Into every life a book that destroys the rating system must come–The Steel Remains is leading for 2016. Naomi and I were looking for a buddy read, and this was on both of our TBR lists. It was on mine because I generally enjoyed Morgan’s science fiction Kovacs series. Still, I’ve been off on fantasy lately, unless it’s the genre-bending type. Once I and heard that two of the leads were gay, I was curious to see how that would play out.
The Steel Remains opens in a scene familiar to many; an aging, somewhat slovenly former war hero being drafted into helping a scholarly friend. The setting seems solidly medieval, with intriguing hints of strangeness encroaching into inhabited lands. His peace doesn’t last long before his mother appears, drafting him into a search for a cousin sold into slavery to pay her husband’s debts. Ringil reluctantly acquiesces, realizing he misses some of civilization’s perks. Before long, we jump to the perspective of Egar, leader of a group of plains tribesman. He too needs to fight off strange beasties, but his manner of managing the political fallout irritates. One more jump, this time into the perspective of Archeth, a mixed-race Kiriath who stayed behind after her people abandoned this world. The Emperor send her to investigate the destruction of a seaside town. It becomes apparent that the three fought together in ‘the Dragon War’ about ten years ago and have become tired of both fighting and politics. Eventually, their storylines and the strange things that are going bump in the night come together in a somewhat predictable fashion.
Characterization is very much of the anti-hero variety, with our battle-scarred heroes bitter at how they have been treated by their people. Unfortunately, because the narrative shifts between the three in third-person limited, complexity is slow to develop. Both the men were of the hard-living school where down time from fighting is spent having sex. Although I wanted to like Ringil, I felt mostly he was stuck in an adolescent stage of angry petulance towards almost everyone he interacts with. Strangely, for all that his mom supposedly motivates him to return, he barely talks with her and then spends his time reaffirming his disgust with everything in his city and his old home. Flashbacks to his friend’s death by torture and to being raped in school were strangely emotionless from his angle. I don’t know; there’s this weird emotional distance where perhaps the reader is supposed to infer that his rage comes from trauma. I just don’t feel like I’m in his head enough, except that he’s always “suddenly angry” at almost everyone he interacts with. I feel like the only emotion I’ve seen is anger or bitter humor. Maybe Morgan has nailed the character type. Egar was flatly unlikeable. Archeth and her obsession with the ships of her people was the most interesting character and scenario to me, but as she had the least time it was hard to be invested only in her.
Plotting felt standard fantasy. Although Ringil is ostensibly pulled back to the city to look for his cousin, his route in doing so is so circuitous that I began to wonder if he was looking at all. Egar’s situation is interrupted by the plotting of a priest and intercession with the gods. Again, Archeth’s storyline felt the most interesting, with personality-laden remnants of the ship Helmsmen giving enticing hints about space-travel. However, when Ringil ended up in a parallel universe/fairy world, I lost interest fast. Too many fantasy tropes, too little explanation. By the last quarter of the book, it became clear that the plot wasn’t each hero and their individual issues exactly, but that each issue was a piece of the whole Rising Of The Dark and the Plot To Take Over the World. Honestly, I was kind of disappointed that it took so long to gel. There’s also a mystical part about the ‘gods’ working to stop this from occurring that ends up just being confusing.
The mood of the story was dark and bloody, leaping from fight to fight whether verbal or physical, seemly interrupted only by angry sex. I don’t know that there’s any joy or tenderness to be found in this book, although there’s plenty of guilt, anger, humiliation and bloody death. Morgan describes fight scenes quite well, for those that enjoy a sense of blow-by-blow action it should amply satisfy. Word style is off-putting; Morgan occasionally has a turn of phrase that requires one to pay close attention in order to understand. He sprinkles in worlds particular to the world without much explanation. It generally works, but then it makes inclusion of words like ‘faggot’ disorienting. ‘Flandrijn,’ ‘krinzanz,’ ‘fireship,’ ‘dwenda’ all pop in and out of conversation while epithets like ‘shit,’ ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ are frequently used as well, a strange mix of imaginary and vernacular. One of the things I loved about the Kovacs series is the inventive world-building, and I think that is one area his writing talent shows. Unfortunately, I felt it was missing here.
I just could not enjoy it; there was too little that felt redemptive or that I could empathize with, in contrast to my reaction to Joe Abercrombie’s book anti-heros in The First Law series. I will note that I found it both more cohesive and intriguing than the Prince of Thorns, so if you were interested in either of those series, you might enjoy this. Further, my reading buddy Naomi liked it a great deal. She was able to give it the careful attention that I couldn’t due to discomfort with the violence and the emotion of it. Many thanks to her for the read and the discussion!
For me, this was a strictly one star book out of mood–I didn’t enjoy it at all due to the violent, angry mood. However, it was not a one-star writing level–in that I’d give it three stars. I won’t be continuing the series.