Goodness, it’s been a long time since I read Altered Carbon, and nearly as long since I heard about The Steel Remains, Richard K. Morgan’s foray into fantasy, and knew I needed to give it a try. I was intrigued by the promise of a gritty approach to epic fantasy. Much like in the shooter genre of video games, the term gritty as applied to fantasy can get tossed around a lot without much accuracy. But I was pretty certain Morgan would deliver. In this respect he did. As a novel, however, The Steel Remains still leaves much to be desired.
The basic mechanics of Morgan’s fantasy world are nothing to write home about. There’s a powerful empire and a network of free cities nominally at peace after working together to repulse an invasion a decade ago by reptilian people from across the sea. There are steppe nomads with their own religion that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the empire’s official monotheism. Humanity used to co-exist with a species known as the Kiriath, but after the Scaled Folk were beaten back, the Kiriath decided to attempt the long journey back whence they came, leaving behind a single, solitary, half-Kiriath woman named Archeth. Oh, and a lot of Kiriath artifacts, like the sword of Ringil Eskiath, the other protagonist of The Steel Remains. Ringil also happens to be gay, which in a better world than ours would be nothing to write home about either, but because our society remains stubbornly heteronormative, a gay protagonist (and gay sex! gasp!) in an otherwise “mainstream” book is significant.
Of course, in our world there are varying responses to homosexuality, ranging across a continuum from “OK. Go marry someone, if you like” to “Well, we’ll stone you now, and then you will burn in eternal hellfire!” Although the same is somewhat true in the world of The Steel Remains, most responses lean towards the eternal hellfire end of the continuum. Ringil has killed a dragon, but unlike his Majak friend Egar, who has also done this, Ringil doesn’t get the title Dragonbane. Despite his prowess and skill in the service of his people. Ringil doesn’t get much recognition or respect; even his family normally keeps him at a distance. He is an outcast in all but name.
This is something, in fact, that all three main characters share in common. Archeth is the last of her kind, surviving mainly in the service of a capricious emperor who is trying to hold on to an empire he doesn’t seem to deserve. Egar is the leader of a nomad clan, but his leadership is precarious owing to a lack of respect for the gods and his people’s shamanistic rituals. Notice that Morgan doesn’t necessarily go out of his way to show Archeth, Ringil, or Egar as “good” people. They are people, with good points and bad points, and I can appreciate that.
What I don’t appreciate is how The Steel Remains reads like it was written by … well, by me when I was in high school and making my first stabs at a fantasy novel. Morgan seems to have set out to write a fantasy novel, and boy has he ever. From the map at the front of the book to the names to the pacing of the story, The Steel Remains feels like an amateur effort. That surprises me so much, because I know Morgan is far from an amateur. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t shake that feeling as I read. Despite trying to shake up the typical fantasy tropes—such as the identity of the prophesied Dark Lord, which is pretty obviously telegraphed at several points in the story—Morgan doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.
The three protagonists share a common bond from their past involvements in war, and as such they have similar scars and burdens. As they come together to defend the world against a great threat, those scars show. These are far from perfect people, and they are weary of doing what they see as their duty. It takes a long time for this to happen, though. Morgan, to his credit, manages to avoid much in the way of infodumping—to the point where I would have been grateful for when, because half the time I had no idea what was going on.
There is one respect in which The Steel Remains strikes a chord with me. I don’t want to say too much, lest I spoil parts of the book. However, let’s just say that Morgan lets his science-fiction street cred show more than once, and it’s entirely possible that all the magic happening in this story is actually just sufficiently advanced science. I enjoyed how he put the clues there for the reader to see but didn’t beat us over the head with these implications. If/when I get around to reading the next book in this series, I look forward to seeing how Morgan develops this subplot further.
The next book isn’t jumping up my list, though. The Steel Remains didn’t grab me like Altered Carbon did. For the most part, I found it messy and far less skillful than any novel by someone of Morgan’s calibre has any business being. I do not recommend this as your first foray into Morgan’s writing; and, if like me you’ve already read some of his science fiction, be prepared for a big genre shock.