Here I am back at the start, in a sense: it was Morgan’s acknowledgement of Elric and The Broken Sword as influences on The Steel Remains that made me seek them out. So the review that follows has a slightly tortured history, having been first composed back in June (or thereabouts), then revised both in light of having read the other books I’ve discussed this week, and having read Graham Sleight’s review, my reaction to which helped me to pin down how I wanted to say some of the things I wanted to say. And then, earlier this week, an interview with Richard Morgan was posted at io9, in which (among much, much else) apropos of some of the reactions to The Steel Remains he says:
In genre — and this seems to be the case more in science fiction — we cursed with a template-based form of appreciation. They always read in the context of what they’re already read. A book will be assessed on how much it seems to be like something else in the same … which seems to be a really old way to read to me. I don’t think it happens in mainstream fiction. […] an awful lot of reviews of The Steel Remains were measuring it against a fantasy novel by George R.R. Martin, a fantasy novel by Steven Erickson. I find that really strange. I am not George R.R. Martin and I am not Steven Erickson, and who’s to say that the book I’ve written is anything like those? There’s a constant blind impulse to find similarity and contrast.
I can understand his frustration; the tendency of some sf fans to dismiss new book X because author Y did the same thing in his book Z, twenty years ago drives me up the wall. (For a recent example, substitute “Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels” for X, “Michael Kube-McDowell” for Y and “Alternities” for Z.) It’s irritating because it’s usually a way of shutting down discussion – and even if it’s true, the fact that it’s true is not interesting, how and why it might be true is what’s interesting – and because it’s often a form of avoidance, a route to cheap, deceptive understanding. That said, I think Morgan is also being more than a little disingenuous. No two books are identical, but no book exists in a vacuum, either. How X is like (and unlike, of course) Z might well be useful information for someone reading a review: and done well, such comparison is another tool with which a reviewer can illuminate the specifics of X.
So I don’t feel any guilt about saying that, now that I’ve read some Anderson and Moorcock, their influence on The Steel Remains seems obvious. (There’s no danger of me making a similar claim for either George RR Martin or Steven Erickson, largely because I haven’t read the relevant books by either of them, but also because – from what I know about their work – such comparisons do seem to fall more towards the deceptive than the illuminating end of the spectrum.) From Anderson, I see a deliberate and forthright refusal of anything resembling a rose-tinted view of pre-industrial life; from Moorcock, a healthy dose of emo. The combination manifests as a worldview steeped in weary frustration: there are three main characters, all of them heroes who have outlived their war, and one of the strongest emotions afflicting each of them is a sense of waste, a sense that it could have been different. It’s not surprising that when the time finally comes to draw a line in the sand, one character does so because “I watched men like you piss it away again, the civilisation we’d saved […] And I will not watch it happen again” (370).
When the Scaled Folk invaded, Egar (called Dragonbane for a reason, now a clanmaster on the Northern plains), Archeth (dark-skinned half-breed, engineer, now advisor to the Yhelteth emperor), and Ringil (scion of a well-to-do family, leader of a last stand, now living in largely self-imposed exile) were in the front lines, but afterwards either they lost their way, or the world did. They all chafe at the situations they now find themselves in. Either there is no place for them (Archeth’s people have left the world; Ringil’s sexuality is illegal), or the place they’ve found is not enough (Ringil gets by as a hero-mascot for a tavern in small settlement, but resents it; Egar finds nomadic, tribal life unfulfilling after the intensity of urban civilization). All of them want to get back, into the world and what they do best, and on one level The Steel Remains is, straightforwardly, the story of them doing just that. Each of them needs a different shove to get going — Archeth is given a chance to put her expertise to use when she’s sent to examine the aftermath an attack on a Yhelteth port; Egar becomes a pawn in a godgame; Ringil is recruited by his (formidable) mother to track down his cousin, who has been (legally) sold into slavery by her husband — but thereafter their momentum carries them through their various investigations.
