Cold Counsel by Chris Sharp
A troll, a night-hag and an undead goblin walk into a bar.
What? Oh, it’s not a joke. It’s how the post-credits scene would look if Chris Sharp’s novel were a Marvel movie instead of a book.
Slud of the Blood Claw Clan, Bringer of Troubles, was born at the heart of the worst storm the mountain had ever seen.
Slud’s father, chief of the clan, was changed by his son’s presence. For the first time since the age of the giants, he rallied the remaining trolls under one banner and marched to war taking back the mountain from the goblin clans.
However, the long-lived elves remembered the brutal wars of the last age, and did not welcome the return of these lesser-giants to martial power. Twenty thousand elves marched on the mountain intent on genocide. They eradicated the entire troll species—save two.
Aunt Agnes, an old witch from the Iron Wood, carried Slud away before the elves could find them. Their existence remained hidden for decades, and in that time, Agnes molded Slud to become her instrument of revenge.
For cold is the counsel of women.
You’ve probably figured out by now that the axe-wielding beauty on the cover is Slud. The last surviving warrior of the Blood Claw Clan, Slud isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, he may even be the bluntest – or so it seems. Slud’s thick dialect can easily be taken as evidence of stupidity; but don’t be fooled. Mountain trolls might not be as eloquent as us humans (well . . . some of us, at least), but Slud lacks none of the brutal cunning of his own kind.
The utter darkness and the sound of his exhales echoing about the little chamber reminded him of the time that Agnes had made him build a coffin and dig a big hole. She’d fed him mushroom tea and left him down there with nothing but the silence and hallucinations for a full day before digging him back up to see what he’d learned. “Don’t fuckin’ trust no one dat tells ya to get in da box,” he’d answered before his beating.
Rarely subtle, often hilarious – Cold Counsel is peppered with its main protagonist’s blunt observations and delightful profanities. But though the blurb and cover might suggest that this is Slud’s story and Slud’s alone, the big troll is actually more of a catalyst for a chain of reactions (read: crazy shit) that affect the lives of everyone on the mountain. And if Slud is the catalyst, his ‘Aunt Agnes’ is the scientist; you know, the mad one who, after spending years cultivating the right conditions for her experiment, decides finally to throw caution to the winds and unleash her agent out into the mix.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction it causes is – how can I say this? – quite volatile. Prodded along by Aunt Agnes (whose counsel is, indeed, rather nippy), Slud barrels through hordes of enemies and even a few potential allies. And it’s the latter who are the focus of the story; Cold Counsel is as much their tale as it is Slud’s.
Agnes kicks it off, Slud drives it forward – but Cold Counsel is as much the story of a select few individuals who find themselves caught in the troll’s path, knocked down like dominoes and then scooped up in his wake. Goblins like Dingle (a hapless scout), Neither-Nor (an unkillable warrior), Hairy Herald (a hairy herald) and Fixelcrick (a Hex Doktor with an unhealthy feather fetish) each have the opportunity to weigh in with their own conflicting perspectives on events, as do Luther the wolf and Agnes the night-hag.
The Warcraftian characters and easily recognisable ‘evil’ races are clearly inspired by the author’s love of role-playing games. The setting, on the other hand, is a little more uncertain, though there are enough references to Norse mythology to suggest that it’s Cold Counsel is set in a kind of alternative Midgard. Wherever it may be, you get the sense that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, we’re encouraged to focus on the characters’ immediate surroundings. Cold Counsel is all about the locale: the hundred-foot-high pine trees, the smell of snow on the wind, the howling of wolves and the flapping of ravens’ wings – all combine to suffuse the story with a compelling sense of myth and wildness.
In many ways, Cold Counsel is more than it promises to be; but it’s also – in other ways – less. In spite of its boldness, I found the first few chapters a little slow and heavy; as a result, I struggled somewhat to engage with the characters. Slud is disappointingly bland, and his passiveness at the beginning of the story means the early chapters lack any real sense of urgency. Even when the tale gains momentum, Slud’s chapters continue to feel strangely flat. Thankfully, the other characters frequently hop in to liven things up, with Neither-Nor turning out to be the novel’s real show-stealer.
Cold Counsel isn’t perfect (is any book?), but it’s well worth your time. For something so relatively short, it manages to pack a real punch; and even though it doesn’t immediately deliver on everything it seems to promise, I suspect that by the time you reach the end you’ll be as eager for the sequel as I am. A Marvel movie, it ain’t. But I like to think that if DC ever made a Suicide Squad spinoff featuring monsters instead of men, the teaser trailer would look a little something like Cold Counsel’s ending.