The Steel Remains

The Steel Remains coverHere 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.

14 thoughts on “The Steel Remains

  1. Every time Morgan opens his mouth I seem to wish that he wouldn’t. Last time he was complaining about the fact that people animatedly discussed science fiction and now he’s complaining that people read and think about modern genre in terms of whats come before.

    From the author of a book that is so clearly influenced by the styles and techniques of other authors (the tendency to reach for “he went through them like a K’Thanian lightspear through Darbled Mikfat” linguistic tics is so awkward and self-conscious at times it almost felt as though the book was tipping into parody), to complain about the fact that genre is read with one eye on the past seems at best lacking in self-awareness and at worst hypocritical.

    I’d agree with him that there’s a lack of self-awareness in a lot of mainstream book reviewing that, as Chabon points out confuses necessities of literary expression with what are ultimately genre tropes. But this isn’t anything to aspire to.

    If you’re going to wade into such over-populated waters as epic fantasy then you can’t demand that people come to your work with fresh eyes, particularly when the influences of others upon your work is so blatantly obvious. Particularly when the decision to write epic fantasy in the first place may well have been commercial.

  2. Except it isn’t an epic fantasy. Even looking at the book there is a bit of a clue – 300 or so pages, not 800, as far as modern work goes.

    The people comparing it to that may have only read that sort of thing. Niall might be struggling for comparison if he hadn’t read a couple of the relevant things in preparation. As he points out, no questing band. He’s set it up with your aging, mature, extremely competent-if-substance-abusing protagonists, much as Gemmell did. With a lot more colorful language and shagging, of course.

    Archeth may be a nod to KEW’s Kane – a long-lived, death dealing intellectual.

    Moorcock’s Eternal Champion types and their various hangers on – Melniboneans and counterparts being your elfy/faerie types perhaps – can also do the interplanar travel thing, of course.

    Agree that the ‘not comparing complaint’ is silly. He’s certainly done plenty of that himself in talking about recent stuff he’s read on his website. :)

    It may have elements of the ‘big fat fantasy reading crowd may never have come across something like this – shorter, shagginger, and quite a lot closer to sword and sorcery than 25 page descriptions of the merits of the local foliage or farmgirl attire.’ As in they may not be inclined to like it as much, when thinking it should be spun out to 10,000 pages.

  3. Jonathan:

    (the tendency to reach for “he went through them like a K’Thanian lightspear through Darbled Mikfat” linguistic tics is so awkward and self-conscious at times it almost felt as though the book was tipping into parody)

    You see, I think that’s a necessary part of the style, in a way. I prefer a sentence like “the moment was an unbroken Yhelteth horse” to one such as “like most Majak, he carried kindling grass and flint”; the latter is a sentence that knows its readers are outside the world it describes, and therefore, to me at least, breaks the immersion in the story.


    Except it isn’t an epic fantasy.

    Well, if you take Moorcock’s original definition … ;-) But while it doesn’t pay to be too rigorous about these things, you have a point, and I suspect what really frustrated Morgan was inappropriate comparison (either to praise or dismiss) rather than comparison per se.

    Archeth may be a nod to KEW’s Kane – a long-lived, death dealing intellectual.

    Sounds entirely possible to me; Wagner is also cited by Morgan as an influence, but I didn’t track that one down.

  4. His original definition, if you are talking about Wizardry and Wild Romance covered a whole bunch of stuff – but from memory when he got to Howard, he mentioned he was writing a newer, brasher, tougher sort of thing – comparisons with Hammett and Chandler too. Obviously there’s no doubt that Morgan is noir-boy.

    As far as parody goes, no, this book didn’t strike me as completely serious, certainly.

    If you have

    A lesbian Kane
    A Tenaka Khan with no ambition
    and a protagonists that fucks with, then kills multiple Elrics

    Then sure, he may quite possibly be taking the piss at times.

  5. I was thinking of the definition in that fanzine letter I mentioned at the start of the week, where he was looking for a tag for Leiber, Anderson etc and came up with “epic fantasy” (only to get almost immediately superceded by “sword and sorcery” from Leiber, if I’ve got the timeline right). I don’t know where that fits relative to what you’re talking about.

    and a protagonists that fucks with, then kills multiple Elrics

    … I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

  6. Just wanted to drop by and say thank you Niall for an extensive, erudite and very generous review.

    Also to say briefly, in my defense, that the interview you quote from was an audio (as opposed to e-mail) and as anyone who’s met me will know, I tend to ramble on these subjects like a motorhead who’s just snorted his whole supply – a stream of consciousness that some poor bastard then has to transcribe, and as a result, clarity is often lost in transmission.

