Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Steel Remains: A review

Men were like blades, they would all break sooner or later, you included. But you looked around at the men you led, and in their eyes you saw what kind of steel you had to hand, how it had been forged and tempered, what blows, if any, it would take.

—Richard Morgan,
The Steel Remains

With his new book The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan sets out to (as main character Ringil Eskiath might say) “prick the bloated arse” of J.R.R. Tolkien and post-Tolkien fantasy. Elsewhere on the web Morgan has expressed a deep dissatisfaction with traditional high fantasy, which often pits stainless forces of good against hordes of irredeemable evil in bloodless, antiseptic sword play. He’s accused Tolkien of the same shortcomings (a flawed analysis with which I vehemently disagree). Against this backdrop, Morgan set out to write The Steel Remains as a deliberately gray, grimy, alternative viewpoint. His book succeeds in sliding cold steel into the lie of childlike fantasy, with which my favorite genre of fiction is admittedly littered.

But when the screaming of gutted men and the skirling of steel dies down, and the full extent of the destruction is laid bare for us to see, The Steel Remains does not have much to offer. The old cliché that it’s easier to tear down and destroy than to build anew applies here. In its falling over itself desire to slice and dice fantasy’s traditional conservatism, The Steel Remains indulges in plenty of its own predictable clichés: Every priest is a religious fanatic and a sex fiend, every leader a morally and ethically corrupt, egotistic blowhard, for example. The book lacks a moral compass; Morgan the author’s world view must be a bleak one, indeed.

The action of The Steel Remains focuses on the converging storylines of three uneven characters—one very well done (Ringil, a sarcastic, war-weary, homosexual master swordsman), one middling (Egar, a brawling, boisterous, randy barbarian from the steppes), and one rather forgettable (Archeth, a black, female half-breed of human and Kiriath, deadly with throwing knives and hooked on drugs). All three are veterans of a recent war against an invading race of “scaly folk,” in which humanity staved off utter destruction at a very high price. Ringil, a war hero but now combat- and world-weary, has retreated from his mercenary lifestyle and is living a slothful, under-the-radar existence, until he’s summoned by an urgent message from his mother: Ringil’s cousin, Sherin, has been sold into slavery to repay a debt, and Ringil’s mother wants her back. Ringil reluctantly agrees.

Soon Ringil finds out that the slavery web in which Sherin has been caught is very dark, wide, and sinister. At its centre are a race of alien beings called the dwenda—tall, attractive, human-like, magic-using creatures that are a combination of Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans with their cruel and alien immorality, and Poul Anderson’s Nordic-inspired, haughty, and warlike elves (Morgan lists Anderson and Moorcock as two of his sources of inspiration; the third is, unsurprisingly, Karl Edward Wagner). The dwenda are planning to incite a second war on earth and then destroy the victor, taking back their ancestral lands (the dwenda dwelled on earth many years ago). The dwenda require the sacrifice of barren human females to fuel the dark powers that are the source of their sorcery. Sherin is one of these unfortunates.

There’s much to like in The Steel Remains. Morgan’s prose is sharp and highly readable, and he shows a fine eye for detail and realism in his culture and city-building. Trelayne—a nasty, sprawling, brawling city in which whoring, slavery, and public executions are practiced openly—feels real. Egar’s Majak culture is based on pre-colonized North American Indians, and is well-done with its shamans and superstitions, trade in vast herds of buffalo, and armor and weapons suited to a nomadic lifestyle on the plains.

In addition, if you like your battles bloody and realistic, Morgan is your man. His fight scenes are well-done and you get a great sense of Ringil’s skill with his deadly broadsword of Kiriath steel, and Egar’s brutal butcher’s work with his two-bladed Majak lance. Disembowelings, beheadings, and other ghastly wounds are rife.

Much of the book passed under my eyes as well-oiled but heartless machinery producing graphic combat carnage and highly explicit sex (I’ll pause here to state that the blood and semen-soaked pages of The Steel Remains would make George R.R. Martin blanch, and Eric Van Lustbader—author of The Ninja—green with envy). I found the characters rather unlikeable and unengaging, and the plot fair at best. Very little actually clicked with me until the concluding act, in which Ringil, Egar, and Archeth reunite to fight a desperate last stand against the duenda. This was one of the few moving scenes in the book in which I actually felt some measure of concern and identification with our heroes. Ringil’s rousing speech is of the stuff with which great heroic fantasy is made. I wish there was more like this.

