The steel remains
“When a man you know to be sound of 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.” R. Morgan, The steel remains
Over the trip to Edinburgh, I read the (first) fantasy book by Richard Morgan, The steel remains, and it reads awfully well! Given the other books of his I read so far, this is not very surprising. (A stylistic improvement over those is that marks are used as terminations of sentences, not as word separators as in so many sentences in the Kovacs series. Almost. Surely.) The plot summary looks like the standard one: retired hard-boiled mercenaries from a all-powerful empire get reunited to fight a terrible threat only them can vanquish. And they do. This sounds like the last fifty fantasy novels I mentioned, right?! Well, not exactly, because the above heroes are far from the down-the-shelf heroes (in the same way Abercrombie’s Heroes are anything but heroes…!) Actually, there is a lot in common between Morgan’s and Abercrombie’s types of fantasy, mostly that they both clearly escape almost all canons of the genre, towards the gritty, the gory, and the obscene. A wonderful mix. Which explains why Abercrombie wrote a rather enthusiastic review. With the surprising (given Abercrombie’s own prose!) reservation that “a few may reasonably think it could have been just a tad less lurid at times and gained punch as a result”!
“Well, it’s always seemed a little odd to me that homosexuality or explicit political discontent can be seen as controversial, whereas the act of chopping someone to pieces with a battle-axe isn’t. I mean, what is that? Traditional fantasy fiction is filled with some of the most brutal blood-letting and regressive social structures ever put between the covers of a novel.” R. Morgan, interview on The Book Swede.
One of the uncommon [wrt the fantasy genre] characteristics of Morgan’s heroes is that two of them are homosexual, both in open ways that put their life in danger in medieval societies depicted to be less than tolerant with homosexuality. As usual with Morgan’s novels, the sexual scenes are nothing but explicit and this seemed to have put a lot of readers off! Much more than the detailed and gory battle scenes, as remarked by the author… What I liked the less in The steel remains is that it often appears as an exercise in fantasy writing, so much does the author try to bend the rules of the genre, while “pilfering” Moorcock, Howard, Anderson, Williams, and even a bit of Eddings, among others. This gives the book a sort of distance, at least in the first part, that is slightly detrimental to the pace. For instance, the love life of both male characters turns to cynical short-ended affairs by and large. The conclusion is also a bit rushed in my opinion, towards an “all is well that ends well” à la Morgan (i.e., not that well!). To the point that, for a while, I thought this was a single volume series, it felts so much precipitated… Overall, I clearly prefer the Kovacs series. Maybe in that the irony and self-doubt of the characters better fit a post-modern world than a medieval recreation. Or maybe because the style, the language and the concerns of the characters are too remote from your standard fantasy novel. Nonetheless, an interesting experiment, with a great ambiguous title (is remains used as a name or as a verb?), and looking forward the second volume to see whether or not Morgan is again able to turn the tables towards radically new situations as he did for the Kovacs series…