    So for the sake of clarity and the record: clearly, comparison of one book to another is not only okay, it’s also a stock tool of any decent literary criticism; so far so entirely cool. What I find depressing is the very different dynamic of defining one book by the template of another, and then finding it lacking because it doesn’t stack up to that definition. “The Steel Remains” took some flak here and there on that basis, though not enough to really bother me – what was truly fascinating was watching Steven Erikson’s “Toll the Hounds” suffer the same thing via template comparison to another one (or two) of his own previous novels.. The people who did that weren’t reviewing or responding to “Toll the Hounds”, they were responding to some (for them) Platonic Ideal of an Erikson novel as represented by whichever previous exemplar of the type did it for them. This expectation, that an author, or even more insidiously a whole sub-genre, should deliver consistently identical product, is what I find so baffling. Why buy “Toll the Hounds” in the first place, if what you really want to do is read “Memories of Ice” all over again? Why buy Morgan if you want to re-read Martin? That’s what drives me crazy.

    ps – Jonathan – I have no problem with people animatedly discussing science fiction, in fact, I dearly love to see it. I just wish they wouldn’t spend so much time animatedly trying to kick each other’s balls in over who’s growing the most worthy strain of said science fiction.

  7. Richard — I think that such debates are like the drums in old Tarzan movies; at their worst they’re an irritant and the only time you really need to bother about them is when they stop as that means that people have stopped talking.

    Regarding the Platonic ideal… I’m not sure. I can totally see how such thinking would be unhealthy; it’s innately conservative and it expresses a willingness to sacrifice an author’s growth for a reader’s desire to recapture the experience they had when reading an early book. But at the same time I think that “is this as good as his last one?” is a valid question to ask of a new book.

    But then I thought that “is this as good as the Ting-Ting’s ‘That’s Not My Name’?” was a valid response to Hellboy 2 :-)

  8. Agreed – “Is this as good as his last one?” is fair enough, and in many ways serves as a useful form of quality control, especially when there is a lot of the aforementioned repetitive product about. The problem arises when “good” is conflated with “same”. My recollection of the criticism of “Toll the Hounds” was that it had little to do with “Is this as Good as….” and far more to do with “This doesn’t do the same things as….” and “These aren’t the characters I wanted to read about or the scenarios I wanted resolved.” In other words, rather than read the book they’d bought for whatever it might have to offer, these readers had gone out to buy a book whose content they already had firm and specific expectations of – and they were correspondingly unhappy when those expectations were not met. Similarly, there were people whose only comfortable response to The Steel Remains seemed to be to list the things it didn’t do that a novel by George R R Martin or Steven Erikson would, and then dismiss it for that lack. Rather than conservative (though it’s that too), I find that kind of thing hopelessly defensive – it’s a retreat from difference, and in any field of creative endeavour, that can’t fail to be a bad thing.

    ps – I think the Ting Tings have the edge there.

  9. >’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.)’

    Adam Roberts (at punkadiddle) points out the 80s feel of some of the book – both the patios and the in-your-face gayness – I guess the rage comes from the 80s and specifically the way this country was raped for ten years. The Steel Remains is not exactly allegorical, but the the slave market economy does read like a correlative of the post Thatcher/Reagan world. I think this is what makes the book an interesting departure as well as a re-working of the older sources Niall discusses. History did jump tracks in 79/80 and that seems to have cut off the possibility of a lot of meaningful political analysis. We’re left in this world that is ontologically wrong and that leads to anger, frustration, despondancy in those that are aware of it. This sense drives Morgan’s work – or leastways drives my reading of it. I suspect there are quite a few of us ostensibibly settled boring folk in their 40s who still burn with unresolved anger at what’s happened to the world in our adult life times – and Morgan seems to be exploring ways of not just giving expression to this but also focusing it.

  10. TSR was too short by about 200 pages while Black Man was too long by the same amount. Fantasy does not need to be 500+ pages to succeed as for example the best epic fantasy of the year Caine Black Knife shows, but if short it needs to make every word count and TSR meandered for about 2/3rds.

    Also nothing ground breaking – violence, well Caine 3 is way more violent, even disturbingly so sometimes making TSR seem family friendly in comparison, explicit male gay sex, well S. Monette Mirador series did this a while ago, and so on, despite hyped up claims to the contrary, and a bit too much repetition from the sf – anyone who read all of Mr. Morgan novels several times as I have done across the years, would easily guess the final twist for example since it shows in book after book.

    This said, it was still a pretty good novel and I am eager to see where the non-series/series as the IO9 interview describes it goes next.

    Not at the top the field, but close for now.

  11. Richard, thanks for dropping by. Defining one book in terms of another, as you put it, annoys me as well; though I’m ashamed to say I can sometimes feel the temptation.

    Nick, your comments always make me feel like I want to go away and study political theory for three years before returning to sf. Not that that’s likely to actually happen, unfortunately!

    Liviu, to the extent that I think TSR is the wrong length, which is not that far, I tend to agree more with Graham’s argument that it’s a bit stretched, actually. On the other hand, I liked Black Man at the length it was — the narrative was perhaps a slightly unusual shape, but a shape I thought worked much more than not. As for it being ground breaking or not: to be honest, that’s one of the least interesting questions to discuss about this book, but if you’re going to cite precedent I would think Delany trumps Monette by some years.

  12. I had completely missed the patios! I am indebted to Blue Tyson, Adam Roberts and Nick Hubble for their insights because they really help me piece together why I found this novel so enjoyably bonkers. In Morgan’s own work it probably fits alongside Market Forces as a sort of weird sincere parody and hopefully it will replace Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty as the definitive gay 80s novel.

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