Steel Remains and Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

a review by Nalini Haynes

A certain bookshop (who, on Facebook, claims to be a Hal-like self-aware gestalt identity) described The Steel Remains and its sequel, Cold Commands, as homoerotic porn (meaning the LGBT equivalent of, say, Nalini Singh’s novels). I hadn’t picked up on that element in the promotional material, so once again I found myself reviewing something that I feel woefully inadequately educated to discuss. However, I have read a bit of romance/erotica and I’ve studied sexuality as part of both my degrees. I’ll do my best to provide a balanced discussion of The Steel Remains, hopefully enabling people to decide for themselves whether to read the series.

The Steel Remains opens with Ringil, an ageing (thirties or forties maybe?) soldier living in a village far from home. Within the first few paragraphs it is established that Ringil is gay, to the point that I felt I was being excessively bludgeoned with this fact. After mulling this over, I decided that establishing this fact so firmly was probably a positive as the reader could not later feel betrayed by the author introducing an alternate lifestyle later. Ringil’s sexuality is not merely a happenstance either; his sexuality, his exploits and his sexual history are focal, overshadowing the fantasy/SF storyline where Ringil is searching for his cousin and the country is being attacked.

Archeth is half human, left behind by her people, caught up in the human court as a matter of survival. There are hints that she is a lesbian. Good at her job, Archeth is advisor to the emperor who plays political and relational games with her.

Egar is clanmaster to the steppe people, screwing any big breasted woman he attracts. Irresponsible, non-traditional, Egar incites rebellion against himself. His previous relationship to Ringil is

established early in reminiscences then takes a backseat while Egar is having sex, angering the shaman who is also having sex…

While I don’t mind a good sex scene, preferably as the climax (pardon the pun) for a romance embedded in a larger science fiction or fantasy story, I’m not a fan of erotica as such. Thus The Steel Remains is doubly challenging for me, as sex is mostly either homosexual, heterosexual involving abuse (e.g. the emperor using a concubine in front of Archeth who he believes is a lesbian, or the shaman torturing a whore before being sexually abused himself) or bestiality (the shaman has a wolf, as a man has a woman in bed). The exception to this rule is Egar, who is lustily heterosexual, and yet the scenes where he has sex also include him pitying the woman he is with; there is no love there and very little liking beyond physical attraction.

Character development looked promising and occasionally brilliant by the time I stopped reading. For example, we meet Ringil and, after he’s firmly established as a homosexual in a community that strongly disapproves of his sexual proclivities but admires him as a hero, Ringil walks up a street to deal with a threat followed by the villagers. His internal dialogue leading up to and from the point when all the frightened villagers stop following him, was entertaining, insightful and amusing. Later Ringil’s mother has him dragged out of bed after a debaucherous night, only to send him on a quest. The scene between mother and son felt incredibly real, fraught with history, love and exasperation that both felt for the other. This was an excellent stimulus for Ringil’s acquiescence, setting out on a quest for which he has no real emotional incentive other than love and respect for his mother.

Joe Abercrombie gave a quote for the book stating that The Steel Remains is ‘Bold, brutal and making no compromises.’ The descriptions of gore in The Steel Remains are probably quite accurate and definitely aren’t pretty. I tend to try to switch off my ‘inner eye’ when reading descriptions of gore; I was surprised that I liked Abercrombie’s The Heroes so much, considering the gore and brutality in the story. The Steel Remains has descriptions of killing by a finger to the eye that made me want to wash my fingers, and I was mentally almost begging him to stop the description and move on half way through the paragraph. Ritual torture and executions were described in detail, especially the death of a man Ringil loved as a youth. There was a rape scene that was mercifully brief although bloody and detailed, describing an ‘initiation’ in a men’s college and the consequences for the victim and the victim’s relationship with his brother who walked away knowing the rape was about to occur.

The prose varies in style and quality, from quotes like this: ‘Archeth remembered the long limping columns out of Ennishmin, the desolate tendrils of smoke from the burning settlements they left behind, scrawled on the washed-out winter sky like a writ in accusation.’ At the other end of the spectrum is simplistic prose with excessive use of the word ‘fuck’ and its derivatives. It seemed like everyone spoke and swore in a similar manner, which seemed rather unimaginative considering the varied backgrounds from which they came. At times ‘fuck’ or a derivative is even used in the narration; perhaps a thesaurus might help?

The Steel Remains is a book I struggled to get half way through because of the brutality not the sexuality. In the beginning I was concerned about Ringil having sex with ‘boys’ and corrupting the youth of the community; my concern was about power inequity in sexual relationships and how this is portrayed in fiction. By the time I finished reading, at about half way through, my concerns were allayed because The Steel Remains is not a work of apologetics for paedophilia. It seemed to me that The Steel Remains was exploring the good, the bad and the ugly of homosexuality and some heterosexual relationships.

If you’re into noir, enjoy brutality and gore alongside some unconventional erotica, then The Steel Remains is the book for you. Cold Commands is the sequel.

DMF is looking for someone who enjoys this type of book to review both.

Originally published in Dark Matter issue 6, November 2011.  This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.