a review by Evie Kendal
Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains is a sword and sorcery fantasy text and the first novel in the series, A Land Fit for Heroes. The endorsement by SFX on the back cover states: “It compels you to read on with its gritty, visceral writing and intelligent plot,” and this is exactly how I would describe the novel as well. While not really my type of book, I must confess it is very well-written and the characters are quite engaging. While the excessive physical and sexual violence made me feel mildly nauseous throughout, and the obscene language was at a level not even rivalled by the darkest of my urban fantasy favourites, the story possessed qualities that pulled me to the end in spite of these distasteful elements.
One of the major highlights of Morgan’s writing was his fictional world-building craft, yielding a rich fantasy landscape that slowly unfolds for the reader as the story progresses. The characterisation is also very in-depth, with a variety of different species and diverse religious and cultural elements explored. Having a gay protagonist also provides an interesting perspective when exploring a theocracy in which homosexuality is outlawed. It is noteworthy that the fictional world and characterisation are sufficiently interesting to sustain the reader’s attention throughout most of the novel, in the almost complete absence of plot development. For example, at the start of the novel the protagonist, Ringil, is sent on a mission to rescue a female cousin who has been sold into slavery, however there is little movement on this storyline in the first half of the novel. The slow progression is justified though, given the level of detail provided in creating the fantasy setting during this time. Rather than drowning his readers in exposition at the start of the novel, Morgan allows the fiction to slowly build in the reader’s imagination.
The writing is of very high standard, however the narrative voice is a little hard to pin down. It is sometimes unclear whether the narrative is adopting the perspective of the characters (free indirect discourse) or whether there is an over-arching third person narrator that is separate from any of the characters in the story. In the first instance my criticism would be that the characters’ voices are not sufficiently distinguishable from one another, and in the second, my objection relates to the offensive language used. It is somehow easier to forgive such obscenity if it is clearly established as being just the way a particular character would speak, rather than being the choice of the author for the narration itself.
Overall my recommendation would be to avoid the series if plot is your priority or you are likely to be offended by gratuitous violence, particularly of a sexual nature. However, if searching for a unique fictional world with a dark, broken hero, The Steel Remains will provide these elements. In other words, if you like J. G. Ballard and William Gibson you will probably enjoy this series, however if, like me, you found The Lion King too distressing (as an adult!) then it is safe to say this is not the book for you.