In summary, we know that life can be dirty and horrible. War is hell, yes, and men are weak and piggish. But Morgan drives the same points home, again and again, over 400 dark, cynical, iconoclastic pages of The Steel Remains, which by the end is too one-note and sacrifices story at the expense of the author’s agenda.

My final verdict: 3 ½ out of 5 stars (recommended, with flaws).


Atom Kid said...

I've decided to pass this one up, mainly because of his anti-Tolkien polemics. It sounds like he's just re-inventing the wheel that R.E.H. built.

E.G.Palmer said...

What is it with these guys? They completely miss the boat with Tolkien, and think that their breaking new ground where Lieber and Smith and Howard laid down the foundations of mature fantasy long ago.

Julie D. said...

I listened to the first two CDs of the book and came to the same conclusion that you mention: "well-oiled but heartless machinery producing graphic combat carnage and highly explicit sex."

And I didn't appreciate the explicit sex or the extremely unlikable characters.

In my case, I had the wrong schedule for when it was going to be discussed on SFFaudio and after listening to those two hours and reading your review, I believe it was a blessing in disguise! :-)

Brian Murphy said...

Atom Kid: Not a huge loss if you pass this one up. I'll probably give the second book in the series a look (The Steel Remains is a standalone book, but Morgan has indicated that he will continue the story in future books, and there's plenty of plot threads to pick up). But I'll keep it on a short leash.

E.G. Palmer: Slagging Tolkien is a rite of passage for some new fantasy authors (Morgan has written several other science-fiction books, but The Steel Remains is his first fantasy entry). Perhaps they think it gains them some level of edgy-ness and credibility. Generally, it diminishes them, particularly when they haven't Tolkien more than a cursory glance.

Julie: Thanks for dropping by. I would have loved to have had you on the podcast, but in the end you can probably count this as "a good miss." I think the book does get better as it progresses, and the last few chapters were my favorite, but the early graphic tone Morgan strikes never lets up.

Falze said...

You pretty much have two choices when you want to retread the ground already trampled by giants.

The first is to acknowledge the fact that you are unlikely to exceed their accomplishments. Tip your cap to them and write your story, hopefully adding something original to the genre and not simply changing the name 'hobbit' to 'warrow'. McKiernan tried this path a little too narrowly at first, basically rewriting Tolkien. However, once he got his stride going he produced some passably original stories set in the same world. Others simply create a new world and have at it. And, of course, there is much fine fantasy out there, wonderful world builders with lovable and detestable characters written by authors that didn't find it necessary to attack those that paved their way.

The second choice, I would argue, is that of either a coward or the egomaniac. This option first requires an attempt to belittle and tear down the giant before attempting to snatch their crown. Metal bands slagging Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest were certainly the rage just before metal went into hibernation with the rise of grunge. Boxers that laugh at Ali and are sure they could have whipped him. Football players that think they're really that much better than the guys that their father rooted for, when so much of any perceived advantage is merely better conditioning, better college coaching, supplements, etc. As you said, it's easy to tear down or, at least, to try. The problem is that unless you actually do it, you are exposed as the coward or egomaniac you are. The coward says Tolkien was no good because he knows he cannot possibly even hope to write such a masterpiece. He thinks if he can make Tolkien look worse, his crap won't look so bad. The egomaniac actually does think he can outstrip the masters, they feel comfortable saying those that came before were inferior because they intend to prove it. It sounds like this guy is a combination of the two, actually. Unless you're Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, actually and truly reinventing the wheel of your field, it never makes you look good attacking those that rested atop the heap that came before.

At least that's what I think.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, great commentary.

People are entitled to their opinions on Tolkien, of course, but when they tear him down and invite comparison by placing their work forward as superior, they should be prepared for the fallout.

Having now read The Steel Remains, I think Tolkien's legacy is entirely secure (not that it was ever at risk). As one of the co-panelists on the podcast noted, The Steel Remains works on a couple levels--visceral, cynical, perhaps--while The Lord of the Rings works on far, far more. As a work of literature there's no comparison.

James Mishler said...

Hmmm... sounds like a kind of gonzo fantasy version of Robert Adam's Horseclans, as far as grim and gritty goes. Which means it could either be rather good, or really, really bad...

I wonder if my local library can get it...