this length, but overall I found the pacing to be good, and the book ends with a series of gut punching revelations that have me waiting with bated breath for the next book in the series (I believe it’s a planned trilogy).
In my opinion, what few flaws there are to be found in A Crown for Cold Silver are made up for by a hilarious conversation about the merits of a chain mail bikini, which is more than worth the price of admission.