The Steel Remains
by Richard K. Morgan
Review by Andrew Brooks
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345493033
Date: 20 January 2009 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
If you like your fantasy dark then The Steel Remains, by Richard K. Morgan, might be just for you. Morgan takes a departure here from science fiction noir and his anti-hero Takeshi Novacs, and attempts to slash, gut, burn, and shatter all the fantasy tropes fans are familiar with. Does he completely do away with the archetypes and themes? No, but he gives them a slight twist, a savage turning of the literary blade with the intention of giving readers something a bit different from the elves and the dragons and boys-who-will-grow-to-rule-the-kingdom. One of the more interesting things Morgan does, though, has nothing to do with that.
He starts his story after the giant, heroes against all comers, Battle to Save The World. After. That's important here because Morgan follows the road the likes of which the Eriksons and the Martins took, and it was one of the things I loved about this book. His world has an aged feeling, and not just because he tells us that that column or statue or road has been around for thousands of years. Morgan has created a world the feels used, feels lived in. But if there isn't any dark lord (although there is an ancient evil) or final battle then what on earth will the characters do? Fight each other of course! Just as I enjoyed Martin's fantasy take on the War of the Roses, so too was I relieved to find this book about something other than quests to fetch this or that. What I feel the recent The Name of the Wind (and I know you fans are rabid so please hear me out before cursing me, or suggesting I take a long walk off a short pier) accomplished somewhat, I believe The Steel Remains did a better job of. Mainly, giving the reader a glimpse of the heroes a bit after their prime. Give me bad blood, conniving and untrustworthy alliances. That's the good stuff, and Morgan dishes it up in full.
The novel's three main heroes are an interesting lot. Ringil, son of a prominent family and war hero, but also a man with a bad reputation. Egar's the savage with a taste of the finer things in life, a departure from the Conan's and the Wulfgar's of fantasy staples. And the Lady Archeth, an advisor to the emperor and half Kiriath and half human. The three start out on separate regions of Morgan's world, but of course join together as the novel progresses.
I actually liked these characters, despite a few eye rolls near the beginning. Remember those fantasy tropes promised to be turned inside out? Here's where Morgan sets to with a bloody axe, carving out the kinds of characters not seen in most mainstream fantasy: Ringil and Archeth are gay. No, there haven't been many gay characters that I'm aware of in popular mainstream fantasy. So this is a good thing, as it provides the genre with something relatively fresh. But I'm not sure Morgan wrote gay characters for any other reason than that it's rarely done, and while that's fine, it's not exactly the shattering of the genre I think a lot of us had been led to expect. Maybe it's the kind of edgy thing some readers will respond to, but I need more substance when it comes to characters. Not, they are this or that way because it's out of the norm. While I liked the characters I thought the author maybe tried a little too hard to make something out of nothing there.
But what it really comes down to in The Steel Remains is that Morgan's got a decent start here. The edgy to be edgy stuff I can do without, but all the other pieces for an interesting saga are in play. His themes and characters are gray, for sure, which makes the flashes of compassion and caring scattered about all the more meaningful. And the world building is subtle yet great, a plus for any fantasy. Yep, I got his with a big ol' dose of hype before reading this one, but if you go in expecting to be entertained and not schooled in the art of saga fantasy then this book is well worth your time. Highly recommended.