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Book cover art by David Stevenson (left).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

So Richard K. Morgan, the firebrand Scots writer who took a cattle prod to the gonads of stodgy post-cyberpunk SF noir with his edgy and violent Takeshi Kovacs trilogy and his edgy and violent exegesis on racism and xenophobia, Thirteen, now trains his sights on heroic fantasy. And the result is — drum roll, please — a Richard K. Morgan novel, an edgy and violent tale featuring an anti-hero in a gloomy, war-torn world who is drawn into a complex drama involving criminals, creeps, conspiracies and cover-ups, upon which the very fate of civilzation itself will ultimately hang. Add a little extra seasoning — say, by making our ex-war-hero protagonist middle-aged, paunchy and gay — then just heat and serve.

Is there entertainment to be had here? Oh, indeed. There is not, exactly, a surfeit of originality, but you knew that when you saw Morgan's name on the byline. Much of the book — maybe too much — feels like he's going back to the same old well. Morgan is one of those novelists for whom writing an "edgy" book means having all the characters precariously balanced just this side of loathsome, giving them as few redeeming qualities as possible and packing their dialogue with enough F-bombs to fill three Quentin Tarantino scripts. Not only do some of the characters start sounding the same after a while, they also sound a bit like Takeshi Kovacs.

But if Morgan's foray into fantasy is dilletantism, at least it's skillful dilletantism. If his track record is anything to go by, this trilogy is likely to improve over its next two volumes, the way the Kovacs trilogy did. I actually liked Ringil, the protagonist of The Steel Remains, a lot better than I liked Kovacs — who I thought was just a little too angsty and unhinged — in Altered Carbon. The Steel Remains also opens with a much more light-hearted tone than we're used to seeing from Morgan, to the extent that at first I thought I was in for a flat-out sword-and-sorcery satire. While I'm glad it didn't go that far, when the story does settle in, Morgan is handling it with all seriousness. That was kind of a shame, too, as it was refreshing to see his witty side finally let out to play a little.

The story? Well, we've got the aforementioned Ringil, who's let himself go to seed in a provincial town, coasting on his past glories as a hero in a war nine years previously against a rampaging army of lizard men trying to overrun the Empire. His society mother looks him up one day to enlist his help in recovering a cousin sold into slavery as a penalty for said cousin's late husband's debts. Here Morgan's calmly sticking to the Hero's Journey template, simply because it's the very formula that fits a heroic fantasy novel like a comfy old sweater. You might wear it out, but you'll always wear it well. After reluctantly agreeing to help, Ringil quickly finds that he misses his old warrior ways, and pursues his cousin (whom he barely knows) with single-minded determination. But there's no love lost between him and his father, and he makes no attempt to disguise the loathing he feels for the man's political allies, or the realities of life that require such allegiances in the first place.

Ringil learns that his cousin's enslavement is part of Something Much Bigger. There are fearful whisperings of an imminent invasion by creatures called dwenda, who appear to be unstoppable killing machines and who seem to materialize wherever they choose from some other realm.

It felt to me as if Morgan could have done something really innovative with the whole book, given some of the choices he makes in letting his story unfold. For one thing, having Ringil and Seethlaw, the dwenda leader, become lovers was a fun twist. It isn't often in fantasy novels that the hero and his arch-nemesis take to buggering each other, after all. But it seemed as if there were greater depths here Morgan could have explored. ( pun intended.) The expected Final Battle is, well, expected, and it's not an inappropriate way to let the story resolve at all. But I think the dwenda could have been given far more substance. Ringil notes that they're split into squabbling factions, but that tantalizing factoid remains inadequately explored. And what really are they, and how do they come by their powers? The idea that the dwenda are invading in retaliation for having been driven out of their rightful homeland ages before by the dark-skinned Kiriath (a supporting protagonist, Archeth, is the last remaining of these) is also something I wish had been expanded upon. I like it when a story undermines expectations, by doing things like making villains sympathetic, and some more history there would have added whole dimensions to the novel. But I was left in the end thinking there were missed plot opportunities where the dwenda were concerned. We've barely begun to get to know them before it's time for everybody to fight to the death, and I wanted to know them more.

I liked that there are glimmers of SFnal ideas hiding behind the book's fantasy trappings. The story flirts with the Many Worlds Hypothesis in kind of the same way Pullman's His Dark Materials did, and hints are dropped that some of the races on this world, like the Kiriath, came from another plane. It must be said that Morgan, unlike so many epic fantasy writers, doesn't belabor his book with obsessive world-building — there isn't even a map — so we can be thankful for small mercies. The narrative gives us just what we need about the geography and political landscape to follow the plot. Sometimes that's great. At other times, such as I just discussed, it leaves you wanting more.

I found plenty to enjoy in several of the supporting characters. Archeth seems a bit too arch (but maybe, given her name, that's Morgan's intent), but I dearly loved the decadent Emperor Jhiral Khimran II, who has some of the book's best lines, if not some of the wittiest dialogue Morgan's ever written. An old war buddy of Ringil's, the plainsman Egar the Dragonbane, also had some terrific scenes, even if the way Morgan reunites Egar and Ringil in the final third of the novel feels abrupt and contrived.

So I have nitpicks here and nitpicks there. If you're already a Richard Morgan fan, yes, you'll enjoy this one. If you're an epic fantasy devotee wholly unfamiliar with Morgan's past SF works, then caveat emptor. Take The Steel Remains as pure escapism, don't expect any of the thematic layers Morgan's SF indulges in (really, Morgan is doing nothing with Ringil's homosexuality beyond taking the piss out of heroic fantasy archetypes), enjoy the hacking and slashing for what it is, and you'll have a high old time. There are some intriguing unresolved plot elements that aren't a problem — such as the fact this world has gods, they show up more than once, and appear to have their own little war going on — as I expect them to be explored further in the next two sequels. To sum up, no, this isn't a book that revitalizes or reinvents anything in fantasy, so much as it is just Morgan having a little fun poking away with that cattle prod.

Followed by The Cold Commands.