The Steel Remains
If you’ve read my blog before you’ve like come across my incessant links to previews and reviews for Sci-fi author Richard (K) Morgan’s first entry into the realms of fantasy. You might also have noticed my rant regarding the need to import the book from the UK rather than wait until its February US release date. As an internet goer you might have noticed, perhaps participated in, some of the hoopla and hubaloo surround the book’s supposed hype-machine. Now, book in hand and finally complete, what do I think? The Steel Remains follows the same themes as Morgan’s Thirteen and his Kovac’s novels dealing with issues of violence, social acceptance, and and the nature of humanity itself. As a work of fantasy it isn’t nearly as revolutionary as one might expect and portrays the aforementioned themed directly and without flinching from anything. There were two main thoughts as I finally finished the novel: Why wasn’t it longer? and When the hell does the next book come out?
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Morgan has never been one for long expository sequences, nor for overblown symbolic description and espouses a clarity of style that is at once unfamiliar and wholely refreshing in the fantasy genre. While I found the book to be a little shorter than I would have liked there is more action and plot momemtum in the book’s 350 pages than in most of the last several Robert Jordan novels. I will admit some of that action comes at the cost of (deep breath) world-building but the world sketched by Morgan through his characters is both compelling and original. The scarcity of information about the world, its history, and its rules might be frustrating to the “old guard” of fantasy founds I did mind that the mystery of past events, ties so strongly to the plot as it was, served as a well-formulated impetus to keep reading.
Within the greater whole of the fantasy world I felt that Morgan, rather than borrow from many of the more Tolkienesque traits of modern fantasy, seemed more interested in the more proto-fantasy fairy land. Ringil’s trip through other places and times reminded me very much of portrayals of the fairy landscapes seen in works by Gaiman (Stardust), de Lint, and Lord Dunsany (The King of Elf Land’s Daughter). In the portrayal of this other reality coexistant with our own Morgan seems to be drawing strongly on his own sci-fi background and creating a clear link between the typical fantasy portrayal of other places and use of alternate realities/dimensions/timelines seen frequently in his other genre of choice.
Indeed Morgan uses the general theme of otherness to great extent throughout the majority of the novel as he has in past novels (most recently in Thirteen). The Steel Remains three main characters each manage to somehow embody and aspect of other/outsider in their own unique ways. Ringil stands outside his birth society because of his homosexuality, Arceth is a half-breed left behind by her father’s race when they left this world but unable to fit in with human society because of her mixed heritage, and Egar is a barbarian chief who after tasting society beyond his people cannot quite fit in at home. Morgan further carries the idea of the other to the forefront via the novels primary conflict with an outcast inhuman race seeking to return to their home from exile. It is interesting to note that the only people able to stand up to this threat of the other are those who live outside, or at least on the fringe, of the novel’s version of accepted human norms.
A word of warning for those easily offended: stay away. Morgan, as I said earlier, is not afraid to portray acts both violent and sexual in very descriptive detail. If you’re a fantasy fan and were offended by the stark violence and sexuality of George R. R. Martin’s books….run the hell away from The Steel Remains. Morgans portrayal of violence and sexuality aren’t frivolous and, in my opinion, serve only to underscore the themes he has chosen to explore in the novel. The Steel Remains as a dark unflinching look at a fantasy world that somehow manages to cast its shadow over our own world as well. Informed by Morgan’s science fiction background the novel is at a fresh and familiar take on the fantasy genre that will appeal in particular to fans of the author’s earliers works and fantasy fans (preferably thick-skinned) in general. Highly Recommended.
A Note on the Gollancz Edition: The author’s name should be bigger than the title, unlike the picture the actual novel’s cover font is reversed. It must be a lot colder in the UK as well since leaving this book in my car during the day once seemed to melt the binding and made subsequent reading rather difficult. I seem to recall having a similar problem with a mass-market version of an Erikson novel I got from them as well so I’m guessing its an ongoing problem so importers beware.