I had not heard of the book, or the author (Richard Morgan), before it was chosen by my book club. Knowing nothing of it, I tried to keep it that way as long as possible. I didn’t read the back cover, or the inside flap, and the only info I had available to me when I started reading on line 1 page 1 was what was gleanable from the front cover (not much – there are some mist obscured figures, one of whom is holding a sword).
By line 33 page 1, I was complelely sold.
This was something of a relief actually. More than the positive affect that comes from reading an enjoyable book, I was glad to be reassured that I still enjoy fantasy books (being a fantasy reader is a not inconsiderable portion of my self-concept, but I had read enough non-enjoyable fantasy novels over the last while that I was starting to experience a little niggling cognitive dissonance).
Before I’d turned the first page I’d discovered that the main character (Ringil) is a louche, tavern dwelling hero, that he has a wry sense of the ridiculousness of life, and that he’s gay as christmas. Of course, it would be a bad sign if I had a perfect handle on the character after 33 lines. One of the (many) strengths of the book is the depth and development of characterisation. Ringil on the last page is a very different and much darker creature than Ringil on page 1.
Unlike The Dispossessed, The Steel Remains has a fairly stubby Wikipedia page. It doesn’t reach the heights of The Dispossessed, but The Steel Remains has a lot to say and it says it well and interestingly (and with maximal quanitities of profanity); I hope someone takes the time to buff its wikipedia page at some point. Anyway, not being able to point you there for plot and themes, I’ll have to exposit a bit here…
Ringil is an ex soldier, hero of Gallows Gap, where his leadership meant victory in a Thermopylae style battle against the Scaled Folk. Now, ten (?) years later he’s earning money by telling tales in a tavern in Nowheresville. The story begins with him being called on for a quick zombie killing at the local graveyard. The zombie mechanic (you know, is it a virus or magical curse or what) is great, and (I think) is not one I’d come across before. I was convinced that these compelling zombies were going to figure large in the book, but, no, they were just added to kick things off in style. Which they did.
Not long after, his mum turns up and asks him to come back to his home town to help rescue his cousin who’s been sold into slavery. So, off he goes.
There are two other (not quite as) main characters. Archeth is half human and half kiriath. The kiriath are a technologically-advanced race, black skinned and immortal, who shared the world with humans for millenia. They helped defeat the Scaled Folk (who don’t figure in this book, but who constitute part of a rich and textured back story for the world and characters), and promptly left, leaving just Archeth behind (who consequently has some abandonment issues). She serves as advisor to the decadent Emperor of the Yhelteth empire and lives in a massive mansion and is (also) gay.
Egar is the leader of a steppe-nomad clan, but his time out in the wider world (he too took part in the war against the Scaled Folk) has bred a cosmopolitan streak in him that makes it hard to be entirely happy drinking goats’ milk and living in a tent. God-like foes and allies start to stir after he evokes the ire of the local shaman (who’s deliciously seedy and sadistic) and he’s forced to flee for his life. These steppe-gods are another addition that seem like they should play a larger part in the book than they do. I guess Morgan is slow rolling them for future volumes. Egar is not gay.
Chapters roughly alternate between these three, as each of them follows their own path to the central conflict of the novel. They were all great friends during the war, and eventually (a few chapters from the end of the book), they’re reunited…just in time to beat the bad guy together.
Okay, so gaeity and fantasy. I’ve never seen it so central before (have I even seen it before?), and it’s extremely refreshing. The relationships depicted here aren’t chaste or airbrushed. There’s sex. Lot’s of sex. Raw and real and sexy sex. Of course, this is another (effective) tool that Morgan uses to give his characters depth and psychological realism. In addition though, homosexuality is an utterly fantastic and entirely natural source of conflict. All too often conflict comes from a tedious combination of simple good-bad dichotomy and mcguffin. Good guys need the mcguffin to save the world, bad guys want to stop them; or bad guys need the mcguffin to destroy the world, good guys want to stop them. No need for a mcguffin here: just let a gay character lose in a homonegative world. There’s conflict enough being gay in a heteronormative world, but here we have a culture in which religion wields huge power and does its best to make sure that men who have sex with other men experience lengthy painful deaths.
A quick note on the swearing. Morgan is very good at swearing. His dialogue feels very natural (more rich characterisation and realism!) and swearing is a large part of that. Sometimes it’s a bit gratuitous (‘He gave up no fucking inch of ground’), but usually it’s just fine, and sometimes it works perfectly (‘I fought to keep your mamas from being spitted on a big fucking lizard prick’).
I’ll fly though a few of things I encountered throughout the book that I particularly liked, and other things that I thought I’d mention because they’re just that much darker than what one would find in any other fantasy novel.
This is definitely a fantasy book, but it’s grounded in a sci-fi universe. At times it reminded me of the Jack Vance and the Dying Earth genre — fantasy tropes in a world where one can catch echoes of high technology. There are a couple of conversations that evoke Clarke’s 3rd Law (any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to be magic), and Morgan has tried to integrate the magic within the book into a Many-Worlds framework, which one would be more likely to come across in a sci-fi book. Having had this sense while reading the book, I was delighted to find out that all of his previous books were sci-fi. I have a friend who is a big sci-fi fan but who won’t touch fantasy with a 3-metre pole (he rails agains the two genres being miscegenated in bookshops). If any fantasy book were to overcome his bias, it might be this one, with its uniquely sci-fi sensibility.
Fighting is good. At least it is when Morgan’s writing the fight scene. Battles are fast and exciting, visceral and violent. All three main characters (especially the blokes) are fantastic martial artists, with distinct and convincing styles. Each of them has a different weapon, and the final battle flashes back and forth between all three of them, giving us the opportunity to see them putting those weapons to great use. Ringil’s is a kiriath-forged sword, Egar’s is a double-bladed lance, and Archeth has an array of knives (some for throwing, all for stabbing) each of which has its own cool name. I suspect Morgan is a huge fantasy fanboy (indeed, the book is prefaced by a quote from Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword), because he knows exactly what gets my fanboy neurons firing.
The book has drug abuse (there are two drugs mentioned by name, one that sharpens you up, one that chills you out), child murder, PTSD, gang rape, graphic scenes of dismemberment and rotting bodies, and a peculiarly disturbing scene where the depraved shaman has sex with a demon-possessed she-wolf. I’m a huge fan of much literature that’s directed at a young adult market, and most fantasy is, I guess, aimed at an adult market by default, but this is one of the few fantasy novels I’ve read that felt it was written specifically for adults. It’s dark, alright, and mature themes abound. I loved it.