A review from Interzone 2008
The Steel Remains
Richard Morgan, Orion, 320pp, £12.99 hb
At first sight, Richard Morgan’s latest novel seems to have skipped genres, from his usual sf-noir territory into what I suppose we might, for the sake of convenience, call fantasy-noir. That same distinctive tone of streetwise world-weariness, familiar in Morgan’s earlier work, emerges again as the reader is introduced to Ringil Eskiath, a swordsman and war hero, holed up in an undistinguished town, working as a tavern sideshow, for board and lodging, talking about his exploits during that period and giving exhibitions of his sword skills. In between times, Gil sorts out trouble for the locals, in an exasperated sort of way, and tries not to think too hard about his previous life. It also seems important that the reader knows from the outset that Gil is queer as the narrative voice most emphatically has it. The use of that particular word, with all the political nuances it carries in our world, is perhaps the first hint that whatever is going on here, this is not quite your typical fantasy novel. The manner in which this information is foregrounded is clearly a signal to ‘pay attention’.
But to what? All sorts of things, as it turns out. Twelve years prior to the novel’s beginning, the world was broken apart by a huge conflict, in which humans and the Kiriath defeated the Lizard folk. The effects of this war dominate the novel. The towns are full of people displaced by fighting, the streets are filled with old soldiers begging for a livelihood, too maimed and disfigured to do anything else. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise, and economic necessity prompts a blind eye to be turned to slavery and organised prostitution. Tolerance for the outlandish is at a very low ebb. As characters keep reminding themselves and one another, times have changed, and not necessarily for the better.
The plot hangs around Gil’s search for a member of his extended family (from whom he is estranged, by reason of his queerness) who has been sold into slavery to cover a debt, but here Morgan constantly refuses the conventional fantasy-novel quest structure. Instead, Gil fulfils his quest by means of a series of meandering journeys through his own past, reacquainting himself with people and places. Unexpectedly reunited with a former comrade, Egar, a barbarian who misses the old days spent fighting in Yhelteth (in particular, the hot baths), the two come together one last time to rid the world of evil before going their separate ways.
This novel might be about nostalgia (Morgan openly acknowledges the influence of Poul Anderson, Karl Edward Wagner and Michael Moorcock in writing the book), an elegy for the lost simplicity of sword, sorcery and barbarian fantasies. But it might also be questioning the easy assumptions of those innocent narratives. Given the sense of disillusionment that pervades the novel, I suspect the latter. I think Morgan is trying to link the traditional fantastic narrative with modern concerns, such as human trafficking, refugee displacement, things that previously went unmentioned, as well as re-examining the distinctly old-fashioned sexual politics of those earlier stories. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile project, but to squeeze everything into one novel as Morgan has done has meant that at times the narrative is sacrificed for the sake of the ideology. I like Morgan’s characters, and I like the way he throws the reader crumbs of information about the war through showing its effects. I’m less convinced about the way he has attempted to foreground issues. Which is not to say that this novel is a failure, but it is better to accept that as a reader one is always going to be somehow at a tangent to what’s really happening in this narrative.