I’m still in the process of catching up on all the sf&f books that I’ve missed out on in the passed few years and I’ve now reached Richard Morgan’s first foray in fantasy. Morgan, usually known for his science fiction work, here attempts not only to write in the genre in novel form for the first time but overthrow all the major tropes. While he achieves only to a mild degree, on the way he does manage to spin an enticing tale along the way. This is the first book in a series which has not seen a sequel released yet, though The Steel Remains was published back in 2008. Not the smoothest of reads by far, this is still a novel you should look to pick up.
Ringil, the hero of the bloody slaughter at Gallows Gap; Archeth, the last of her race and Egar Dragonbane, steppe-nomad. Damaged veterans of the war against the Lizard Folk. The Empire owed them everything and gave them nothing. Now someone is going to pay...
As you can see, that is not much of a blurb, and it’s essentially all we know about the characters for the first hundred pages or more. Then The Steel Remains has a painfully slow start. For the better part of the first two hundred pages things seem to move at a crawl. Because of the lack of background we have on the characters, Morgan seems to want to dish it out in sometimes lengthy, sometimes short, flashbacks interspersed annoyingly throughout the rest of the narrative. These flashbacks almost certainly cut any interest that exist for the “current” events of the book, contributing to the slow pace. But the other major factor for this disappointing pace is the apparent lack of suspense in and between chapters. Since there is little other than characterization going on there is no drive to know what will happen next, and since the chapters rotate between three characters (the ones mentioned in the blurb) which each have their own storyline that bear no correlation to the others. When it does pick up, though, things do get interesting fast, and battles, intrigue, bewilderment, humor and a good story do subsequently unfold.
I said it in my introduction, Morgan does set out to blast through a trope or two with The Steel Remains, the various reviews on the back cover are a testament to that intent, but he often as subtle about it as one might desire. It’s well and good to want to avoid and/or destroy stereotypes, but it’s important not to forget that the main purpose is to tell a story. Generally speaking, stories have the desire to be as smooth as possible, to have a nicely flowing sequence of events, but Morgan is so set on doing his thing that it’s too often glaringly obvious when he does it. Perhaps the best example of him going about avoiding stereotypes is the sexuality of Ringil, the main character, since, let’s face it, homosexual main characters aren’t the most common type in fantasy. Well, Morgan seems to have a need to regularly bash us in the face with the fact - it will appear under many forms, the general disrespect others treat him with, sex scenes, insults, etc. I for one applaud Morgan for what he attempted, I simply wish it was shrouded in subtlety.
The main characters are as engaging as any you’re likely to read. Following the recent trend, they all, especially Ringil, are shrouded in a cloud of moral ambiguity and it is easy to begin caring for them. So essentially they’re great... except for one thing. I had a hard time believing any of the motives for the characters’ actions or, for that matter, could I even identify those motives. The hardened war hero used to persistent insult going to hunt down his enslaved cousin because his mother told him to - doesn’t that seem a little far-fetched to you? Granted, eventually pure spite sort of develops as his main drive, but still his mother, please? Then Archeth was seemingly ditched by every single member of her species so I get how that could anger her, but not how that makes her do whatever the Emperor tells her to do. Even then, past allegiance to the throne is an easier motive to swallow than Ringil’s.
Despite the few personal qualms detailed above, The Steel Remains did manage to keep me reading long enough for things to kick into gear and (finally) captivate me. The last act is nothing short of spectacular, and that alone make Morgan’s first dip into fantasy worth the try. If the sequel manages to mend the few faults with its predecessor than it should be one hell of a ride. Look for The Cold Commands (or is it The Dark Commands? Don’t know) in January 2011.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
Richard Morgan's Website: http://www.richardkmorgan.com/
Buy The Steel Remains: