Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book review: "The Steel Remains" by Richard K. Morgan

I've been reading positive reviews about "The Steel Remains" since it was out, so it has been in my wish list for a while. I've ordered it while I was rereading "Malazan Book of the Fallen" and it waited me for a month or two, and now it finally came its turn. Several years ago, while I had time to be a member if local library, I read one of Richard Morgan's hits, "Altered Carbon". I remember it as a good book, a SF action-thriller, but since I've read it only once, I don't remember much detail.

The sword on the cover has a cool mirror-effect

I loved this book literally from the first sentence:

"When a men you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options."

What a great way to start a book. From the very start I was remind of Joe Abercrombie's "The First Law Trilogy". It has the familiar combination of grittiness and humor, only with Morgan it is bit more of grittiness and little less of humor. Nevertheless, it has that same feel of fantasy that deals with real people; people who are weak, dirty, curse a lot, but manage to surprise you more than not. So don't expect clear differentiation on good and bad...

Story follows three main characters. Ringil is an ex-soldier, hero of last war, now fallen on lower branches of life. He's living in a small village, using remains of his glory to get drinks and room in local inn. You get first indication that Ringil was more than he is now when his mother, a member of one of most powerful noble families, comes to force him into finding their cousin, sold to slavery. Although he is reluctant of come back to capital, to people who betrayed him and life it disappointed him, his mother's wishes are hard to decline.

Two second main characters are Egar Dragonbane and Archeth. Egar is member of nomadic horse-warrior tribe Majak. In his youth he was a mercenary and also a war-hero. After returning to his tribe, he is now a rich leader, having everything that a man could wish for, but finds his life among almost-barbaric people too dull, especially compared to sophisticated life in neighboring Empire of Yhelteth. Archeth is one of most trusted advisors of Emperor of the same Empire, mainly because she is a last member of her race, advanced and long-living people of Kiriath. Her life will again become exciting as she is sent to investigate a strange attack on one of the coastal towns.

First, I liked the worldbuilding. Morgan has something of a Erikson's approach. He plunges you in the middle of a world and don't explain you much. You get brief references to the world throughout the book, and you do your best connected them to whole picture. For example, you get mentions of Lizard Folk and Kiriath, two inhuman races during the whole book, but even after reading it whole, you don't have a complete picture of who they really were and what happened to them. I like this approach because it gives you an impression of a solid world, one that has a life of its own. Also, I always like when fantasy mixes with SF; as with Erikson's K'Chain Che-Malle, so with Morgan's Kiriath.

Characters are great. Ringil is a main guy. At first he is described as just one old veteran, with one heroic act to single him from the mass. As book follows him to capital, you find out that he was, and still is, much more. He has one trait that forced him to abandon his rightful place as a son of powerful noble family: he is openly gay in a world that ostracizes homosexuality. And by ostracizing, I mean torture and death, except in case you happen to be rich and powerful. This hypocrisy, combined with what he considers a betrayal of his war efforts, left him disappointed in humanity, especially to higher classes. Egar is also great. He is a middle-aged warrior that had a touch of sophistication in big city capital and can't find his rest now when he is back to his people. And Acrheth is very interesting, since she is of different race. From her POV I think we get most facts about the world. Although that doesn't mean she is just an info-dump-machine.

Unfortunately, book is great only till last quarter or so. At one point, one all three main characters come together, it just starts to fall apart. Story is good until that point, but after it gets too predictable and uninteresting. It fails to give an impression of well-rounded conclusion and it lacks any exciting parts: it just falls into usual fantasy tropes. And worse than that, characters do the same. Egar, who is very insightful characters for the most of the book, becomes just a wise and friendly barbarian; Ringil a snarly but good commander and Archeth an elf. I was quite disappointed with this ending. But, considering how book was good until that point, and how good was worldbuilding, I have hopes for the sequel, "The Cold Commands", and plan to order it soon.

As I mentioned, I have read "Altered Carbon" only once, but I remember that main character's name was Takeshi Kovach. I wonder if name Takavach in "The Steel Remains" is a hidden reference to it?

The book has quite graphical description of violence and sex. I noticed on some user reviews that some people were offended with such detailed depiction of sex between two men. So if this really bothers you, maybe you should skip this book.

"The Steel Reamins" is one very innovating and gritty book, with exceptional worldbuilding and characters, but unfortunately with weak ending. Nevertheless, it is a great read for fans of darker fantasy, so I recommend it.

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