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Book Review: The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

Ringil Eskiath, hero of Gallows Gap, is called from retirement when a distant cousin is sold into slavery to cover her husband’s debts. All perfectly legal, but the Eskiath family honour demands that she be rescued, and although Gil’s homosexuality has made him an outcast in polite society, he is the only family member with the skills and connections for the job.

Egar Dragonbane fought alongside Gil, but after the war he returned to his steppe homeland to lead his tribe. Travel has broadened his mind, however, and he is a misfit amongst the nomads, despised by his conservative younger brothers for his soft southern ways.

Archeth Indamaninarmal is the last of the Kiriath, her kinfolk having departed into the bowels of the earth in steampunk-esque iron ships. Another veteran of the wars, she now acts as advisor to the Yelteth emperor, trying to control his worst excesses whilst avoiding his wrath.

These three heroes’ paths will cross again in a time of crisis, when creatures out of ancient legend return to disturb the decade-long peace…

This is a book I acquired as a convention freebie a few years ago, mislaid, bought in ebook format, changed ebook readers and couldn’t transfer the ebook without cracking the DRM, and finally relocated my paperback copy…so my reading of it was somewhat delayed. This is may be a good thing, since it gave me a chance to cut my teeth on a few other so-called gritty fantasies first. “Bold, brutal and making no compromises”, says the Joe Abercrombie blurb on the cover of my copy, and I have to agree with the verdict. This is not a book for the squeamish – but it rewards perseverance.

For starters, I love Ringil as a protagonist. He’s foul-mouthed and revels in violence, yet at the same time is intelligent and has a wry sense of humour. His high social status enables him to be defiantly gay in a culture that punishes such behaviour with sickening brutality, but he bears deep emotional scars as a result. He’s about as unromantic a hero as you could imagine, and very, very real.

Morgan makes a bold choice with his language and dialogue, not only throwing the f-word around with abandon but using modern idiom such as “okay” and even an occasional “whatever”. I have to admit that on occasion it did jar with me a little, but I was willing to cut Morgan some slack since after all this is not a historical setting, merely a low-tech one. Except that it isn’t.

Although marketed as fantasy, there are strong hints that what the human characters see as magic is merely technology advanced beyond mortal comprehension. We are given glimpses of vast stretches of time, and it seemed to me there was even the possibility that this could be a far-future Earth; the night sky is lit by a band of light – a planetary ring – that used to be a moon much like our own.

I really don’t have much more to say than that if you like your fantasy somewhat epic and dark-edged but with a good dollop of sword-and-sorcery panache, you should read this book. Now.