Review: The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

Steel Remains Richard Morgan

Gollancz,  2008. ISBN 978-0-575-07792-8

(Review first published on the ASIM website, June 2008)

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Richard Morgan is best known as a writer of energetic, dark, thoughtfully violent near-future SF, typified by his explosive debut novel Altered Carbon. Subsequent works have followed a broadly-similar style to the template laid down in Altered Carbon, and have helped to establish Morgan’s reputation as a melder of noir-tinged crime fiction themes with hard-edged SF. The Steel Remains, Morgan’s latest novel, breaks ranks with his earlier work.

This is not to say that the Richard Morgan hallmarks are absent: TSR is marked by the same rich worldbuilding, the same strength of characterisation, the same viciously detailed action sequences as will be stylistically familiar to readers of his previous books. But TSR is not SF: it’s fantasy. Sword and sorcery territory. Barbarians. Demons. Dragons, even.

Ringil is a sword-wielding reprobate who distinguished himself in the bloody interspecies wars of a dozen years ago, and who has since allowed himself to go pretty much to seed. He’s content, after a fashion, to trade on his gradually-tarnishing reputation as a hero for as long as he can get away with it. But his mother pleads for his assistance in retrieving a cousin who, by reason of her husband’s bankruptcy, has been sold into slavery somewhere in Ringil’s old hometown of Trelayne. Ringil allows himself to be conscripted for one final adventure, unaware that the task is going to be monumentally more difficult than he envisages. Egar, like Ringil a veteran of the wars, is a nomadic chieftain among the Majak people of the northern steppes. But he’s torn between his desire to provide for the tribe’s safety and his frustration at their blinkered refusal to accept that the world is changing around them. The patterns of existence they’ve adhered to for so long are no longer working so well. And there are forces at work who seek to separate Egar from his clan.

Archeth is a human/kiriath halfbreed, virtually all that remains on the world of a mysterious and powerful race who fought alongside humanity in the wars against the Scaled Folk. She’s an advisor to the Yhelteth emperor Jhiral, a figurehead in whom she places no respect. As the book opens, she’s compelled to join an expeditionary force which is sent to uncover the events leading to the sacking of one of Yhelteth’s outlying seaports. She sees rapidly that whatever has happened at Khangset could have grave ramifications, not just for the empire, but for the world beyond.

I’m not a frequent reader of fantasy, and so am not ideally positioned to judge how TSR should be seen within the context of the genre’s classic works, but my personal reaction to TSR is that it’s an enjoyable, engrossing read. Morgan appears to have taken pains to develop a functionally-consistent fantasy setting, with concern for the influence of economic and political factors on his imagined societies, and his point-of-view characters are diverse enough to afford opportunities to provide detailed background across a wide range of human (and non-human) existence in this world. Yet the detail doesn’t get in the way of the storyline’s intrigue and propulsive tension. Nor does the book’s division into chapters dealing alternately with Ringil, Egar and Archeth. Though the book’s most directly driven plotline (and the lion’s share of the focus) deals with Ringil’s exploits, the strands enveloping Egar and Archeth are sufficiently engaging in their own right that they do not convey as intrusive. And, of course, ultimately the strands must merge in some manner. The final climactic battle is handled very well.

If I have a criticism of TSR, it’s that the action sequences sometimes come across as too clinically-described, with an emphasis on the precise placement of swordstrokes and the like. This, I think, may reflect a stylistic difference between the fantasy of TSR and the noirish gun-dominated SF of Black Man and the Altered Carbon sequence: it is, I think, simpler and more satisfying to describe the trajectory of a bullet than of the blade of a sword. Or this might just represent my own personal prejudice. Other readers may cavil at the proliferation of F-bombing within TSR‘s pages, or at the detailed sexual escapades of the lead characters; but it didn’t strike me that any of the content within the book was gratuitous. These are just people who, due to the described circumstances, happen to be leading very active lifestyles for the moment … Did I say one criticism? Actually, I have another. It is that the dragonslaying which is mentioned at a few points during the book actually happens off-camera, in the backstories of Ringil and Egar. I would dearly like to see what an author of Morgan’s abilities would make of the confrontation between man and dragon, and I confess to more than a little frustration that said confrontation did not in fact occur front-and-centre within TSR. Another time, perhaps?

If you’ve enjoyed Richard Morgan’s SF offerings to date, and are not allergic to fantasy motifs, TSR is worth checking out. Conversely, if you’re a fantasy aficionado, TSR would make an excellent introduction to Morgan’s strengths as a writer of adrenaline-tinged, throught-provoking, memorable speculative fiction.

The book functions well as a standalone, although there are hints within the final chapters that Morgan may be plotting a return to the world of Ringil, Egar and Archeth. I, for one, will be interested to see what transpires.

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

 

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