John C Adams Reviews 'The Steel Remains'

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

(Gollancz Books)

I hadn't read anything by Richard Morgan when I stumbled on this book, but the cover quotes from Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson hinted that we were going to be in down-in-the-dirt fantasy territory, and I wasn't disappointed as I worked through its four hundred pages. I enjoy an occasional foray into this sort of fantasy, away from my more usual home of romantic fantasy/swords and sorcery.

Morgan is one of those intriguing authors whose work straddles fantasy and science fiction, with the latter predominating as his career has progressed. He's produced an immense array of SF novels, graphic novels and short fiction, including 'Black Widow' for Marvel Comics. Lots of his stories and novels have been adapted for TV, most recently by Netflix. These include 'Altered Carbon', which won the Philip K Dick Award, and 'Black Man', which won the Arthur C Clarke Award.

'The Steel Remains' is the first in a dark-fantasy trilogy published between 2008 and 2014. Since then, Morgan appears to have pivoted entirely to science fiction, which makes me value his fantasy output all the more on the grounds that we may not see more of it any time soon. He has, however, remained with Gollancz.

The novel features Ringil, a war hero with an illustrious background who has retired in his twenties to earn his keep as storyteller in the local inn and who mixes it up by occasionally seeing off the demons that rise from the graveyard of the small town. Courtesy of his same-sex orientation in an unforgiving and bigoted world where gay men are routinely executed for the crime of simply being themselves, something his family support, Ringil's relationship with his parents is next to nonexistent. Egar Dragonsbane, his old companion in arms, is thousands of miles away acting as Clanmaster on the steppes and dreaming of past times when life was more exciting. Egar's position in the community is precarious courtesy of his animosity towards the charlatan shaman who lords it over the clan by exploiting their ignorance of the wider world, but Egar's many brothers aren't slow in coming forward to challenge for the privilege of becoming Clanmaster. Their old friend Archidi, a woman of colour who is also same-sex oriented, is toeing a precarious line with the Emperor. He values her skills in battle but is perpetually offended by her lack of respect for his exalted status.

The existing situations of all three characters promised plenty of tension from the get go, and this was swiftly delivered. Ringil's mother arrives to request his help in tracking down a cousin who has been peremptorily sold into sexual slavery, forcing him to confront his parents' homophobia and his own grief at the execution of his previous lover. Archidi is summoned by the Emperor and tasked with investigating a bloody and destructive attack on one of his port cities. And Egar's problems deepen as demons reach out to the shaman, making him even more dangerous as their creature than before.

There were times when I felt that matters moved slowly, but this was really because the novel is very character driven. The action was pretty low-key until the final climax, giving plenty of opportunity to focus on the central characters. In Egar's case, the storyline was a little bare, but Ringil's and Archidi's were fascinating.

Although the three protagonists had a longstanding existing relationship with each other, they were destined to remain apart for almost all the story. Similarly, the challenge portrayed in the novel to fight the Aldrain Dwendas was only the beginning of the difficulties Ringil, Archidi and Egar faced once events brought them back together. These factors combined to produce the feel of a book that was very much opening up a longer narrative likely to unfold over multiple books. In that sense, it was the perfect series opener.

I liked the concept of the existing relationships between the three main characters very much. This was especially important given that they don't meet up in person until the final few chapters. Seeing the central characters interact would have been a genuine pleasure and could easily have been introduced much earlier, but the sketches of the existing relationships helped to bridge the gap. I would have loved to see this delivered via vivid, fully-fledged flashbacks where the reader immerses themself in past action. However, in terms of persuading the reader that the prior loyalties between Ringil, Archidi and Egar were deep and abiding, I was utterly convinced that these guys would step up to defend each other when it mattered.

One of the aspects of the novel I appreciated most was the presence of a gay character and a woman of colour who is also same-sex orientated. In the case of Archidi, her sexual orientation was made clear and was an integral and pleasing aspect of her character and narrative. However, it didn't define her in quite the same way that Ringil was perpetually subject to verbal abuse and derision for his homosexuality. Perhaps her closer proximity to the Emperor meant that Archidi was more protected, but Ringil was endlessly on the receiving end of homophobic abuse. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is in so many ways representative of the cultures upon which fantasy is often based. It was also consistent with the overall tone of 'down in the dirt', which I loved.

There's an argument against sugar coating just one aspect of such a complex and challenging universe, and the fact that Morgan sensitively treated post-traumatic-stress disorder, slavery, rape and torture without shying away from their gritty nature gave strength to this style of approach. Everything that is painful and horrible about a realistic portrayal of a fantasy universe was laid bare, and that is really the strength of this sort of fantasy book: it doesn't pull any punches and leaves us to reflect on how problems such as slavery, homophobia and sexual violence are still all too prevalent in our world, too.

Overall, 'The Steel Remains' had a little of everything, and I enjoyed it very much.

Many thanks to Ricardo Cruz, Jonny Casparia and Anubhav Rana for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.

The comments section is open! See you next Wednesday.

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