When a man 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. You can smell his breath, take his pulse, and check his pupils to see if he's ingested anything nasty, or you can believe him. Ringil had already tried the first course of action with Bashka the Schoolmaster and to no avail, so he put down his pint with an elaborate sigh and went to get his broadsword. (p. 3)After five SF novels, British author Richard Morgan begins his first fantasy novel, The Steel Remains, with a short, sharp attention-grabbing introduction that serves to introduce the reader quickly to nobleman's son-turned-mercenary Ringil Eskiath, one of three main characters (Archeth and Egar being the other two) whose stories Morgan tells during the course of the novel. Neither Ringil (or Gil) nor the other two characters are naive youths, as Morgan makes abundantly clear throughout this novel.
Much attention has been given in other quarters to Morgan's statement that he aimed to write a fantasy that would utilize noir-style tropes. One of the characteristics of noir leads is their alienation from society and their tendency to operate from the peripheries. Gil certainly fits this mode as in addition to being a mercenary who is past his fighting prime, he is a homosexual in a society that views homosexuality as being an anathema. While many other reviews that I have read note this feature about Gil, they either tend to shy away from considering the ramifications of this in the context of the story setting or they complain that "there is too much explicit gay sex" in this novel. I disagree. For every "faggot" or "perverter of youth"comment, for scenes such as the one between Gil and his father, who has disowned him, there is a very real character development. Gil is very complex and in the hands of other authors, perhaps he would be portrayed as a victim. Morgan, however, takes a different tact. In a day and age where it seems to be popular to take the Will and Grace approach towards having a cuddly, friendly, almost completely-asexual gay buddy, or conversely to have a handsome, brooding, gay victim of hatred and misunderstanding, Morgan's portrayal of Gil as being a gruff, cynical, sometimes lusty man with a middle age paunch not only is quite refreshing, but it opens up narrative possibilities for the future.
However, not as much can be said about Archeth and Egar. I found their characters to be not as well-developed as Gil's, perhaps because as travelers whose main narrative purpose seems to be to corroborate some of Gil's observation as he undertakes a quest at his mother's bequest to free a cousin of his from slavery. Their relative undeveloped characterization is a microcosm of sorts for the story itself. While I found myself enjoying the chapters that starred Gil and I wanted to read more about how he made his way through the world and how he dealt with the near-constant ridicule at the hands of family and others who knew him only from hearsay, the story itself of Gil, Archeth and Egar discovering that a long-vanished race might be returning with a nefarious purpose to be a bit too sketchy in this trilogy opener. Perhaps Morgan had some tough narrative decisions to make in regards to how much exposition ought to take place in what essentially was a prologue to what promises to be a larger affair.
Therefore, despite my enjoyment at reading a very well-realized complex character whose sexuality is more than just an "exotic" element tossed in to make the character "interesting," unfortunately The Steel Remains contains significant flaws such as not having as interesting complementary characters and having a main plot element that isn't developed sufficiently for the first volume of a trilogy. While I have high hopes that the sequels will address most, if not all, of my concerns, at the moment Morgan's first foray into fantasy made for a frustrating reading experience, as it was tantalizing with its hints of greatness before it settled for being merely a prologue for the (hopefully) real treat ahead.
Publication Date: January 20, 2009 (US); already available in the UK. Hardcover.
Publisher: Del Rey (US); Gollancz (UK)