That plot structure is one important difference to the other books I’ve been discussing — Our Heroes don’t form a Quest Party, although of course eventually the threads do collide, and events reach a climax – but there are others. Apart from anything else, The Steel Remains is a modern novel, constructed as a novel from the ground up; there is none of the compression that marks out the Elric stories, for example. Other differences are obvious because I know some of Morgan’s previous work, in a way that’s not true with most of the other writers I’ve been talking about; for instance, where The Broken Sword is fairly relentless in its intensity, like Morgan’s other books The Steel Remains adopts what Adam Roberts aptly described as a sort of post-rock aesthetic, interspersing moments of quiet with moments of thundering loud.
The most familiar loudness in Morgan’s work is, of course, anger, which sometimes leads to the argument that there is a contradiction at the heart of his novels between style and subject that undermines their coherence. But it strikes me that such an argument is based on a slight misreading. There’s no doubt that Morgan’s books frame their physical, verbal, and moral engagements in high-stakes, high-contrast terms, but they shout with a purpose. Violence, for example, is as costly and terrible as it can be useful, or even necessary; above all, it is (rightly) seen as part of being human, or at the very least part of being human for the people Morgan is interested in writing about. Ultimately Morgan’s characters, for all their individual vigour, tend to be victims of a system. Black Man was venemously explicit about this towards its end – as one character sardonically put it, “Don’t ask, don’t ever ask who’s really making all this happen” – and while there’s no single comparable crystallizing moment in The Steel Remains, the anger at misplaced prejudice, the architects of injustice, and the mechanisms that encourage both frequently rings through.
The angriest character in The Steel Remains, and the axis around which the rest of the book is organised, is Ringil. (With three protagonists, and three books planned in the series, it will be interesting to see whether Egar and Archeth get their turn in the spotlight.) In a number of ways, Ringil resembles Black Man‘s Carl Marsalis: both are soldiers who appear to have lived longer than they were needed; both have an ironic sense of humour; both have a high sex drive; and of course, both attract hate and fear simply by being who they are. In other ways, they’re different. For all that Ringil is a veteran, he is younger than Marsalis, with less sense of himself, and all the hot-headedness and arrogance that condition brings; he thrills in battle in a way that would probably cause Marsalis to snort and shake his head. (It has that effect on the reader a couple of times, at least.) But ultimately the two of them complement each other as points on a spectrum of what men are allowed to be. Marsalis, allegedly a genetic throwback to the sort of Real Men who existed before wussy stuff like agriculture came along, was seen as too much man; Ringil, whose homosexuality marks him as a deviant, is seen as not manly enough. Which of course is nonsense; he’s in a Richard Morgan novel, so even while straining (and shouting) against the boxes his cultures put him in, Ringil is possessed of the sort of earth-shattering maleness that usually indicates a Lucius Shepard protagonist (although I can’t, offhand, recall any gay Shepard protagonists, or indeed any who are quite as nifty with edged weapons).
Because of his sexuality, from a distance Ringil looks like the same sort of intervention into the expectations of heroic fantasy as Alyx. In fact Morgan accepts more of the terms of engagement than Russ, in that Ringil’s personality is closer to that of Scafloc and Elric; but certainly Morgan is no less frank about Ringil’s fucking than he is about Ringil’s fighting (or indeed than he is about his straight characters fucking, both here and in earlier novels). Put another way, passion is another source of loudness in the book; and when it gets mixed up with anger, as it often does because of the way Ringil’s society treats his sexuality, you get passages like this:
[H]e couldn’t cloak it any longer, the leaking sense of loss, more fucking loss, soaking through into the same old general, swirling sense of betrayal, years upon pissed away years of it, made bitter and particular on his tongue now, as if Grace-of-Heaven [a lover] had come wormwood into his mouth in those final clenched, pulsing seconds. Pleasure into loss, lust into regret and there, suddenly, the same sick spiral of fucked up guilt they sold down at the temples and all through the po-faced schooling and lineage values and Gingren’s lectures and the new-recruit rituals of bullying and sterile manhood at the academy and every fucking thing ever lied and pontificated about by men in robes or uniform and– (59)
It’s the sort of anger that would in other hands be mere bluster: the sort rooted in frustration, that grabs you and becomes all-eclipsing while it lasts; the sort that often leads to violence, in this world and in Morgan’s, and then ebbs as quickly as it rose. (Or doesn’t: the rage at the execution of one particular gay youth remains undimmed throughout the book.) There’s a lot for Ringil to be angry at; his world is medieval in all the worst ways, thinned with no sign of recognition or recovery. In addition to the condemnation of homosexuality (it is punishable by execution), the post-war economy is in the toilet, and as a part-consequence slavery has been legalized; and religious fundamentalism is on the rise. In fact, about the only thing Ringil has going for him is that he’s not a woman. Reviewing Scott Lynch’s most recent novel — a writer whose mix of formal and informal language bears some comparison to Morgan — for Strange Horizons, Martin Lewis objected to the way in which (as he saw it) gender and other inequalities had been largely airbrushed away. Lewis was subsequently taken to task by some commenters for a lack of imagination, but if such it is then a similar lack attends The Steel Remains, in which prejudice and discrimination are endemic; Ringil’s only advantage is that he can hide his assumed inferiority (and in some cases, his fighting prowess might persuade people to look the other way). I’d say it’s something that elevates Morgan’s book above Lynch’s: better, to my mind, to engage with something than to sidestep it.
