The Steel Remains
By Richard K. Morgan; Read by Simon Vance
Publisher: Tantor Media
Themes: / Fantasy / Noir / Hard Boiled / Magic / War / Homosexuality /
“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 his 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.
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 is 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.
Narrator Simon Vance does a terrific job as narrator, changing his voice to suit the temperaments and personalities of the various characters in Morgan’s novel. Clarity and precision are among Vance’s strengths as a reader and he does not disappoint here. When I began listening to The Steel Remains, and before I had seen the narration credits, I recognized Vance’s distinctive voice from his wonderful depiction of Count Dracula and the rest of the characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Blackstone Audiobooks). For unknown reasons Vance performed Dracula under the pseudonym, Robert Whitfield.
[For more of Brian’s thoughts on The Steel Remains check out The SFFaudio Podcast #034]
Posted by Brian Murphy