The Dark Defiles
by Richard K. Morgan
Cover Artist: Stephen Youll
Review by Benjamin Wald
Del Rey Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345493101
Date: 07 October 2014 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Dark Defiles is the third and final volume in Richard K. Morgan's gritty fantasy trilogy, A Land Fit for Heroes. The first volume in the trilogy, The Steel Remains, was published way back in 2008, and Morgan, who had previously written far-future science fiction, made a splash as a writer of the kind of grim, gritty, pulls-no-punches epic fantasy made famous by George R.R. Martin and pushed even farther by Joe Abercrombie. However, while I loved the first novel, which was more or less a standalone story, the extension of this one book tale into a trilogy has been less successful. Part of it is the plotting--the plot of the second book was a mess, and while this one is better, it still leaves a lot to be desired. But part of it is also that in 2014, unlike 2008, grim and gritty fantasy is no longer a novelty. While Morgan still does a good job capturing the tone and his battle scenes are second to none, there are others out there who can also deliver equally gritty fantasy, but do a better job on plotting and other elements.
The story follows three characters. Archeth Indamaninarmal is half human and half Keriath, a race of immortal engineers who have since departed the world in their fireships, which travel under the earth through the "bones of the earth", leaving only Archeth behind to shepherd their century long mission to civilize humanity. Egar Dragonbane is a steppe horseman and aging warrior. Ringil Eskiath, the third of the three protagonists, is the central character. He is another aging warrior, longtime friend to Egar, who became a hero in the war against the lizardmen, but whose homosexuality has made him a pariah among to his family and city. He was chosen as a champion by the inhuman Dwenda, who fled the world after losing a war to the Keriath centuries ago but now seek to return and subjugate humanity. Ringil turned against the Dwenda and thwarted their invasion scheme, but now they seek to resurrect an ancient warrior, the Illwrack changeling, and complete their invasion.
One of the big problems with the structure of the book, however, is that while there are three principle characters, there are two more or less independent stories running through the book. One follows Ringil Eskiath and his struggle against the Dwenda, and this is the story that the previous books have strongly suggested is the central story of the trilogy. However, Egar and Archeth have basically nothing to do with this story at all. They are separated from Ringil early on and stranded far from home, and their story is mostly just about their struggles to get back home. Spending a bit more than half of the book on a plotline that never ends up intersecting with Ringil's story is frustrating, and its hard to avoid the feeling that, having set up the third book, Morgan just couldn't find anything for Egar or Archeth to do.
Ringil's story is not without its own plotting difficulties, however. He is supposed to be fighting the Dwenda, and trying to prevent the resurrection of the Illwrack changeling. But he doesn't encounter any Dwenda or any sign of the changeling for almost 500 pages of this 630 page book. The Dwenda don't feel like a real threat, and we get no sense of their plans or capabilities. The introduction of various Gods and other supernatural forces into the book doesn't help matters--the cast of characters gets increasingly hard to keep track of as the book progresses, and many of them seem to play little real roles in the narrative.
To be fair, the book is anything but boring. I read the whole thing in a few days, and I was riveted the whole time. Morgan's writing is excellent. His descriptions of battles are captivating, his dialogue crackles (although he is perhaps a touch too fond of having characters shout inventive insults at each other), and the pace is unrelenting. I enjoyed every moment I read this book, but somehow the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It didn't stick with me the way earlier books by Morgan did. The story becomes too busy, full of plots and counterplots, Gods and magic, and it loses some of psychological depth that the first book had. There are still some perfunctory regrets over the violent life the protagonists lead, but it never matches the sense of regret that permeated The Steel Remains.
Morgan's talent is obvious, but the plotting difficulties of an epic fantasy trilogy seem to have got the better of him here, stifling some of his strengths. While I am not such a fan of his trilogy, I eagerly await his next standalone book, which is where his talents truly shine.