Part of that engagement is that, as much as any of the Elric stories, The Steel Remains is about the difficulty of claiming a new identity when the old one is taken from you by force or time. With a sense of waste, inevitably comes a sense of what was lost, and how loss leaves you adrift. It’s probably Archeth – for all that she gets relatively little action until late in the book, and spends relatively more time infodumping or being infodumped at for our benefit – who anchors this theme. She has the advantage of being close to the seat of power; she can see all too clearly how badly the empire she serves matches up to her dreams for society after the war. She has lost her heritage, and we eventually learn that her dark-skinned people left because they felt diminished by contact with human society. And, as an engineer with some access to technologies far beyond those of the people she lives among, she is the only one of the three protagonists equipped to argue with the world by any means other than force (though she is no slouch with her knives): to most people, science and sorcery are one and the same. But Ringil, too, is troubled by loss, or not so much troubled by it as assaulted by his memories — they sneak up on him, and once even literally stop him in his tracks. Nor is memory the only way the past breaks loudly into the present; there’s unfinished business of various kinds, returning enemies, several corpses that appear to have risen from the dead and one that actually does.
Such eruptions of the creepy and wonderful and strange are handled as confidently as good fantasy requires. They’re a different kind of loud for Morgan (as Graham noted in his review) but one that seems to me to sit comfortably, perhaps surprisingly so, with the more familiar elements of his aesthetic. Indeed, the final third of The Steel Remains is exhilaratingly full of discovery, without ever sacrificing either emotional intensity or the plot’s forward motion, and highlight another interesting link to Moorcock, Anderson and Russ, if not Leiber: there are several heavy hints dropped that Ringil’s world is in some way connected to our own. (Which brings me back to a question I raised in the comments earlier this week and didn’t get an answer to: when did full, separate secondary worlds become de rigeur in genre fantasy? I’ve heard it attributed to Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy (1976-9), but I really have no idea.) There are characters in The Steel Remains – Archeth is one – who know, for instance, that their world is part of a solar system that’s part of a galaxy; that the “band” that illuminates the night sky was probably once a moon; that their world has probably been visited by more than one near-human species. And Morgan’s fairies are to all intents and purposes worldwalkers, beings who can see and navigate through “a malestrom of alternatives” (and thus see the possibilities that are not; more loss, more weariness).
As in The Broken Sword and Stormbringer, in The Steel Remains, there is no guarantee in any of this that Ringil’s world can be saved, or that its future will be better than its past. But there is perhaps a little more optimism. If, you think, if Morgan’s heroes could see through their loss, if they could use their anger — if they could shout loud enough — then maybe they’d actually have a shot at healing some wounds. But it seems a pretty slim if. More likely they’ll keep fighting, because that’s what they do, because that’s what there is, because the system can’t be beat; and when they cry out, it will be with Egar’s battle-cry, in an “awful, no-way-back call for death, and company in the dying” (22). There are two more books to come, and I reckon that’s the way it will go; but if so, it’ll be a story worth telling, anyway. And reading.