The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan
Reviewed by Graham Sleight
29 September 2008
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan's sixth novel and his first to be marketed as fantasy, is a very odd book. It's set in what initially seems to be a familiar world for the genre: medieval in its society structures, though slowly becoming urbanised; magic-poor, but with smatterings of what might be wizardry and might be technology lying around; and humans and their allies recovering from a war against a lizard race. There are three main plot-threads. In the first and most important, Ringil, a veteran of the war, is sent by his mother to rescue a cousin who has been sold into slavery. The second follows Archeth, a halfbreed between humanity and the now-vanished Kiriath race. She serves the Emperor of a large chunk of this world, and is his main advisor on the now-rare Kiriath technology. It's established early on that she has known Ringil for a long time, as has the third protagonist, a nomad called Egar whose steppe existence is threatened almost as soon as we meet him.
Yes, but what's the book like? Its affect is the first thing that's distinctive, and is something that it shares with Morgan's earlier books. A few samples:
[Archeth] remembered street battles in Vanbyr, the advancing lines of imperial halbardiers, the screams of the ill-equipped rebels as they broke and were butchered. The shattered homes of collaborators and the lines of shaven-headed captives afterwards. The shrieks of women dragged out of line at random and raped to death by the side of the road. The ditches piled with corpses.
After the savagery of Ennishmin and Naral, she had sworn she would not take part in any action like it again. She'd sworn to Ringil, as she talked him down, it was the last fucking time. (p. 147)
People are frightened, Ringil. There was a livid bruise around Shalak's left eye. It's understandable.
People are sheep, Ringil raged. Moronic fucking sheep.
With that, Shalak had made no sign that he disagreed. (p. 82)
The anger found its edge, shed the comedown blur, and glinted clean and new. Ringil leaned across half of the table, fixed Kaad with lover's eyes.
"Should I be grateful to you?" he whispered. (p. 64)
I'm picking and choosing, of course, but I think I'm being representative. By far the most frequent response of Morgan's characters being confronted with the facts of the world is anger. Anger is the promise of violence, and violence is anger made fact. The book's epigraph is taken from Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, which is one cue to the kind of raw, kinetic world Morgan wants to depict. But Morgan goes further than Anderson in depicting this rawness. There's a latent question about how much this savagery is the fault of "the world," the society and culture the characters find themselves in, and how much it's their choice. The second quotation above suggests Ringil has clear views on the matter. The metaphor of anger as drug in that last passage is telling, also: anger is what defines this book, though often from a ground-state of melancholic discontent that lifts itself to rage only when events demand.
As I said, this rage seems to me a common thread with Morgan's previous novels. His books can be boiled down to a couple of abiding concerns. Firstly, if you could see the true shape of the world—especially the mechanisms by which it exploits and uses people—then you would be justifiably angry. Second, what should you do with this anger? In particular, what should you do if you find yourself—maybe not through your own choice—as one of the instruments of the world's cruelty? Morgan protagonists tend to be men, not women, with more anger than the mundane world can bear. Their stories take them to venues where that anger finds something like a fitting expression. So, for instance, one problem this book has to get round—as with its predecessors—is how to manifest in language the intensity that Morgan clearly wants his text to communicate. Hence, for instance, the frequency with which violence is depicted directly (rather than just alluded to or passed over), or—as has been remarked on before—the extent to which his characters swear. In this, Morgan reminds me of the Doonesbury comic strip from 1990-ish when the character BD re-enters the Marines to serve in Gulf War I. He confesses to a fellow-soldier that he's worried he may not be fit for service because he's forgotten how to use "the F-word." Oh that's simple, his buddy replies, just use it like a comma. It's not that I have anything against swearing in novels; but if you keep using some words as intensifiers, at a certain point they become anti-intensifiers—see, for instance, the exchanges on pp215-6 here for an example of diminishing returns.
The second problem raised by this overall approach is that if responses to the world are almost all coloured by anger, then anything outside that tonality is far more jarring than it should be. Here, for instance, is an exchange between Ringil and his friend Milacar, about the return of a "dwenda," one of a seemingly-vanished race of otherworldly sorcerers:
"And what do these trustworthy men have to say about our Aldrain friend? That his eyes are black pits? That his ears are those of a beats? That he flickers with lightning as he walks?"
"No. What they say is…" Another hesitation. Milacar's voice had grown quiet. "He's beautiful, Gil. That's what they say. That he's beautiful beyond words." (p. 51)
This is such a shift of register from the rest of the book that it can't help but seem underlined, crudely foreshadowing. And, indeed, when Ringil finally meets this dwenda, he discovers that he has been told the truth. He and the dwenda wind up having passionate sex almost immediately. There's a sense in which it would be good not to have to mention that the dwenda too is male, and that we therefore get a couple of explicitly described gay sex scenes. In an ideal world, one wouldn't need the word gay in that sentence, and one would treat gay or straight sex without attaching a pejorative, even an implicit one, to either. But Ringil's being a faggot—as he repeatedly puts it—is one of the central facts of the book. We're told repeatedly that this is a world where homosexuality (male homosexuality, at least) is frequently and savagely punished, and that Ringil has escaped such punishment only through his status as a minor noble. His outsider status is greatly amplified by his sexuality, and one argument for the explicitness of the sex scenes is to show us without flinching just what this society finds so transgressive.
It doesn't find transgressive, by contrast, the fact that its economy is founded on slavery. Some characters express varying degrees of discomfort with this, but there's no question that this society might ever be able to remake itself. The slave-trade is described in terms that sound like familiar marketing-ese:
From what Archeth heard on the trade-route grapevine, the free cities were fast becoming home to a whole new class of slavers; canny entrepreneurs who made their rapid fortunes at knockdown prices and then selling it on southwards to the Empire, where the centuries old tradition of servitude made for a massive established market and a never-slaked hunger for exotic product. (p. 34)
Diction is always an issue for fantasy writers: how high-flown to make the style. As that passage demonstrates, Morgan has chosen the informal and demotic, but sometimes to my ear he pushes the modernity too far. That use of "product," for instance, sounds like an '80s record executive talking about the next Phil Collins album, and when we hear elsewhere about the Emperor's "economic advisers," I for one found myself thinking about The West Wing. Strangeness—as opposed to kinetic thrills—only really arrives when the dwenda shows up, about two-thirds of the way into the book.
Although, at 340-odd pages, The Steel Remains is short compared with other fantasies, it feels like it spends too long getting to this point. Ringil in particular gets shuffled through a number of set-pieces which are striking and colourful but don't really advance the action. But once the book clicks into focus, it becomes very much more interesting. It stops being, as it might have seemed, an account of the human costs of living in a slave-based society. Instead, it opens out into a wider frame that strongly suggests an SF rationalisation for many of the events that have gone before. There's a hallucinatory weirdness to this part of the book that's something new for Morgan. There's an ending of emphatic rightness, though it will test even further whether the reader can assent to Morgan's vision of a world made animate by rage. As I've suggested, the stresses of that vision can't help but create problems; my own feeling is that it will become more convincing the more Morgan allows other perspectives into his fiction. There are also—in hints that "a new dark lord is rising"—pointers that this is the first of several books, with more explanation of the bases of this world to come. (The question of whether this book "is" science fiction or fantasy is relatively uninteresting to me, and anyway at this point we don't have enough evidence.) But leaving that aside for the moment, the last third of The Steel Remains is the most risky and successful thing I've read so far by Morgan. It's just a shame that it takes so long to get there. You could say similar things about many books on the SF and fantasy shelves these days, but I wound up feeling that this was a great 200-page story trapped in the body of a 340-page book.