The Steel Remains: Dark, gritty, obscene

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Richard K Morgan The Steel RemainsThe Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan, is a dark, gritty, and in some places obscene fantasy that will not be to everyone’s liking. So let’s get the surface material out of the way — if you don’t like your books laced with a heaping amount of f-bombs, graphic sex (hetero and homosexual), and graphic violence, The Steel Remains is not for you. In the slightest. Run. Run as far as you can. And if you can live with the swearing, sex, and violence? In that case, The Steel Remains will mostly entertain, though it isn’t a standout fantasy, nor does it, I think, rise to the level of Morgan’s sci-fi stories involving Takeshi Kovacsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews — his best work to date.

The story takes place a few years after a devastating war that saw various human groups ally with a race with greater technology (the Kiriath) against a reptilian race — The Scaled Folk. The Kiriath abandoned this world soon after the barely successful war to head home (where home resides for both the Kiriath and the Scaled Folk is explained later). Meanwhile, the humans try to pick up the pieces. The book follows three characters — Ringil Eskiath, Archeth, and Egar Dragonbane, all of whom fought together in the war, then went their separate ways.

Ringil grew up highborn and homosexual in a city where homosexuality is punishable by death (for those not so high-born). Despised by the city dwellers and his own father, Ringil nonetheless fought for the city against the Scaled Folk and ended up a hero. Rather than return home, he stays in the hinterlands wasting away. Archeth, a half-breed Kiriath who wouldn’t survive the journey home due to her human half, was left behind as an advisor to the Emperor of Yhelteth, though as religious fundamentalism rises in the empire her position becomes less and less secure. Egar is the only one of the three to return home, though as clan chief he does little but rue that decision. Each has a precipitating event that will cause them to leave their current miserable lives. Ringil seeks a cousin sold into slavery. Archeth, forced to flee the capital after killing a priest, seeks whomever it was that sacked one of the Empire’s ports — leaving behind devastation unseen since the Scaled Folk. And Egar’s clan gods seem to have come to life — with at least one wanting him dead.

It gives nothing away to say the three characters and their stories eventually merge as they discover a vast threat to their land/world looming, possibly in the form of the Dwenda — a mythic/barely-believed-in race and ancient foe of the Kiriath. Character is one of Richard K. Morgan’s strong suits in his sci-fi, and the same mostly holds true here. Ringil and Archeth especially are complex characters and much is made of their displacement — Ringil as the avowed homosexual and Archeth as the half-breed of a mythic race. Sometimes Morgan makes a bit too much of it, as the reader gets the point relatively quickly, but it’s a minor problem. Egar too is out of place — a book-loving seeker of intelligent conversation in a backwards setting, but he’s given short shrift in comparison to the other two. Also, and this may be why he gets short shrift, he never truly felt in-place there. In other words, his character felt the most contrived, as if Morgan built Egar’s setting and situation up because he needed a displaced, bitter character, rather than the character being displaced and bitter due to his situation. Ringil and Archeth feel much more natural as characters. Another small problem is there is a bit of a similarity to the narrative voice in all three. While I do think there’s a good reason for it — all three are veterans of a terrible war having difficulty settling into the peace — more differentiation would have helped.

That said, it should also be mentioned that this post-war prism is one of the more original aspects of the book and one of its strongest as well. The setting/world-building is variable. At times we get incredible detail, at others things seems a bit blurry or under construction still. This is true both of the physical setting and the political/historical. This does improve toward the end.

All three plot lines are pretty straightforward though Morgan seems to open up the imagination more toward the end, where we also see some sci-fi elements begin to creep in (if one cares about genre labeling — the book itself seems a hybrid — along the lines of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous line about any far-flung technology will seem like magic to those who don’t understand it).

The ending itself is a bit abrupt, though it has some nice twists. There were some plot elements that I thought didn’t gel as concretely as they needed to. One is the sexual relationship between Ringil and a Dwenda — it just never felt like a natural outgrowth of anything; similar to Egar’s role, it felt contrived. And the Dwenda storyline in general I felt needed some fleshing out — some slowing down.

Some strong characterization, an interesting blending of science fiction, good flashes of humor, some serious themes, the post-war setting and use of recent veterans, a nearly resolved ending with an intriguing look forward: all of these go in the plus column and make The Steel Remains well worth a read. Some contrived characterization and plot elements and some lack of clarity in a few areas hold it back from being a top-notch book. Happily recommended.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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