The Steel Remains
Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey, 2009.
This book made me uncomfortable.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, however. Richard K. Morgan, known for his cyberpunk Takeshi Kovacs books like Altered Carbon, tried his hand at fantasy with the trilogy “A Land Fit for Heroes”. With the final title, The Dark Defiles, coming next month, I figured I’d better get caught up.
The story follows three war heroes, seven years after their glory days on the battlefield, as they try to pick up their lives in a world that no longer wants them.
There’s Ringil Eskiath, a master swordsman who led the forces at the pivotal Battle of Gallow’s Gap, now an outcast because he is gay, trying to forget his past in a backwater town.
And Egar Dragonbane, a Northern barbarian who headed to the civilized southern cities to seek fame and glory. He has returned to lead his tribe, but is still filled with restlessness and a yearning for glory as well as a brewing conflict with his tribe’s religious leader.
Finally there is Archeth Indamaninarmal, a human/kiriath half-breed. She is the last of her race, supernatural beings who joined the humans in driving the Scaled Folk from Earth during the war. She serves as advisor to Emperor Jhiral when not off her head on drugs.
The story follows these three heroes in separate storylines, hinting at their old friendships as events draw them together again. Ringil’s mother finds him and entreats him to return to his ancestral home to help find a missing cousin who was sold into slavery. Archeth is sent to investigate the site of a massacre which leads to a growing evil in the marshlands near Ringil’s home. And Egar’s brothers, at the urging of the shaman Poltar, attempt to assassinate him.
The key to their separate events seems to be a prophecy about a dark prince rising. Ancient demons, known as dwenda have returned and are ravaging the land, and the three heroes find themselves waist-deep in blood again.
And corpses. Lots of corpses. Vividly described corpses.
This is one of the most brutal books I’ve ever read – about the only thing missing is cannibalism. Morgan’s descriptions of the final battle between the three heroes and the dwenda are gleefully graphic and not for the faint of heart. For example:
He put a boot on the dead dwenda’s helmet, tipped it back, and hacked down with the Ravensfriend. It took three desperate, brutal strokes, but the head came off. He bent—felt an odd, crooked smile slip onto his mouth—and plunged his left hand into the gory mess at the helmet’s opening. Meat and pipes and there, the rough central gnarl of the severed spine. He grasped at the ragged bone end, picked up head and helmet, and strode to the blockhouse step.
Likewise the sex. I didn’t mind it, but there are several incredibly graphic sex scenes (both straight and gay) that could easily offend people. This isn’t enough to discourage reading, but the book is an extremely hard “R” — in all likelihood an “NC-17”. So be warned.
My problem with the book, however, was the language. Morgan’s prose is littered with “fucks”— on the Deadwood level. I’m known to drop f-bombs constantly, but they felt out of place in The Steel Remains. Perhaps this is due to Morgan’s greater experience in cyberpunk, but Ringil sounded more like a modern thug than a medieval sellsword.
I also didn’t like the “Old Vet” talk. There were many places where they would reminisce about “back in ’53” and such. It sounded like an Armistice Day celebration.
Ultimately though, I enjoyed the book and found it to be an entertaining, engrossing (and grossing) exercise in grimdark. I especially liked the way Morgan tackled homosexuality – showing the prejudice that Ringil (and Archeth, although her sexuality was not as much of a focus) faced and not flinching away from their sufferings. I’ve never seen that in a fantasy series.