Curiously nerdy posts.
In what I hope to make a weekly installment, I’m going to review the book I read for this week.
My target for today? The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan.
I picked it up on a whim and a recommendation from one of my favorite authors, Joe Abercrombie (and what a shock, there is his name endorsing it on the cover!). Abercrombie doesn’t often endorse books from the fantasy genre, so when he does, I take notice.
Make no bones about it, this is a fantasy novel with a lot of familiar tropes. You have your clear heroes, you have your feudal/imperial unrest; there’s even mention of dragons a lot, even though it’s a relief that none actually appear in the story.* Even the plot seemingly starts in a bland fashion, with one of the protagonist’s family members being taken away against her will, and of course only our hero has the wit and swordsmanship to save her. Still awake? Good. Because there’s a lot to like here.
*Much like a lot of fans of fantasy opine that stuff like elves, orcs, etc are tired cliches and boring and everywhere, I have the same feelings about dragons. If you’re going to write dragons into your story, at least build them up as a big deal instead of just throwing them out there and expecting me to care. Earn them, and then they’re good to use.
So what makes this book good, then, if I just spent the last paragraph badmouthing it? Well, it does a stunning job of balancing elements. Typically, in a good fantasy novel, you go in expecting one of two things:
1) Excellent character development, that makes you care about their journey and whether they survive the events of the book.
2) World building so intricate, that you feel like the real world is sort of a place that you can put on hold for another turn of the page, with cities, cultures, and conflicts that seem more like an ancient history than some writer’s imagination.
Well, this book does both. And it only takes 448 pages to do it. To some other writers of the genre, ask them to do both in that span of time, and their head would explode. I’m not sure where the idea that a fantasy novel has to be 1000+ pages and part of a trilogy/tetraology/encyclopedia to be able to do both, but it’s always refreshing to see a book that proves that notion is patently false.
You’re thrown into the middle of a world that is rich with history. You’re told of a great war that occurred between humans and dragons only ten years before, that forced them to band together to beat the threat against all of humanity. You’re told about a race of semi-immortals, the Kiriath, that helped with their amazing technology and magic, and then decided to leave through a portal they made to another world because they were scared that humanity was rubbing off on them in the worst of ways. You’re shown that only years after humanity banded together, they’ve found plenty of things to squabble about, and moral quandaries to make the whole world’s morals look gray, especially when it comes to slavery.
You’re told all of this through the eyes of three notable people, all heroes from the war against the dragons.
Ringil Eskiath, a war hero who almost singlehandedly won the pivotal battle that saved humanity. He’s the one that has to save his cousin from slavery. He’s a badass fighter, fearless and famous. Everyone knows his name, and he makes a living as a mercenary in a backwater town on reputation alone. He’s also notoriously gay. And I don’t mean notorious in a way that means flamboyant – he’s as manly a man that’s ever swung a sword. No, it’s just that almost every character he runs into in the book knows his name because of his past deeds, and because of his “corrupting of the youth”. He’s far from perfect – he’s watched friends die for him, he’s killed people that didn’t deserve it. But somehow, he has charisma, and is undeniably a badass. Definitely the main character, but there are two other main POVs.
Egar the Dragonbane, a white skinned nomad warrior from the North. Think Norseman, and you’ve pretty much got most of the picture here. Famous for – you guessed it – killing a dragon in the war, he returned to his clan and lived off his reputation, until he made the grievous mistake of insulting one of the gods his shamans invoke. Before long he’s involved in a squabble between the gods of his people, and the bad guys in this particular book.
Archeth Indamaninarmal, the last human/Kiriath crossbreed, serving in the Yhelteth emperor’s service and growing increasingly impatient with it, finds herself investigating a town completely destroyed by mysterious circumstances that not even she can explain. Before long, she finds out why, and that why brings her back together with some old friends.
All three characters are interesting, and tell you parts of the history of the world from their own eyes, which keeps it fresh and prevents any heavy handed “I’m telling you all this because I thought of it, and so there” that plagues the genre so often. Their camaraderie when they’re finally brought back together is also superb.
There’s tons of high points to be found here. The battle scenes are gritty and don’t pull punches, and all the characters are well crafted enough. The plot also breaks free just enough of the typical cliches after a while. But make no mistake, when you start, you’ll be pretty deep in them.
That being said, there are some caveats to be found here. Sometimes, I almost feel like there’s too much prose for a story like this, with bricks of text whose length could rival an old Hawthorne story. Some breaks would’ve been nice there, but it’s remarkable that I can say that for a novel that is relatively brief. And – well, no sugarcoating it – be ready for a lot of explicit sex scenes, both of the hetero and homo variety. But on the bright side, the author isn’t cringe-inducingly bad at writing them like some blockbuster novels out there.
Like this one, for instance.
All in all, it’s a good read. I enjoyed it thoroughly, once I got past the initial sludging of the world building. Apparently this author is more famous for his science fiction. I’ll have to check those out too. Excellent effort, even if it’s far from perfect.
I’d give it a solid ****. If you like fantasy, especially the gritty, pulls no punches on anything type that I like, you could do a lot worse.
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