on 26 July 2010
If you are a fan of the likes of Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie then you will enjoy this `dark fantasy' title by Robert Morgan.
Many previous reviews have mentioned the graphic sex scenes, especially the gay scenes, so let's get that out of the way first then. The main character does work as a bitter and ostracised gay warrior, but I don't personally think that the main character, Ringil would have worked half as well if he was heterosexual. His very nature and mentality seems to be shaped on how he has been treated, so it works well. However had he been straight, it would be hard to have any sympathy for his callous attitude to sexual partners. In fact he would be very hard not to despise. The sexual scenes are a mix of all gender preferences and at times feel like pointless fillers, but there is only one real strong scene that might put off the homophobic readers, especially as it added very little to the plot.
The book is well written and the story fairly good, but it did feel like it should have been part of a series, with the ending seeming very rushed.
The other main characters seem to have little to do with the plot until the last hundred pages of the book, feeling a bit divorced from the main plotline until then. It is almost as if the story was edited very heavily and all the other main characters are sadly a bit disjointed from the main story as a result.
I'd be surprised if this isn't the start of a series as it was very enjoyable despite the points previously mentioned.
Well worth a read if you want something a bit more gritty in your fantasy genre reading.
on 8 June 2009
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...
on 3 August 2009
I had a hard time deciding whether to give this book 3 or 4 stars. I eventually elected to give it three, because much as I loved Ringil who is a deserving five-star character, the story just wasn't enough to give it the final push to 4 stars.
Graphic sex scenes and extended combat descriptions do not put me off a book, unless badly written, and Richard Morgan is an experienced writer who is well able to handle these with aplomb. But I'm a girl who likes a beginning, a middle and a satisfactory ending in books, though I don't much mind in what order they occur as long as they are present. So much of The Steel Remains gave the impression that this is an epilogue, and the real story took place ten years before. Which would be an interesting plot device, were the previous story ever explained, but the "epilogue plot" itself struggles to demonstrate to the reader why this is more significant, and deserving of a book, than "what happened at Gallows Gap", and struggles to maintain the tension necessary to stimulate interest in the direction of the story - the "what happens next?" factor. There's plenty of scope to fill in the gaps in later novels though, so I can see that this is a good grounding for further books, but as a novel in its own right this just isn't strong enough.
Another reviewer has commented on the implausibility of the three lead characters meeting up at the end of the book, and I fear I have to agree - it's not really a likely coincidence, and jars slightly.
Now for the really really positive bit: Ringil. He really is the star of the show. Being out and proud, right from page 1, does not make him any less macho - but in a sense gives depth to his mental toughness, as he is of a society which does not tolerate homosexuality, and his relationships with family are tainted by their dismay at his unrepentant man-loving ways (his being an unrepentant cut-throat bastard seems to trouble them much less). The other two seminal characters are well drawn, of course, but departing from Ringil's thread in the plot line always felt a little flat - he is so lively and wickedly entertaining a character I felt disappointed each time the book departing from his storyline.
But I have great hopes for Richard Morgan's foray into fantasy. I confess, I didn't read his sci-fi works until after The Steel Remains, but seeing what he has done with Takeshi Kovacs (a character with no definite physical appearance, and no fixed setting in time or place to ground him) I have ridiculously high hopes for more. Characterisation is definitely Morgan's strong point; the three leads stand out as almost shockingly three-dimensional, larger-than-life people in a shadowy world and rather vague story.
It's a bit of a conundrum for me - it's the first time I've read a book which was a pretty average and unsatisfying read, but desperately wanted more!
on 28 September 2011
At last, a well-written, stand-alone* fantasy novel that isn't ten-thousand pages long, doesn't waste a book-worth of paper on world-building, and has a healthy respect for the tropes and traditions of the genre alongside the original twists. Morgan unsurprisingly credits Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock, but I found a little Fritz Leiber feel in there, and it reads like Abercrombie or Erikson in the end (i.e. modern and graphic).
As the book stands between one epic conflict and (seemingly) another, some have apparently blamed the plot for being weak or confusing. I think it is a strength, however, and all the hints about the past, future and greater world just serve to tantalize the imagination--let you reach your own conclusions. Sure, he may* write another book about what comes next (or what came before) but I think that would, in a way, ruin it.
