Richard Morgan's Market Forces is unlike his further-future, planet-hopping and body-swapping Takeshi Kovacs novels and equally unlike his Land Fit For Heroes epic fantasies; indeed, in a moment towards the end of Market Forces, Chris Faulkner even seems to draw the distinction between himself and Kovacs, the reader told that he couldn't identify with a precis of Kovacs novels.  Rather, Market Forces is a near-future, 1980s-inspired dystopia; a neoliberal, Thatcherite grinding-mill, dark and deeply political, whilst also being deeply personal.

Market Forces is an odd genre novel; most are, whilst having strong characters, plot-driven all the same, with the characters being secondary to the events of the novel.  This is as true in fantasy (what would The Steel Remains if Ringil was a different character? Now, how much more different would it be if the plot structure was changed?) as it is in science fiction (change Kovacs, and Altered Carbon is still basically the same; change the underlying thriller components, or the worldbuilding ideas, and it is a radically different nove); it isn't a bug, but rather a feature, of the majority of genre fiction, neither positive or negative, but simply a difference of emphasis.  The Complaints, a crime/thriller novel, was equally concerned with character and plot; change Fox or change the plot, and things are very different; but the character could be changed without changing the plot, and vice versa.  Market Forces is very different proposition; changing the plot wouldn't change the novel, although changing the worldbuilding would, but largely that because of the real heart of the novel: the character of Chris Faulkner.  Chris stands at the centre of this novel, with the plot, other characters, and to some extent worldbuilding moving behind him, influencing and being influenced by him; the maelstrom of Market Forces' fast-paced, anti-Thatcherite concept and plot exist to give us Chris, rather than Chris existing as a way to tell the plot (as in much fiction, good and bad).

So the first thing to discuss in the context of reviewing Market Forces is Chris' character.  He's not a hero, by any means; a product of his world, over the course of the novel Chris develops and changes very effectively.  Starting the novel, he is the new man in Shorn's Conflict Investment arm - Shorn being a financial investment powerhouse, CI being the branch which deals with international politics, ensuring power goes to whoever will make it most profitable in the sort of conflicts that are said to be endemic to places like Colombia.  He's got a rep as a cold, hard business man, ruthless but with humanity; and it's that humanity that's seen as a downside.  Over the course of Market Forces, Chris changes Shorn - or at least people in it - with his own ethos, which tends to the less lethal (promotion and tender are by fights to the death); but at the same time, Shorn - and forces within Shorn, naturally - changes Chris.  His humanity is slowly destroyed (the motif of his changing relationship with his non-corporate wife, Carla, is the best demonstration of this; as his humanity waxes and wanes, their relationship strengthens or collapses), and his compassion, ideals and personality are slowly broken down to be less human and more like a hyena (a motif that comes up a few times in the novel in regard to his character).  Chris sometimes knows that it's happening, and sometimes doesn't, and it's a brilliantly dark, painful and horrific portrayal of a person destroyed by achieving his aims and not knowing what to do next; though what those aims truly are is revealed as a late-game thing in the novel, powerfully and effectively.

The plot of Market Forces is a complex, and rather, strange one, which requires a bit of understanding of the worldbuilding.  Essentially, Morgan is positing the ultimate in Darwinian Thatcherite economics; the state has contracted almost completely, with healthcare privatised beyond even American levels, and the police run by corporations, and corporations are able to involve themselves in sponsoring regimes for financial payoffs - thus, in a more obvious and direct way than is presently the case, dictators are toppled not by their subjects but by their corporate sponsor, or propped up by them. In those corporations, it's a cut-throat world; to win a promotion, you have to kill (in a ritualised combat - Britain uses road-wars, with the intention to kill the opposing executive, Latin America seems to use knife-fights), and the same applies, against rival corporations' executives, in order to win contracts out to tender.  Into this world steps Chris Faulkner, and he's made friends and enemies in Shorn, shaking things up merely by his presence; but he's also having to deal with his actual job at Shorn, despite what seem to be attempts to sabotage him from above.  The plot is fast-paced, effectively and tightly written in a manner that takes us all over this post-Thatcherite dystopian London, from the estates - where the government contains lawlessness, rather than trying to fight it - to the heart of capitalism in the City.  The mix of corporate politics and Top Gear-style driving madness is really well handled, with the parallels between the two effectively drawn, and the fast-paced writing of the novel really adds to everything; but the brutality of those road scenes really works well, Morgan as normal not pulling punches but instead placing them well into the gut.  The development of the plot, as Chris is drawn deeper into the morally dark world of Conflict Investment and the (at times lethal) office politicking around him, and as he becomes more the hyena, abandoning his moral compass, is really well handled, without being either too clear or too mysterious; hints are given, but Morgan doesn't spell it out until the right moment at the very end.

All in all, Market Forces is a brilliant novel, and a fantastic, horrific character study of a person having to live in the Thatcherite paradise; very ideologically driven, but very well written, and very dark.  I really can't recommend it highly enough.
Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, when it came out, was one of the first wave, with authors like Joe Abercrombie, of the new trend towards grittiness in fantasy; with dark characters, blood and gore, graphic sex, and political commentary, and a post-apocalyptic world akin to that of Terry Brooks' abominable Sword of Shannara, Morgan helped to reinvigorate the fantasy genre.  And, three years later, the Land Fit For Heroes (a title that is brutally ironic) has been returned to in The Cold Commands...

The characters of The Cold Commands are, in fact, the same as those of The Steel Remains; Egar, Archeth, and Ringil.  In fact, we're not really learning that much more about any of those characters in real terms; and yet at the same time, we're brought straight back into their world through their different characters.  Each of them is so fleshed out, human, and believable (albeit only through quite a dark vision of humanity) that they really draw the reader into them; we care about each of them, and their affection for each other shines through and really helps the reader connect.  Egar's an old soldier, still unable to get the fight out of his blood and stirring up trouble; he kicks the hornet's nest and the novel follows him being bitten.  Archeth is world-weary and bitter at the Kiriath abandonment of her, half-Kiriath herself, but still willing to subjugate herself to the Kiriath mission to preserve the Yhelteth Empire as a stable part of the world.  Ringil, finally, is driven by his demons - to do all sorts of things; and at the same time, as a hero, he's driven by others' expectations and perceptions of him, even as he fights and becomes increasingly disenchanted with his whole heroic ideal.

The plot of The Cold Commands has three different strands, seen from the perspectives of each of the three protagonists, which come together with a sort of inevitability; the switching-viewpoints of each chapter (not necessarily equally distributed, but relatively so) allow us to see different aspects of the same events, although sometimes the timeline of the novel is a little unclear because of it (we have some moments when the events of two timelines, being told interspersed with each other, are out of sync).  Equally we see different events and their fallout, which means we get a better perspective on events; the grand and the local together, rather than either/or, preventing us having a myopic view.  The two problems with the plot are its open-endedness (nothing's brought to completion or conclusion, meaning we're left at a little bit of a loose end; this is more of a sequel-set-up than even The Steel Remains), and its lack of clarity; Ringil's plot especially is clearly building to something but in such a vague, confused and strange way that it really does seem a little... not quite senseless, especially as it does come to its final climax (albeit with yet another deus ex machina), but purposeless perhaps.

Overall, however, The Cold Commands is a viscerally enjoyable novel; a brilliantly written, bleak and dark piece of fantasy, with powerful plot and brilliant, moving characters, which makes the Land Fit For Heroes series one of the most consistent out there. I'd really recommend Morgan's fantasy if you've not already picked some up!


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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