Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review: The Steel Remains

What can you do to spice up a genre as well-traveled as swords-and-sorcery "hard" fantasy? A genre that is perhaps more locked into tradition and disconnected from reality than any other?

In the case of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains: you take a critical eye to it, and you root it back into reality. You wipe off the gilding until you find the dirty, flawed humanity underneath. Instead of writing a shiny, clean bit of wishful thinking that happens to come equipped with swords, dragons, and beautiful damsels, you instead write a noir story that just so happens to be set in a world of magic and dragons. Oh, and torturing Inquisitors and wolf-shaped demigods who will mangle your genitals.

This is Morgan's first foray into fantasy, after making a name for himself with award-winning and best-selling sci-fi noir stories and thrillers such as Altered Carbon and Thirteen. He has always had a knack for grounding his books in reality even as he tackles such fantastical topics as gene manipulation, mind-swapping, and space travel. The worlds he creates feel genuine, and the inhabitants are realistically flawed and react to these crazy technologies in believable ways. Morgan's visions of the future are so authentic that they don't just seem possible: they seem likely.

In The Steel Remains, Morgan brings these skills fully to bear on the fantasy genre.

The narrative bounces amongst three protagonists: the disenfranchised and cynical war hero Ringil, the gruff viking tribe leader Egar, and Archeth, a woman half-bred with a long-lost race of engineers whose works border on magic. Ringil's story treads familiar noir territory: a woman finds him living a low life and tasks him with searching for someone in trouble, which leads him into a larger mess than he bargained for. Meanwhile, Archeth faces a military mystery of her own while wrangling with the corrupt government, and Egar encounters betrayal and demigods.

Their stories intertwine while introducing the reader to the three main allied factions in their world. Years after a war that united humanity against the invading "scaled folk" that emerged from the sea, we see an aftermath where imperfect leaders and institutions (like those we'd expect in the real world) have led to imperfect conditions. Conflicts are made, politics and petty bickering must be observed, and the people of this world suffer for it. After border disputes and brutal slaughtering of rebels, an uneasy alliance has been reached amongst the Emperor, a king, and the northern tribes. It is in this setting that Morgan explores human nature and the flaws of our institutions and leaders.

No review of this book could be complete without addressing Morgan's head-on treatment of homosexuality. Two of the primary characters are gay, and the reader is faced with an odd juxtaposition: Morgan treats homosexual sex and desire as just as normal and open as most authors treat the hetero versions (there are a few very explicit scenes), yet those characters are shunned within the book's world for their preference. Their version of the church even goes so far as to design a special torture for those "convicted" of sodomy: they are locked in a paralyzing cage and put on dispay in the public square as a massive spiked pole is slowly screwed into them from below until it emerges from their shoulder. There they hang for days, impaled and in agony (and with jeering children throwing rocks at them) until they finally die.

Yeah, it's a dark book.

Morgan's previous books could easily be described as "page-turners", but if there is any problem with The Steel Remains, it is that the story sometimes feels meandering. It can be hard to discern where the plot is going, so the reader may feel less driven to keep following the story. The plot plays fast and loose with the usual 3-act story conventions. It can be great to spurn tradition, but this book seems afloat without the usual guideposts. Morgan also seems more interested in world-building than character-building, with everything else sometimes feeling like an afterthought in comparison to descriptions of the book's setting. The story could probably use a minor restructuring, but it is still a great book in spite of this.

The Steel Remains will not allow you to escape to a simpler world where heroes are heroes and blah blah blah. But it will entertain, intrigue, and impress you. You'll probably be challenged to look at a few things a different way, and in my opinion that's the best thing any book can strive for.


Spinks said...

Bizarrely, I've just read this book also (didn't recognise it at first because the UK edition has a different cover.)

I like the energy he puts into his writing and the characters are great. I liked the decadent emperor a lot also. I agree with you about the story losing focus, especially towards the end.

Also, I get that two of the main characters were gay, but that was a lot of fairly explicit gay sex. Ringil is a bit of a slut :)

Hatch said...

Yes. Yes he is.

One of the challenging things for me as a straight male saturated in American culture when reading this book was seeing gay sex portrayed very explicitly, exactly as hetero sex is often portrayed in other books. It's just so rare to see that in the other media and books that I consume that I definitely wasn't prepared for it. It was one of those "made me look at it differently" moments.

But much to my girlfriend's disappointment, I'm still not interested in other guys. :P