The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan
Published by Gollancz, August 2008
448 pages (ARC copy received)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
It’s been a rallying cry around SFFWorld for a while now, (and certainly something I’ve gratefully mentioned before), that now is an interesting time in Fantasyland. We seem to be on a roll: older authors getting recognition from newer and broader areas of interest, new authors gaining their laurels and plaudits…
Yes, indeed; amongst the bland, the repetitive and the dross, there’s actually a lot of great stuff out there.
I’m reminded of this again whilst writing this review. Reading the current successes – Erikson, Lynch, Gemmell, Barclay, and Abercrombie are often mentioned around at SFFWorld, not to mention the bigger names, (Martin, Jordan, Feist etc) – if I had to pick a trend in many of those tomes, it would probably be that Fantasy has become nastier, dirtier, more violent, more complex and yes, perhaps more adult in the last few years.
Richard Morgan’s first foray into Fantasy (previously known for his SF) is all of this, and more. And in a genre area currently filled with diamonds amongst the rough, it is one of the best books I’ve had the fortune to read this year. Richard’s reputation for fast-actioned, violent SF has now been transmutated into a book worthy for any Fantasy reader with a strong stomach.
I will admit straight away that I did get a sneak preview of the first five chapters. Normally such things don’t sway me – though I am always grateful, I don’t let such things affect my review. However, what won me over here was that it was one of those increasingly rare (but wonderful) events where I sat down initially to read the first couple of pages but ended up reading seventy-five. In one sitting. And I would have continued further had I got more.
On the arrival of the full book, I continued. And by the end of the 400+ pages, I was very pleased about the journey taken.
There’s a lot in the story that many will recognise: indeed, Richard’s postscript admits his homage to Moorcock, Karl Wagner & Poul Anderson. We have a young hero, Ringil (Gil) Eskiath, with an impressive war history, sword-fighting skill and an impressively vicious sword called Ravensfriend, crafted from superb kiriath steel. Ringil is asked to return to his ancestral home in order to do his mother (Lady Ishil, the aristocratical wife of Lord Gingren of Eskiath) a favour, namely to find his cousin Sherin, sold into slavery. In order to do this, Gil has to travel, and so along the way we are introduced to more of his comrades – Egar the Dragonbane, the leader of a nomadic tribal group living on the steppes, and Archeth, the half-caste friend of Ringil, advisor to the mercurial Jhiral, the young Emperor of the Yhelteth Empire.
As with his SF, Richard’s characters here are a strength, and show much of what makes engaging personalities in the current genre field. They are morally ambiguous, not to mention sexually ambiguous. Like many books currently popular, the Hero (and Heroine!) are no longer clearly defined, which many readers will find likable. Grey is the colour, here, but here enticingly mounted in a brightly baroque landscape of varied geographical landscapes and diplomatic cultures.
If there was a weakness, it is that in places I felt Richard’s often excellent characterisation was too much, perhaps trying to be too edgy, too different (often the reaction to Moorcock’s writing in the 1960
’s.) We have homosexual heroes, lesbian heroines (with a predilection for other races) and explicit sex and violence throughout. Sometimes the violence is quite extreme. The explicit language is not for the weak, either, but perhaps appropriate for the situation.
This may deter some readers. And yet, for me, overall the main story is strong with an attractive back-story and the ideas nicely original enough to be memorable. There’s a lot of creative invention here, from the maggot-like corpsemites who create zombie-like people at the start of the book, to the seedy city of
What does sparkle for me particularly, interestingly enough, is that the dark brutal edge of much of the book is tempered with a sense of (admittedly dark) humour and fun. The dialogue is at first jarringly contemporary, yet I was able to cope with difficult parents being called ‘Dad’ and soon settled down to go with the context.
The story’s ending is fairly secure, though there are points to be picked up in the next book, which may annoy some. The ending; however, is not as precipitous as some recent books.
Those who know of Richard’s SF, and like Fantasy, will be most impressed by The Steel Remains. There are going to be people who read this, not having read Richard’s SF, who will be in for a shock. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This was an eagerly awaited book which didn’t let me down.
Very highly recommended.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, April 2008