Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

An alternate title for this book would be: Back Story: How to do it right! Somewhat less catchy than The Steel Remains, to be sure. But very, very true. I can’t think of any other books that fills in the back story of it’s characters as seamlessly as this one does. And guys, there’s a lot of back story.

The book is set a decade or so after a huge war, in which previously antagonistic nations had to band together to best an external threat. The narrative follows three hero’s of this war, Ringil, Archeth, and Egar as they each undergo their own little narrative quests which eventually merge into one big one. Ringil must return home, where he is a barely tolerated disgrace (because he’s a *gasp* homosexual!) and try to track down a cousin sold into slavery. Arceth is trying to learn how to work with a new emperor, and is trying to understand her own past. And Egar is struggling to feel content in his role as clan chief, while meanwhile his own brother’s plot to overthrow him.

It’s the kind of book where the back story is integral, where what happened before the story commences is just as important as what’s happening now. Think the first rise of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, or the overthrow of House Targaryen in A Song of Ice and Fire. However, unlike those two examples, The Steel Remains is a relatively slim book. (Especially when you consider that it’s the first part of a fantasy trilogy… )And yet I have no trouble envisioning the war we never actually see, as though Morgan had spent chapters and chapters re-telling it, (which he does not).

The key, I think, is that Morgan assumes his reader possesses an ounce of intelligence. Such a simple thing, and yet so few authors really get it. You don’t have to spell things out. I know you want to make doubly sure that the reader understands this crucial bit of information, but guys, guys, seriously, you have to trust us! We’ll get it, and we’ll even thank you for making us figure it out ourselves. Isn’t it better to assume that smart people would want to read your book, instead of ones that need their hands held every step of the way?

Consider the three main characters of The Steel Remains, who I have already briefly mentioned. At no point does Morgan come out and say that they’re friends, or that they even know each other, and for much of the book none of their scenes overlap. But we slowly come to realise that all three fought in the war. Egar might briefly recall something that Ringil once said, or Ringil might have cause to think of Archeth, and their thoughts have such a perfect mix of affection and affectionate insult that only true friends can understand, that the reader knows these guys were close. It’s perfectly done, truly perfect.

When you finish this book it feels like you’ve been reading about these characters for twelve epic volumes, so well do you feel you know them. (I wish I could read about them for twelve epic volumes, because they’re a fascinating and entertaining bunch.) When the three are finally reunited it's as emotionally satisfying as if you'd been waiting for that moment to happen for years, instead of just a few hundred pages.

The minor characters are also excellently done. I want to draw particular attention to the Emperor. When first he is introduced I pretty much wrote him off. He's the spoiled son new to the throne, which had been held for many years by his wise father. He's selfish and mean and a terrible, terrible, ruler. Except, uh, maybe he's not? Rarely am I as surprised by a character as I was by this guy. Props to Morgan, for realz.

Morgan’s writing is an excellent mix of humour and darkness. But I don’t want to draw Abercrombie comparisons because it seems like every time a darker fantasy comes along now his name gets dropped. And anyway, I find Morgan’s characters to be real in a way that Abercrombie’s are not, less bleak for bleaks sake perhaps.

It will, I suspect, be a long wait for October and the continuation to this awesome trilogy.

This book: I bought

1 comment:

  1. I found this review because I was searching for the "cooler" cover - I'm one of 'those' types who changes the cover art of existing e-books to better match the sequels - and I have to say I agree fully with you.

    The Steel Remains is my favourite Richard Morgan book (and I *love* the Kovacs novels) for all the reasons you state. The way the backstory unfolds before you while reading this book is amazing. I can't overstate how ecstatic I was at the dawning realization of how the little bits we know of Arceth and her people were coalescing into one of the best genre mashups I can recall. And so subtly!

    Again, thanks for a great review that made me more completely understand what precisely I loved about one of my favourite books.