The Steel Remains (book, Richard Morgan, 2008)
I decided to put this review up, from Death Ray 15, as I have just reviewed its sequel, The Cold Commands, for SFX.
Richard Morgan/Gollancz/£9.99 or £12.99
Three embittered war heroes are reunited to battle a magical threat from beyond the boundaries of the world in Noir SF author’s first fantasy.
Richard Morgan’s first foray into fantasy territory is, without a doubt, a grand success. His ‘brand’ makes the crossing unscathed, his trademarks – unsentimental realpolitik, alienated heroes who rage against the same, realistic violence, sex and swearing – are all present and correct, but, get this, we reckon it actually works better in a fantasy context than it does in his home of SF.
This is a book that plays by the rules of the genre, so you’d be barking up the wrong tree if you were to expect something radically novel. It’s fantasy through and through, and the plot reflects that. Ancient races coexist with man, one of them, the Kiriath, master builders who play like a mix between Dwarves, Elves and the US Marines, have just left for worlds new. The Dwenda, another plane-shifting offshoot of mankind, want back in. Three heroes (one with a near-magical sword) follow three braided stories that meet up at the end, pitching them jointly against the threat they’ve been independently tracking. Dire consequences, and a probable sequel, are hinted at.
But then Morgan’s avowed intent was to write a fantasy novel, not subvert the form. Its his ‘Morganisation’ of these tropes that makes The Steel Remains work so well. Particularly, his taut, noir-inspired prose reduces the usual welter of over-written fantasy bobbins to the absolute bare essentials, and that is a very good thing.
Fantasy is poorly served by its world-builders. Morgan’s milieu is not that different to many others. But many creations are overly complicated in a flat, unconvincing way, the life described out of them. Morgan barely sketches out his world, revealing details through conversation, filling in history through the odd detail. But it never really gets beyond ‘big empire to the south, league of cities to the north, wild barbarians even further north, tussles between them not uncommon’. There’s no map to annoy you with its badly thought out topography, only the one in your head. His societies are similarly presented, ripe with life granted by a paucity of detail. And, most excellently, this is a tough world, not an RPG written up for mass market consumption. The woolly soft hierarchies of ‘cosy’ fantasy are nowhere to be seen. It’s corrupt, stratified and unfair, with men in power being all colours of the moral rainbow. Morgan’s emperor, Jhiral, is a fine example of such, and he’s but one among many excellent supporting characters. In all this Morgan is a good enough writer to know that the more left to the imagination, the better, as it’s the finest theatre there is. In these regards, he seems to be channelling vintage Moorcock.
It’s with his main characters, also somewhat Moorcockian, that Morgan stumbles. They’re all well-drawn, true to themselves and undergo convincing arcs of development, they’re just a bit too samey. Ringil, gay swordsman, Egar, barbarian chief, and Archeth, Kiriath half-breed left behind with her people’s remaining sentient machines. Alone, they are each good fantasy heroes, but the similarities between them are too apparent throughout. All of them are disenfranchised from and disenchanted with their societies. Surely one could have revelled in his or her position? Enjoyed the power their rank and achievements bring and yet still have been ‘heroic’? To my mind this would have cast the issues Morgan attempts to raise here in a starker light. And though he begins to move his players towards the edge of darkness at the end, surely such veterans would have succumbed to temptation long ago, and not only because of the book’s events. With three similarly grumpy souls trying to save the day, the image of Morgan grumbling round his study with a hangover ripples out through the book, an unwelcome echo of the real world.
As to the sex, gay and otherwise, we don’t expect a controversy, it is no harder than that in his other books, and pretty briefly depicted. While we’re on possible outrage, the swear count’s higher than in your average fantasy, but only gets an admonishment from us in that, again, it makes several of the characters sound too alike. There’s a plot point too that is a stretch, namely why the Dwenda want to reconquer the Earth (no, not ours, a different one, possibly parallel) when they find existence in linear time so distasteful.
Small niggles. Great characters in a great story are what drives all good books, and you get that here, with acres of bloody space for your own imagination to gambol and play in. This is far, far, far better than nearly any other fantasy you’ll pick up this year.