A Crown for Cold Silver is the debut novel by mysterious pseudonym-having author Alex Marshall. An epic fantasy novel whose bare bones sound very typical: a tragedy brings a fearsome warrior out of their attempt to have a quiet retirement, to get their revenge. We’ve all seen that movie. But Marshall does a great number of wonderful things to carry us away from trope city into something genuinely new and wonderful. I quite enjoyed this novel, and the way it handled the characters, the plot, and most importantly the roles of gender and sexuality.
FIVE VILLAINS. ONE LEGENDARY GENERAL. A FINAL QUEST FOR VENGEANCE. 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. A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER is an outstanding epic fantasy debut featuring an unforgettable warrior.
A note before we begin: Because Alex Marshall is a pseudonym, and because Alex is a gender-ambiguous name, I found myself unsure of what pronouns I ought to be using to reference Marshall in this review. Given the role of gender-identity and sexuality in the novel, it seemed particularly important to correctly identify Marshall, but no official source I can find gives any indication as to their gender identity if any. For that reason, I shall be referring to the author throughout as ‘they’ and ‘Marshall.’ I’ve reached out to Orbit just to enquire as to whether there is a preferred pronoun to use, and if I receive a reply will edit this review to reflect that preference. In the meantime, apologies if you find the singular ‘they’ to be awkward to read.
A Crown for Cold Silver starts typically enough. Some goons from the local empire swoop down on a little village and decide to throw some weight around. It turns out the mayor of the village is perhaps slightly more powerful than you’d think. Said goons do something really stupid, and mayor decides she is going to come out of retirement and wreak unholy vengeance on the people who killed her husband. Aside from the fact that Marshall’s protagonist in this case is a woman, this is actually pretty standard epic fantasy fare. The lampshade nod to the fact that the young boy who would normally be the last survivor of a massacre leading to revenge dies instead of following the trope, however, foretells that Marshall has a little more in mind for us than anything typical. And they do not disappoint.
Story-wise, things quickly go off the trope rails. Zosia is getting old, and has been getting a little soft. She’s not quite the vicious murder-queen she used to be. As the word goes out that she’s actually alive, her former generals, the Five Villains, all become involved in greater or lesser degrees in what she’s doing. But again, unlike the usual ‘getting the band back together’ scene, they’ve all got their own stuff going on in the time they thought she was dead, and they aren’t all actually keen to sign back up. Some are successful off on their own, or have their own ulterior motives, or are so drug-addled they can barely figure out whether they imagined hearing she was alive or not. All five of them have very distinct and interesting characteristics and motivations and don’t just fall in line and become stalwart allies. The fact that we’re not even really sure we should be cheering for a group of people called the Villains with a capital V just adds to the depth of the story.
The most relevant thing about this novel, I think, is the handling of gender and sexuality of the characters. By which I mean the complete lack of ‘handling’ any element of them. Some characters are men who are married to men, some characters are women who might have been born men maybe, we’re not sure? Some of the characters come from a place that prides itself on androgyny and characters aren’t even necessarily sure whether they are talking to a man or a woman. What is important and remarkable about this is none of this is ‘handled’ in the sense of being directly addressed in the narrative. It just -is-. This is what the world is like. Dude has a husband, other dude has a wife, nobody feels any need to remark on it at all. Woman has a big flowing moustache? *shrug* that’s what she looks like. It’s really a dark tragedy of our world that pretty much the only place that non-heteronormativity is completely accepted is the imaginary non-existent reality of speculative fiction, but over and over Marshall just wowed me with traipsing right through what would have been treated as some horrible socio-political minefield by most other authors. This is just the world that existed, and the characters that existed, and here’s your story. It was refreshing and wonderful.
Overall, while some small parts of the plot dragged a little, this was an excellent novel. I knew it was a debut before I knew it was only a debut for this pseudonym, so some of my willingness to cut some slack on debut novels might have been a bit more strained if I knew Marshall was already an experienced author under another name, but the issues along those lines were so minor that at most, it would break the tie from x.25 stars down to x instead of up to x.5. I quite enjoyed the story, the characters, the way magic works. All of the social awareness stuff was just icing on an already delicious cake. Like so many aspects of Marshall, the potential release date for or name of the upcoming sequel to this novel is not something I could find anywhere. I’m not even sure what the series is called. But the mysterious nature surrounding this novel and author aside, it is well worth picking up.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this novel from Orbit via NetGalley.