Friday, May 16, 2014

The Steel Remains

Book One of the Land Fit for Heroes Trilogy
Richard K Morgan
Completed 5/1/2014, Reviewed 5/6/2014
5 stars

“The Steel Remains” is a very dark, high fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy.  It follows three war-heroes, drawn out of semi-retirement for different reasons, then find themselves thrown back together to battle strange, immortal, and terrifying beings from another dimension.  What makes this fantasy dark and intriguing is that despite being heroes, the three are marginalized people discontent with where their lives were leading. 

Ringil Eskiath is the renowned hero of Gallows Gap, a major battle in the war between the human-Kiriath alliance and the Scaled Ones, and he is gay.  Ringil, or Gil, lives in self-exile, away from his family and the country that gruesomely put to death a lover from his youth.  Now he lives above a tavern, trading room and board at an inn for battle stories and demonstrations with his trusty Kiriath-made sword, Ravensfriend.  After years of living like this, Gil’s mother turns up and asks him to help find a cousin who has been sold into slavery to cover debts incurred by her late husband.  With much reluctance, Gil accedes to his mother’s request, and returns home to Trelayne to begin the search.

During the war with the Scaled ones, Ringil had two friends, Egar Dragonbane and Archeth Indamaninarmal.  Egar is from a “barbarian” tribe, where as a hero of the war, has been given the honor of leader of his clan.  Being more warrior than leader, and having been exposed to the larger world outside his less advanced community, he spends most of his time dallying with young women and butting heads with his brothers and the shamans.  Archeth is half human, half Kiriath, and a Lesbian.  She is the last of the Kiriath people, who left the world after the war.  Now she spends her time running tasks for the decadent Emperor of her home in the Southern Continent.    

Our protagonist and his two comrades leave their homes for different reasons, but soon come across evidence that suggests that the Aldrain, a legendary race of immortals, are devising a war with the humans to reclaim the world for themselves. 

There were several things that I loved about this book.  First, it’s very dark.  In the opening chapter, Gil battles a disgusting, giant, maggoty creature, created to help speed the process of decaying corpses, but which have evolved possible intelligence and a nasty sense of humor.  That set the tone for the whole novel, despair and decay punctuated by laughable absurdity.  But there is not much difference between Gil’s world and ours, perhaps only in degree.  The time is after a great war and the great nations are at peace.  However, there is tension between the continents, the people are restless, and there is a rise of religious fundamentalism and uber-nationalism.  Slavery has returned as a legal way to deal with the crushing debt that many people, especially veterans and their families, have incurred.  And if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter that you’re the greatest hero of a war that saved humanity, you’re still scum.

The character development is superb.  We spend a lot of time in the heads of our heroes, or more correctly, anti-heros.  All three fell isolated, restless, and at least a little discontented with where life has taken them, and certainly disappointed with the world around them.  Their ennui is profound.  But they rise to the challenge as supernatural events seem to be bubbling up around them.  I also found the Aldrain a really intriguing race.  Even though Gil spends a fair amount of time with one of the Adrain, and later a whole contingent, there is still a mysteriousness that surrounds them and their motives.

I only had one complaint about the book.  As is not uncommon in contemporary planned trilogies, there is an awful lot of backstory interwoven in the first book.  I’m not fond of long reflective scenes breaking up the narrative.  But I was actually impressed that Morgan weaved it in quite well.  Only a few times did I consciously think, “ugh, here comes some more backstory.” 

I should note that the sex and violence is quite blunt and explicit.  Blood squirts everywhere and on everything.  The sex scenes are unapologetically raw.  I read a few reviews which indicated the reviewers’ squeamishness over the gay sex, but they failed to take note of the similarly graphic straight sex.  There’s even indication that there might be a major plot point to Gil’s relations with one of the Aldrain, besides manipulation.  To me, it felt like turn around was fair play.  I’ve read many books with explicit and often pointless straight sex scenes.  Here at least, all the sex so far has felt germane to the plot and character development.  The main character happens to be gay, so the majority of sex scenes is gay.  There’s no judgment except for how the characters judge themselves.  So as a warning, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it in line with the rawness of the universe and characters Morgan created.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a large scale fantasy.  I really enjoyed the characters, and it was a great having a gay main character.  I relished the rawness of it.  The mood itself had a sensuality to it that simply enveloped me like a virgin wool hooded cape.  I can’t wait to read the second book, and hope the publishing date of the third, originally scheduled for August, doesn’t get pushed back past its current release date of October.  5 stars. 

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