The OF Blog: Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains


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)

9 comments:

Jonathan M said...

I must admit that I found the book to be completely unreadable. I gave up after 50 pages.

Your line about how it shows flashes of greatness is, I would argue, true of Morgan's writing as a whole. By and large he's a writer on a par with the Neal Ashers and Andy Remics of the world but occasionally he comes up with a particularly nice idea or shows an awareness of depth that elevates his work out of merely competent.

I definitely though that this was the case with Black Man; a knuckle-headed thriller with no ending but also enough of an awareness of wider issues to elevate it even though those issues were never properly engaged with.

Eddie said...

The thing I find particularly interesting about the way Morgan writes Gil is exactly what many have complained about - the explicit gay sex. Well, not just that, but the degree to which Gil is in your face, and the in your face way Morgan writes him.

I would suggest that a lot of prejudice against gay people is rooted in the "ew" factor. People are comfortable with Will and Grace gays because they're essentially asexual handbags - perfect fashion accessories that have no life of their own. Similarly, the brooding, damaged rape victim gays elicit sympathy: what happened to them wasn't their fault, maybe they didn't actually want it.

Gil likes sex with men. He tells everyone he likes it. This ensures his outsider status within the world of the novel. And Morgan shows us exactly what it is he likes, complete with body fluids and Gil's rather... excited thought processes. This, in turn, doesn't allow the reader to rely on the usual liberal response "Oh, how nice, a gay character. Some of my best friends are gay." The reality of gay men is that they have sex with other men. And they like it. And in my experience, this tends to make a lot of straight men very uncomfortable. Gay men in the abstract, fine. Men actually having sex with each other, ew!

This, I think, explains a lot of the reactions that I've read on other blogs that treated Gil's being gay as overplayed and/or a gimick. Particularly in the astonishingly monochromatic fantasy genre, WASP-y types have the privilege of being able to read almost all protagonists as just like them. White. Straight. Male. Saves the world with his big penis extension... erm, sword (and Gil actually makes a joke about this, I think to Grace). The only way to destabilise this default way of reading is, in my opinion, to be really fucking obvious about what you're doing. For example, the Kiriath are clearly black. As in the jet/midnight/ whatever other descriptor you want to use black. But I wonder how many people skipped over that fact because it's only mentioned a couple of times. And, more importantly, I wonder how many people thought them white by default before it was mentioned that they're black. In shoving Gil's gayness down our throat (so to speak :P), Morgan forces both the society in the book and us to address it. And I rather like that.

[I have some other comments on the book as a whole which I'll post later. Suffice to say I liked it a bit more than you and a lot more than Jonathan M]

Larry said...

Jonathan,

While I think a bit better of Morgan's work than you apparently do, I do have to agree in regards to your take on Black Man/Thirteen for the most part. Despite my overall liking of the story, the ending certainly was so weak as to be pretty much a non-ending.

Eddie,

I like your take on it. I think that is why, despite me being a straight male, that I liked what Morgan aimed to do there. If I ever were to interview him, I'd ask if his experiences teaching ESL helped him to step outside his cultural bubble enough to see the Other so clearly. I suspect that my experience teaching ESL/History in Florida for two years changed my worldview quite a bit as well; might explain my new-found love for Latin American literature.

Curious to hear your take on the rest of the novel. Despite my reservations, it could simply end up being something that improves quite a bit on a re-read and with more of the story revealed. I know that was the case with my reading of Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before in May 2004 before I read The Warrior-Prophet.

Eddie said...

Basically I agree with you about the secondary characters, Larry, especially Egar. He got such little screentime that I didn't get a huge sense of what he was about. Archeth less so - I quite like what he did with her - but I take your point.

On the structure of the novel as a whole, Morgan has said that he'd intended to alternate the Ringil books with SF ones, and given the probable timeframe between books, had written them to stand by themselves. I get the impression of something like the Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin books; all about the same characters, but able to be read by themselves. As it turns out, he apparently has changed his mind and will right all 3 ringil books in a row, but The Steel Remains was written with that structure in mind.

With that in mind, I think the Steel Remains functions quite nicely as a fantasy slice of life. Not something one tends to come across in genre, but still. Here are some people. Some things happen to them. The end.

[spoiler follows in case people will actually read this before the book]

I think part of what Morgan was trying to do was write a fantasy that isn't about a massive war, or about the return of an ancient evil. So the war happened 15 years ago. One of the ancient races has already left. The other one may or may not be evil, and may or may not return after being somewhat kicked in the ass by Ringil et al. And Ringil himself may or may not be a "Dark Lord."

I don't think the failure to address these questions is academic. They're the sort of things that you'd expect even a fairly hacky writer to be able to do in a bog-standard generic first book of a fat fantasy trilogy. And Morgan isn't a hack. To go back to my earlier post, I think the book is entirely about how marginalised people would operate in the realities of a standard fantasy setting - Ringil's a sexual deviant, Archeth is a racial oddity and a lesbian, and Egar doesn't fit in either his own culture or his adopted one. If we had these three people hanging out together in an apartment in Manhattan, you'd either get a sitcom or a middlebrow literary novel about outsiders trying to fit in. Morgan has simply transplanted that into a fantasy setting. This is also suggested by the way he writes dialogue, which uses modern slang, swearing etc frequently.

This isn't to say The Steel Remains is perfectly plotted, or that the inconclusive ending didn't irritate me. I would have liked more than vague sparky fires and Ringil staring into a mirror. But I do think that the plot structure and the ending were kind of integral to the point.

Larry said...

OK, I can agree with much of what you said there. It perhaps is that my impressions were colored with the notion that it'd be the first of a trilogy and that as such, that it would be more akin to most trilogies in structure than say a true serial (with beginning-middle-end mostly complete for each novel in the sequence). That being said, I just don't know if the payoff will be as immediate as what many others might expect. It is this uncertainty combined with a relatively weak ending that downgraded the book from excellent to good-verging on very good status.

Eddie said...

Not so different from my impression, then. I'd put in firmly in "very good". Down from excellent because you're right, I don't think the end is quite right for either a serial or a big fat trilogy, and he doesn't deal in a satisfying manner with Egar or Archeth.

Also, did you notice that Kovacs is in there somewhere?

Larry said...

No, I didn't notice that. Where?

Eddie said...

The being that rescues Egar is called "Takavach".

Larry said...

Don't know how that slipped my attention! But that certainly is intriguing, to say the least. I wonder if someone will ask Morgan about that in a future interview.

 
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