Book review: "The Steel Remains", Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan is best known, probably, for his first series of SF novels - the brutal, cynical, depressing, political, angry and very much in-your-face Takeshi Kovacs sequence. That's the one that he got paid enough money for the film options to that he could afford to quit his job and start writing full time.
Given this freedom, he proceeded to write a satirical, brutal, cynical, political, angry and very-much-in-your-face near-future-SF novel called "Market Forces", and a brutal, cynical, political-commentary-strewn, angry and very-much-in-your-face slightly-less-near-future-SF novel called "Black Man" ("Thirteen" in the US, because your weak, cowardly publishers are afraid of race issues).
So, ladies and gentlemen, guess what adjectives I'm going to use to describe the first novel in his projected Fantasy trilogy?

Yes, you might argue that Morgan out-Abercombie's Joe Abercrombie (by Joe's own admission, he thinks Richard out-swears him, for a start), but really The Steel Remains is pure Morgan-SF, just with swords and demigods and elves, rather than nanotech, bodyswapping and evil corporations. Morgan is still really angry about the injustices in the world that allow the rich to fuck over the poor, he's still really angry about war and the effect it has on those who fight in them (and those who are fought over), and he's still openly hostile to religion.
Indeed, even the setting is slightly SF-tinged - his elves (clearly inspired by the Norse dark elves, or dwarves) are technologists, rather than magically-gifted, and the most alien feature of the world - the existence of a "band" in the sky, rather than a moon - is strongly implied, if not outright stated, to have been due to some cataclysmic, literally-moon-shattering, event in deep history. The only outwardly fantasy trope in the setting is the demigod-like dwemba - presumably named to evoke the Old English dweomer (itself, of Norse origin, like those elves) - and even they have some tinges of SFish rationalisation of the edges of their abilities.

Of course, much has been made of the main difference between major protagonist Ringil "Richard Morgan likes taking the piss out of fantasy naming" Eskiath and his predecessors Kovacs and Marsalis - Ringil is gay, in a medieval culture that doesn't appreciate that kind of thing. Of course, this appears mainly to be just one of three "markers of alienation" that serve to set each of the protagonists outside their respective cultures - Archeth is half-"elvish" (okay, Kiriath, but you're not fooling anyone, Morgan) and the last of her kind, and Egar is the barbarian who came to the city, got "civilised", and then had to go back to the people he no longer really fitted with. Of course, Ringil is also the one who gets the most explicit sex scenes, so perhaps the difference is a little more thrust, as it were, upon us. (There's also a potential issue with the depiction of sexuality - it does look as if Morgan is almost trying to shock us with Ringil's sexuality and the reactions to it, whilst Archeth manages to be relatively quietly lesbian without much being made of it. Of course, one might suggest that the fact of Archeth's non-humanity makes her sexuality a more minor breach of her society's rules in comparison - but it does seem rather odd. Perhaps, perhaps, we are supposed to infer that Archeth's existing apartness leads her to be more circumspect with her sexuality than Ringil (who likes to make his obvious, for reasons related to his otherwise esteemed position in society). That said, Morgan is wide open to accusations of male-bias here...)

Morgan spends rather a lot of his time subverting fantasy archetypes and tropes - even one he seems to play straight is subverted before the end of the book - but still has time for an edge of humour, a lot of swearing, violence and sex, and generally a good time. I'm not quite sure that it always holds together - especially in the climactic battle, where the dwemba are somewhat less impressive than we'd been led to expect - and I'm having horrible late-period-Neal-Asher moments with some of the implications that Morgan is making abour Ringil's future potential, but generally it's up there with anything else he's written in SF. He even manages to work in a reference to UFO sightings...

Buy this, and read it. And then wait a year for the sequel...

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