*The sequel is apparently almost published, but even he admits that he's had trouble restarting the narrative. Either way, it's nice to have a self-contained book with proper sequel rather than just a second thousand pages in a separate binding... The Cold Commands (Gollancz S.F.)
Richard Morgan is a natural storyteller and this, his first venture into the fantasy/swords & sorcery genre, does not disappoint. I'm having some difficulty in understanding those reviewers who have complained about the homosexual theme that occurs in a couple of places. As far as I recall, there are perhaps a couple graphic scenes involving like-on-like action, and if this sort of thing is a problem for you, it's simply a matter of skipping a page or two at most, as to do so is unlikely to impact on your appreciation of the main story. I look forward to his next venture in this genre, or indeed any other.
on 16 April 2010
Richard K. Morgan is a British fantasy/sci-fi author known for his succesful dystopian cyberpunk-type novels. In "The Steel Remains", he has made a first successful foray into fantasy, while maintaining the usual 'noir' elements and the political cynicism of his works. The result is a highly readable, exciting and compelling work. It is in particular interesting because he takes, as fantasy after all to some degree inevitably requires, a number of clichés from the genre; but he manages to subvert them quite effectively. The reader often recognizes certain elements in the book as typical fantasy tropes (the nomadic barbarians, the Imperial City, the elf-type ethereal creatures, etc.), but the function they have in the story is almost always vastly different from the usual approach, and in this rests Morgan's cleverness. Moreover, despite the young and often educated readership of fantasy books, it is still very uncommon to have a gay protagonist or prominent homosexual themes in a novel. At least, such novels rarely go on to become successful in the mainstream as well.
"The Steel Remains" however manages to do this and in a way that in turn avoids the clichés and tropes of the genre of 'gay fiction', being much darker and much less gratifying than the usual 'gay novel' is. Nonetheless, it is to be expected that the petty, the unimaginative, the closed-minded and the neurotic would make a big deal out of the theme itself playing any role at all in what is mainly a swordfighting book, despite the prevalence of homosexuality and homoerotic elements in real life (especially in virtually all-male settings like armies). But any straight person who prejudges the book as uninteresting for this reason is depriving himself as much as if a gay person were to refuse to read "Romeo and Juliet" because it has straight themes.
Since the book is to be the first of a trilogy, the exact world in which it plays and the setting is not explained much, and the reader has to discover the rules of the world mainly on the go. This keeps the book fast-paced. The plot itself is easily enough explained: it traces the actions and interactions of the three main characters, a barbarian chieftain, a cynical war hero shunned for his sexuality, and a female warrior-vizier to the Emperor who is a last descendant of an ancient race. All are, as the book's cover says, "damaged veterans of the war against the Lizard Folk". Despite the silliness of this concept itself, the actual psychology is worked out very carefully and in great detail in their 'careers' since the last battle of that war, so that the book is already very far underway when the plot target eventually becomes visible. It turns out a strange power seems poised to invade the world from an unseen dimension, and through a great number of plot twists and turns, these three must reunite to stop them. It is difficult to say more without spoiling it, but suffice to say that despite the somewhat clichéd impression such a description might give, it is really quite refreshing, at least for a genre flooded with second-rate imitations and epigonism.
The book is fairly heavy on violence and sex, so this has to appeal to you to some degree for it to be worth reading - but then again, all evidence seems to show that most people do in fact enjoy this. Morgan's writing is fast, to the point, and believable, and his characters compelling. Fans experienced in reading fantasy will enjoy the noir take on the tropes, which (as is to be expected) suggest the atmosphere of the better kind of cyberpunk sci-fi. People interested for whatever reason in gay themes or at least some psychological real-world realism and originality of that kind inserted into a typical fantasy world will also do well to read this book.
on 12 October 2011
Definitely not the usual fantasy fare. No holier than thou heroes , who save the world, no simpering maidens waiting to be rescued, but no women who are so bloody minded they may as well be men either.
Ringil Eskiath lives in self-imposed exile from his native Trelayne, exchanging war stories for board and lodging in a small village's inn; to most people he is the hero of Gallows Gap, but his own family shuns him because he is gay. Lady Cur-Archeth Indamaninarmal, the only human-kiriath half-breed, was left behind when the Kiriath abandoned the world, and finds herself more and more unable to tolerate the decadent court of the Yhelteth Emperor. Egar Dragonbane, a Majak mercenary, returned to his people after the wars, but having seen the wonders of the civilized world he feels out of place as a nomad clan leader in the steppe.
