By Richard Morgan
I'll be honest here: I didn't want to like this book. The huge hype that surrounded the novel (which has been discussed enough elsewhere), the really positive reviews, the fact that a sci-fi writer was attempting - or so it was suggested - to redefine the secondary-world fantasy genre...all of these made me hope that I didn't like the book. Perhaps that's rather petty, but it's the truth.
It only took me a few pages to realise that I was going to like The Steel Remains, whether I liked it or not.
Let me get something straight right now: The Steel Remains has not redefined the fantasy genre, it's not turned it upside down or set it alight. Yes, the violence is pretty brutal at times, there's plenty of swearing and some very full-on sex. But nothing that hasn't been done before. Well, except for maybe the sex. I wouldn't call these scenes gratuitous, but they are pretty intense. I must admit I actually found myself grinning like a naughty schoolboy when reading one of them, simply because it was so full-on. But that aside, I don't think there's much here that hasn't been done before in some shape or form. I would even go as far as questioning what the hell the hype was all about. I don't mean that in a negative way - just in the sense that by what was said, this novel was being made out to be the gritty (argh, that word again) fantasy novel to end all gritty fantasy novels. Which it's not. So, now that the hype issue has been kicked into touch, let's talk about the book itself.
As has been mentioned in other reviews, The Steel Remains is clearly driven by the characters. The undisputed star of the show is Ringil Eskiath, a former war-hero trading on past glories and living in something of a rut in a backwater village. Ringil's black sense of humour, basic sense of decency and open disdain for the society that he helped to save makes him a thoroughly engaging protagonist. The fact that he has a cool sword and knows how to use it also helps. The other POV characters - Egar the Dragonbane and the kiriath half-breed Archeth - are less absorbing, but still work well. Only Poltar - who appears but briefly as a POV character - seems rather one-dimensional, simply because his POV stint is used simply for plot reasons, as is his character.
To be honest, I actually found some of the minor characters more interesting than the POVs (Ringil aside). The young Emperor Jhiral is good, seeming at first as nothing more than a petulant, over-sexed incompetent, before revealing his canny intelligence later on. Ringil's mother, with her waspish demeanour and amusing conversations with Ringil, is also a lot of fun to read.
Morgan has also created an intriguing world for his story to unfold in, generally managing to achieve that sometimes tricky balance between sufficient detail and over-saturation. His world is instantly accessible, being at first fairly familiar but later revealing more diversity. There are some clear sci-fi influences as well, the most obvious being the Helmsmen. The sense of history is well-worked too, with references to various lost races and old battles. The fact that no less than three non-human races are referred to lends further depth and intrigue, and at times there is a decidedly political/social slant (which never becomes overbearing). The world-building takes a clear backseat to the characterisation (and rightly so) but Morgan still creates a detailed, believable world with one or two nice touches. Lemonade, anyone?
I'd not read a Richard Morgan novel before The Steel Remains so wasn't sure what to expect in terms of style. As it turns out, I like his style of prose a lot. His descriptive writing possesses a certain flourish and his action scenes pack a decent punch (though perhaps suffer from an abundance of detail - I don't really need to be told the exact positions/angles of weapons as they are swung - and the internal monologues add an extra dimension, as well as often being rather amusing. Dialogue is at times good, at other times a bit clunky. Readers who don't like modern dialogue in fantasy will probably not find Morgan's to their taste. Personally, I didn't have much of a problem with it (though certain words were jarring, like Ringil calling his father 'Dad'). There are some good one-liners though, particularly Ringil's response to his father after a certain incident in the kitchen...
There are some other flaws. The plot is serviceable but fairly thin on the ground, which wasn't so much a problem for me but will no doubt be for other readers. I did feel that Archeth and Egar lacked the depth of Ringil and were less interesting overall. At times when I reached the end of a chapter I'd find myself hoping the next one would focus on Ringil, as he was way more fun to read about, and easily has the more significant character progression. At times it feels like the other POVs have just sort of been tacked on to provide a foil for Ringil. There are some clear dynamics between them later on, but it's too little too late. Maybe in the next book we'll see more of their relationships...
I would have liked more background on certain things. On occasion items/events are referred to without sufficient information, for example the Helmsmen are referred to a number of times without any explanation as to what the hell they are, which is a little frustrating (although we do find out more later). Another aspect would be the Revelation - the dominant religion in the Empire, which is referenced a number of times but could have done with a little more exposition.
Still, complaints aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Steel Remains. If you read this novel expecting fantasy to be redefined, you'll be disappointed. If you read it hoping for an enjoyable, black-humoured fantasy with plenty of violence and sex with a political undercurrent, then you're in luck.
The Steel Remains is not deserving of the hype that preceded it and doesn't add much to the genre that's not already there, but it's a damned fun ride for all that. Now, bring on the sequel...