Gollancz, August 2008
Reviewed earlier at SFFWorld by the venerable Hobbit:
Richard Morgan is one of the hottest young writers in Speculative Fiction, he’s already won a couple of prestigious genre awards for his efforts, including the Philip K. Dick award for his first novel, Altered Carbon, which was published in 2002 as well as the Arthur C. Clarke award for last year’s Black Man/Thirteen. After five science fiction novels and two comic book storylines, Morgan digs his heels into fantasy with The Steel Remains.
Like many a fantasy novel, one of the main themes hanging over the heads of the characters is war. However, Morgan doesn’t focus on war itself as much as the specter of a past war and the threat of a potential war. In the protagonist Ringil Eskiath (Gil), Morgan captured an air of embittered veteran. Ringil is called home by his mother to search for his missing cousin Shering, rumored to have been sold into slavery. Ringil brings with him an enchanted sword, Ravensfriend, with the magical ability to can through anything. Unfortunately, Ringil’s father and people from his town are dead set against his quest to save his cousin. Adding fuel to the fire is the disdain Ringil’s father holds over his son; despite Ringil being an honored war veteran, dad still can’t look past Ringil’s homosexuality. Clearly, Ringil is a complex character who has quite a lot baggage, straddles many lines, and ultimately, comes across as rather genuine.
Although the story is mostly centered on Ringil, Morgan surrounds him with a nicely drawn supporting cast, even if they aren’t 100% likeable. His mother, his father, his lover(s) and his enemies. At times, Morgan is able to deftly maneuver some of those labels onto one character, and quite effectively.
One of the most potent aspects of the novel is Morgan’s unrestrained approach to both the sex and the violence. The sex is intimate and graphic and the violence is on the same level of graphic description, as well as the sexual proclivity of the protagonist, Ringil. Ringil does embody these two aspects very much, from the graphic nature of his trysts to the violent nature of many of his physical encounters with enemies, Morgan is unrelenting in how he puts Ringil into all of these scenes. The harsh language, the graphically depicted non-traditional sex, and stark reality of violence all add a stamp of boldness readers of Morgan’s science fiction will find familiar. Some will (and have already) found these intertwined aspects of the novel off-putting. Too bad for them.
As well as Morgan depicts the characters, what he does to an even stronger degree in The Steel Remains is depict the overall mood of the story and world in which it takes place. Ringil’s world is filled with a great deal of tension and angst with the past of war ever-present as well as the fear of potential war in the air as well in addition to an overall feeling of melancholy and malaise. The word gritty, as I’ve said in previous reviews, gets thrown around all to often and in that sense, the word loses some of its original meaning and potency. Here, I suppose, I would call the world in The Steel Remains gritty and harsh, it is dirty, uncompromising and very real. One gets a feel for the dirt under the fingernails Ringil might have after much travel and war; the feeling of exasperation Ringil expresses in many of his encounters also epitomizes the mood of the story.
The non-human characters, though somewhat physically similar to humans, have an air of alien and bizarreness to them. The dwenda come across as Morgan’s attempt at the elvish cliché, though with a more violent bent to them. I’d almost say they have something in common with vampires, too. He also has shambling zombie like creatures, lizard men and akyia, which themselves seem one step further away from humanity than the dwenda.
Morgan most closely details the mysterious dwenda, who have become nothing more than legend to Ringil’s society. As Ringil becomes further entrenched in the world of the slave trade, he becomes more entwined with the dwenda. In a filmic sense, I found parallels between Ringil’s journey into this dark underbelly of society with Nicolas Cage’s character in the film 8mm – as Ringil became enmeshed in their world, it affected him in potent ways.
As Ringil comes closer to finding his cousin and the novel’s conclusion, he meets up with some former war compatriots, the barbarian Dragonslayer Egar and the half-human Lady Archeth. There are subplots involving Egar and Archeth, but Ringil is the primary focus of the story. As such, in the conclusion, a prophecy given until Ringil pays off in frightening dividends as he realizes just what his truth of that prophecy is. When this scene came into the plot, I found Morgan’s skills to be at their highest, because here, he showed a great ability to bring together many ideas and themes of his story together. Though this story ended with closure, that prophecy shows that Morgan’s (and Ringil’s) story are no where near finished.
I found Morgan’s first foray into the Fantasy to be quite enjoyable. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but what I wound up with when I closed the book was not quite what I thought I would get. Having read Black Man/Thirteen last year, I was hoping his approach to fantasy would be just as uncompromising and in that, I was pleased. Regardless, The Steel Remains is one of the more noteworthy fantasy novels of the year and with it, Morgan is continuing to carve a solid niche for himself in the genre, he’s just now broadening his reach.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford