Hype has a funny way of raising one's expectations to an unattainable plateau. Richard Morgan wasn't even halfway done with the manuscript of a forthcoming fantasy novel which had yet to be titled, and already we were hearing how the author would turn the genre on its head. And given Morgan's talent and reputation, all of us believed that if someone could do it, then the author was the most likely candidate. Advance reading copies had not even been printed, yet early readers raved about The Steel Remains. Fantasy, or so it was claimed, was about to get real.
The vagaries of life (or the fact that I reside in Canada) mean that European reviewers already had their reviews up before I even received my ARC. The verdict appeared quasi-unanimous: The Steel Remains probably was the fantasy novel of the year.
Now, at this point the hype made it so that anything short of one of the genre's top reads of the year would be a disappointment. Hence, with such expectations, is it any wonder that Morgan's fantasy debut failed to deliver?
It comes as no surprise that The Steel Remains is of the dark and gritty school of fantasy. And yet, though the author endeavored to be edgy and different, Morgan appears to have failed to realize that most of the "shocking" aspects he was throwing at us had been done before. The grit, the nastiness, the explicit language, the "in your face" violence, the drugs, the sex, homosexuality, etc; if you've read George R. R. Martin, Hal Duncan, Steven Erikson, and R. Scott Bakker, then you'll immediately realize that Morgan's take on fantasy might not be as original as some appear to believe. . . Moreover, those aforementioned authors pushed the envelope further and did it with more depth than Morgan did in The Steel Remains. One of the novel's shortcomings is the fact that the author appears to have mostly relied on those factors instead of concentrating on his superior plotting and storytelling skills to write this tale.
The Steel Remains is a character-driven book, and the various story arcs focus on three main characters. Ringil Eskiath, homosexual hero of the infamous battle of Gallows Gap, is wasting is life away now that the war is over. Then his mother shows up, asking him to find one of his cousins who was sold into slavery. His quest to locate his lost kin will soon make him realize that there is a lot more at stake, and that a greater menace threatens this post-war world. Archeth, a kiriath half-breed abandoned by her brethren is now advisor to the Emperor of the Yhelteth Empire. Sent to investigate the scene of a carnage which took place in a distant port city, she discovers that a formidable enemy of unknown might seems to threaten the empire. Egar the Barbarian, who fought for the Yhelteth Empire during the War against the Scaled Folk, is driven away by his own people and must make his way south to save his life. Not since the last war have the three come together, and they are now forced to do so in order to discover what lies behind this phantom menace.
Characterization has always been Richard Morgan's strong suit. Although well-defined to some extent, by trying to make them too edgy and over-the-top the author sort of shot himself in the foot and the whole thing backfired. Archeth possesses some depth, but more often than not Ringil and Egar fail to rise above the clichés they are meant to break. Morgan created a cast of morally (and sexually) ambiguous characters, but I feel that he didn't inject enough life in their personalities and back stories to make them memorable.
Black Man/Thirteen was my favorite read of 2007. Richard Morgan's name has become associated with quality, and any scifi yarn he writes has the potential to be a candidate for book of the year. Unfortunately, Morgan's style, which deservedly rank him among the very best science fiction writers out there, doesn't have the same kind of impact in the fantasy genre. Readers who are expecting the fantasy equivalent of Altered Carbon and Black Man/Thirteen might be sorely disappointed. In terms of style, this novel is very similar to Joe Abercrombie's The First Law( minus Joe's snarky sense of humor). By that I mean that it has a fairly straightfoward plot, with very little worldbuilding to speak of, and a relatively small cast of characters. But where Abercrombie used traditional tropes to trick readers into believing that they knew what was coming, Morgan utilizes the more "sensationalist" elements to shock readers, or to generate some reactions. The problem is, when you strip The Steel Remains of the grit, the profanities, the gratuitous sex scenes, and the bloody violence, were are left with rather thin plotlines. The last portion of the novel hinted that there is more depth to A Land Fit for Heroes than meets the eye, but this means that we must now wait for the sequel, The Cold Command, to discover if that's truly the case or not.
It's no secret that fantasy became nastier and more violent in recent years. Dark and brooding epics have irrevocably altered the genre, or so it seems. Had it been released a decade ago, The Steel Remains would have made quite a splash. In 2008, however, the book is following established paths and not uncharted waters.
Make no mistake: The Steel Remains is a good book. It's simply not the great novel which everyone appear to have anticipated. Richard Morgan, through likely no fault of his, is a victim of the hype and his own reputation. The author has raised the bar extremely high, and it was probably unfair of fans to expect him to raise it even higher by jumping genre.
My only advice: Don't believe the hype the way I did. If you like dark and gritty fantasy novels, then chances are that you'll enjoy The Steel Remains. Just don't expect the book to make an impression similar to that of GRRM's A Game of Thrones when it came out.
Regardless of the fact that it's nowhere near as groundbreaking as advertised, The Steel Remains is nevertheless an entertaining and action-packed read. If you go into this one with the appropriate expectations, there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy it.
The final verdict: 7.5/10