Bi Book Club: A Crown For Cold Silver
By Siobhan Ball
April 23, 2020
If you've ever wanted a classic high fantasy novel that treated queerness as the norm, then A Crown for Cold Silver (2015) by Alex Marshall is the book for you.
Set on a continent known as the Star, where five kingdoms are ruled over by the theocratic Crimson Empire, A Crown for Cold Silver features incredible world-building with multiple diverse cultures and an innovative magic system. Notably, it also features complete gender equality and a total acceptance of queer relationships, to the point where a gay prince had a marriage arranged with another man and made use of a surrogate to have their children.
These things aren't ever explained or justified either, they just exist as part of the fabric of the world, and honestly, it's refreshing, especially as bisexuality crops up on a regular basis and is always treated as a normal facet of life. Sometimes it doesn't feel entirely plausible — dynastic marriages are about blending two bloodlines, and it seems unlikely that an aristocratic power structure would be willing to forgo that out of respect for an individual's sexuality — but it was such a small issue it didn't really detract from the novel or the pleasure of having such an inclusive world.
The story begins with the ruination of Zosia's life by imperial troops, punishing her village over delayed taxes. Unfortunately for them, Zosia is the legendary general Cobalt Zosia of the Seven Villains, who briefly toppled the imperial regime before disappearing into obscurity with her favorite boy toy — the husband that they've just murdered. Zosia decides to hook up with her old crew and destroy the empire like it's destroyed her life, only to discover that another young woman is already running around using her name to build an army and that at least some of her former friends are in on it.
We follow Zosia and her demon familiar, Choplicker, as she travels the continent finding the other villains — drinking, fucking (or attempting to fuck) men and women alike, and occasionally getting screwed over in the process. Other characters include her former comrade Maroto, once in love with her and now a drug-addled mess, who slowly rebuilds himself over the course of the novel, Maroto's nephew, who is out to redeem the family honor, and the wild-born nun who's been sent to track Zosia down.
Another interesting facet of the world-building in this book is the wild-born, known as anathemas by the church — human beings with strange and often horrifying mutations. In the regions that practice their own faiths rather than the state religion, the wild-born are generally respected as magical or spiritual beings, but within the church, they're viewed as manifestations of evil. Those who can't be mutilated into a human-like appearance are burned at the stake, and those who can are conscripted by the church are forced to fight in their army and constantly reminded of their unclean and damned nature. It's a very clear parallel to the colonial and violent history of Western Christianity, one that works particularly well as it doesn't rely on living wounds among those who are still being harmed by it.
Eventually, Zosia joins up with the new army and the young woman wearing her name, whose identity is a twist that's easy to see coming on the second read but which was still surprising the first time around. Even then, there are twists coming from quarters you don't expect, successfully setting up the second book in a way that feels natural rather than contrived.
The entire book has an almost Game of Thrones-like grim, dark, feel — except with gender equality and a lot less sexual violence. It's violent, bloody, and channels all the best classic sword and sorcery vibes while providing an insightful, if unsubtle, critique of imperialistic power structures and theocracy. Zosia is a brilliant and deeply flawed heroine; tough, battle-scarred, and wonderfully selfish in a way female characters are rarely allowed to be. She was once an idealistic reformer but is now jaded by the failure of their revolutionary government and its reforms. If this sounds like your kind of novel and you're tired of heteronormativity, then A Crown of Cold Silver is the book for you.