The Steel Remains


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

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

18 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Guess I'll be okay since I wasn't impressed with GRRM.

Expectations...always a downfall

Kendall said...

Re. expectations: I might see a movie even if I expect it to be bad, just because it might still be fun. Then it's not as bad as I feared, and I wind up liking it. Lowering my expectations usually helps my enjoyment of movies!

But if I don't think a book will be good, I don't read it. I need to learn to lower my expectations for books--then I'll be pleasantly surprised and like them all! ;-)

(I've never read GRRM.)

Kendall said...

P.S. Thanks for the great review, Pat!

James said...

You can blame the Gollancz hype machine for the anticipation surrounding this book. They do seem to hype everything, and they went into overdrive for this one.

I did have my doubts about The Steel Remains, despite the positive reviews garnered so far. There was always the problem that it was trying too hard, that the desire to shock would dominate the novel and act as a cover for the lack of a plot.

Still, I look forward to reading it to see how I feel about it.

Good review Pat.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pat,

I was hoping you'd review it ASAP because I didn't fully trust the oh so positive reviews from all the other bloggers.

Whether people like you or hate you, no one can say you're not honest. And fair too!

Looking forward to TSR, but I will be a little less excited when I finally have it and start to read it. To hear people talk, it was like this was the mother of all fantasy books!

Good reviews, man!

Christian

Larry said...

Pat, is this review more about preconceptions of the novel or the novel itself? It seems at least as much time is devoted talking about things that are going to seem extraneous to those who might read this review after the publication date. I know you dislike doing it, but a couple of judicious quotes can reinforce your points. Right now, I have no idea how the style will be (and mentioning those authors with such disparate styles doesn't help, unfortunately) and how the characterizations were drawn.

Casey said...

larry,

...what is the deadline for re-writes and how many points are taken off? Any chance for pass/fail as opposed to a letter grade? I assume MLA is workable for citations being used in blogs.

:P I keed, I keed

Pat, the review definitely served it's purpose for me well, so thanks as aways.

Larry said...

Casey,

I wouldn't tease too much, since I am a teacher and I do grade essays rather tough! :P

ediFanoB said...

Hype is critical. My last disappointment was about German edition of Black Monday by R Scott Reiss. There was a lot of hype in Germany about this book.

Most of the time I try to ignore hype but sometimes I fail.

Anyway thank you for your revie Pat.

For me it was quite interesting because on 1rst of June I won the ARC of THE STEEL REMAINS here...

Anonymous said...

I'd say you could go even further back to Glen Cook, M.A.R Barker, Tanith Lee or not so far back to China Mieville to find homosexuality, the violence and the rest. The concept is not really new.

Anonymous said...

Yo Pat,

Thanks for the in depth review, man! We can always expect you to call the shots as you see it, and you've done good by me countless times in the past. So kudos for giving us the straight dope and the real shit.

I'm still eager to read The Steel Remains, but now I know that it's not the best thing since sliced bread. Too bad that it's not the fantasy equivalent of Altered Carbon, but thems the breaks...

Looking forward to this one!

Jimmy

Brian said...

Thanks for the informative review. Too bad it's not as good as they say, but I still have it on pre-order!

With my expectations down a bit, let's hope I'll enjoy it more than you did!:)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insightful review Pat. As a matter of course, we can count on you to be fair and brutally honest if need be.

I wasn't aware of any hype per se, as this is the only SFF online venue I visit regularly. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist remains the best blog out there when one seeks good and intelligent book reviews.

If anything, your review, even if it's not a rave review, has intrigued me enough that I may give this new Morgan a shot... There is something to be said about rough edges!

Love the blog! Don't stop!

Isabelle

Jebus said...

Well I've really enjoyed all his other books so I don't see why I won't like this one, despite the "hype".

Thanks for the review though.

Anonymous said...

Pat,

Do you think it's possible those other bloggers who got review copies before you got overexcited and overlooked some of the book's flaws?

I seem to recall a similar situation with Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skies, when I had to wait for a more even and frank review from you after quite a few extremely positive reviews from your "peers."

Just curious...

Matthew

onigirifb said...

I want to read this one and Neuropath!

Anonymous said...

Did Morgan even write this book? It's so different in both style and content from his previous books that I'm thinking he might have used a "ghost author". This book is just not Richard Morgan. It's too pedestrian and (dare I say it?) boring. If this is the best you can do with fantasy, Richard, please please please go back to SF.

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