I thought Ringil was a singularly great character. He really isn't a good guy in any sense of the word, but you sympathize with him because you're in his head. His actions are almost always brutal and selfish, though he does seem to have a soft spot for the innocents who are caught up in others peoples war and suffer more than anyone in the aftermath of conflict. A lot of other reviewers make a point mentioning that he is in fact gay( most certainly a word that in it's older meaning cannot be applied to this particularly dark fantasy novel)However as a women of more years than I care to mention, if the sex is not graphic enough to cause me concern then most others should not have a problem either.
The other characters are also well realised,the world they live in is gritty and dirty and real, no fairies and unicorns here. There is plenty of dark humour, and Ringil is more than a little afraid of his mother and that gives the book some amusing scenes.
It can be a little gory, there are plenty of fight scenes in which every sword thrust is detailed, but the writing is such that the action carries you along and it is only afterwards when you stop for breath that you realise just how savage the conflict is.
All in all it is a very satisfying read and I'm looking forward to reading part 2 of the trilogy.
on 27 July 2011
An awful lot of fantasy novels feel overly familiar, cod-medieval, too Tolkien-inspired or just plain touristy - describing lands you'd quite fancy visiting for a holiday, once the civil wars and peasant revolts have died down. Not this one. Richard K Morgan describes a world that is as vivid as it is culturally diverse, people whose values are not the same as ours, and where comfortably familiar concepts like good and evil, heroes and villains, gods and demons just aren't what you'd expect. The characters are refreshingly honest, especially the core protagonists, a motley group of former comrades who made the mistake of living beyond their heroic deeds. There is a palpable sense of the world moving on, of rage at the people who have cashed in on hard-won peace and conveniently forgotten the cost, of regret. There are also elements that remind the reader that fantasy and science fiction are not so far apart.
I found the writing style easy and engaging, dotted with memorable quotes and turns of phrase, but there's little mercy in the world and it is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But if you are unflinching, and want to try some hard fantasy, then I would recommend this as some of the best hard fantasy I have read.
on 16 December 2009
I bought this because I had enjoyed Morgan's three 'Takeshi Kovacs' novels. I don't usually do sword & sorcery. In the first chapter things weren't looking too good; there's a hero called Ringil who's a veteran of the war against the Dragons and he's got a sword called Ravensfriend. Then things got interesting; dark, cruel, complex. The violence, the sex, the sense of a buried past; it's all quite involving. Much better than I thought it would be.
on 26 August 2008
A surprisingly enjoyable book. I've never read anything by Morgan before as I don't do Sci-Fi, I'd heard that he had pretty visceral style of prose and producing very gory and sex filled stories.
I would say that this was quite an accurate description. A number of reviews of the book, not just here on Amazon, but in general, have commented on the number of sex scenes. The majority of these sex scenes are homosexual in nature and whilst the first few are quite graphic in there description, the later ones tend to swiftly passed over. I didn't really have a massive problem with the number of sex scenes or the nature of them, yes they may not have been 100% necessary, but I didn't find they interfered with the pacing of the story. The same can't be said for the violence, which is pretty graphically described at very possible occasion. That said, the fight scenes are well written and give a good blow by blow account of some impressive sword play. There is also a great deal of swearing within the book, which is becoming pretty standard in modern fantasy. At first this stuck out, but once you start reading the book it becomes invisible.
The story is a little traditional I suppose, but I don't see that as a bad thing. It is a traditional story, but dirtied and mixed up enough for it not to be clichéd. It is the first time in one of these "gritty, dark, modern fantasy" books that I've really cared about the characters. I've read GRRM, Abercrombie, Lynch, Erikson and Bakker and enjoyed them, well bar the last two authors anyway, but just not really been that bothered about the characters.
Morgan quotes Michael Moorcock as being an influence on this writing of this novel and I can see why. I'm not that well read in regards to Moorcock, but I've read enough to see how it has helped shape both the writing style and the world building.
One major fault with this book isn't the authors fault, but in my version (hardback) there are lots of errors - missing or incorrect letters and punctuation.
I'll be looking forward to the next novel in the series.