The Steel Remains
by Richard K Morgan
What on earth did I just read?
First off, the disclaimers.
Disclaimer #1: this is a Morgan book. Thus, my review will contain profanity.
Disclaimer #2: I'm writing this right after I finished the book, and it's past midnight. Do not expect coherence.
I got into a discussion (well, a monologue; I only stop talking when I'm asleep) with a friend about endings. One of tropes that I dislike most is what I'm going to call the Comic Book Event Horizon, where the character either experiences such terrible trauma or commits such an unforgivable act that Nothing Can Ever Be The Same Again, at least within that episode. But when the next episode rolls around, everything will be business as usual, all consequences forgotten. Books may not go to the rewind-time-and-repair-earth extremes of shows like Doctor Who, but after milking the Event Horizon for a bit, they usually either shove it off to the side and ignore it, or--rather more satisfactorily to me, at least-- they recognize that, like a soldier returning home with haunting memories of war, the character's reality has been turned on its axis. It's hard and depressing to deal with, so a lot of authors just tie things off neatly by killing the character.
It's a rare author who will actually face the consequences of a story's events. Not only does Morgan tend to do so, but a central theme of this book is struggle for changed people to return to a changed world.
Gil and his companions have returned after vanquishing the dragons that sought to destroy their land. But they return out of touch with a world that has moved forwards, unable to step back into the flow, unable to forget the tragedy of war. Gil scratches out a living by trading on his heroic exploits in the war, but when his mother enlists his help to rescue a cousin who was sold into slavery, Gil soon finds himself entrapped in another conspiracy and facing another deadly inhuman foe.
The description--jaded out-and-out guy pulled into a web of intrigue--sounds a lot like noir, doesn't it? The book reads like it, too. All of the characters feel a bit like a cross between '40s gangsters and contemporary Londoners. They use terms like "guy" and "yeah," and their general outlook is right in line with the aforementioned '40s noir. For example, Gil is gay, and just about every nasty stereotype, urban myth, and epithet of our world is thrown at him at one point or another. And speaking of epithets, they also have an impressive fondness for profanity. I'd estimate that if you eliminated every usage of the word "fuck," you'd probably delete a good tenth of the book. Here, have a sample:
"Fuck it, I was on my sky-fisted way to your fucking yurt when I passed him. And, like I said, he just fucking shoves right past me, without a sky-shat word. Piece of shit won't even fucking look at me. Face all fucking screwed up like he's pissed off about something I've fucking done to him."
If you eliminated the actual instances of fucking as well, you'd probably be able to chop off a quarter of the book. Which brings me to the positively pornographic sex scenes. With respect to diversity in spec fic, I suppose Morgan is to be commended for his enthusiastic embrace of his character's sexuality. However, personally, I don't like reading about sex scenes of any variety. I find them awkward, embarrassing, and above all, boring. In this particular case, my mood was not improved by the strong rape overtones of several of the scenes, plus one scene that is graphic, brutal, and undeniably a rape.(show spoiler)
So what kept me going? First of all, it's really hard to put down a book written by Morgan, no matter how graphic, brutal, and repulsive the content actually is. (This one involves nightmare fuel such as live humans whose faces have been transplanted onto trees, or grass monsters that reach up inside people and start growing.) Second, there was the worldbuilding. The whole book is effectively a middle finger to the traditional epic fantasy, and in my opinion, it's a lot more effective than Kingkiller. There is a beautiful, talented, quickfingered race who leave
for the Grey Havens because they fear being dragged into human squabbles. These Kirian, who seem a lot like elves apart from a dwarflike tendency towards technology, even leave behind a half- elf Kirian when they leave for the Grey Havens. There are myths about otherworldly, supernally, inhumanly beautiful beings who retreated from the world into Tír na nÓg a plane outside of humanity. There are dragons. There are barbarians. There are Prophecies. And even if there is as yet no sign of a Ring, there are a few mentions of a Dark Lord. I was simultaneously rather scornful of the directness of the allusions and fascinated by Morgan's deconstruction of the trope.
The plot's climax, when it comes, is as unexpected and intentionally disjointed as the rest. The fights are brutal and disgusting and sad. The world is grim and simultaneously too familiar and too alien. The characters are depressed and depressing. The book itself is a demonstration of why authors so often choose to kill or forget their damaged characters. I applaud Morgan for challenging the trope, for looking at the story of what happens after the hero defeats the dragon. But for all that, there's a reason why so many books stop at the triumphant moment of victory: the aftermath makes for a damned depressing read.