Sunday, November 01, 2020

The Steel Remains is a Maybe Too Modern S&S Novel

 Just finished Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains last night.  (And yes, that's an Amazon Associate link.  Troll's gotta eat!)  I enjoyed it and could hardly put it down while I was reading it.  That said, once I was done with the book, it left me with an odd, and not entirely pleasant, taste in my brain.

 

One reason I think I enjoyed it is because The Steel Remains wears its Sword & Sorcery love on its sleeve.  In the Acknowledgements (interestingly placed at the end of the book in an attempt, I suppose, to not encourage readers to prejudge) he thanks Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and Poul Anderson.  While I would totally recommend this book to readers looking for S&S fiction written with a modern touch, the feel is more Glen Cook (especially his Instrumentalities of the Night series) and Steven Erikson’s Malazan books.

 

But having said that, let me throw in a HUGE caveat: the world-building in this book is pretty light and comes across as lazy compared to Cook and especially Erikson.  If you read for incredible world-building, the first book in the series is not for you.

 

But having said that, I’m not sure the world-building really was lazy.  I suspect the author just took the whole iceberg metaphor about world-building too much to heart.  For instance, there are, I think, three religions that play important roles in this novel.  One is a shamanic polytheism.  One is a noble-savage-esque Islam pastiche that’s had an opulent and decadent empire grow up around it. 

 

The third is a real mystery.  It might be a variation of the Islam pastiche, but they don’t use the same terms to describe it, so I don’t think it is.  It might also not actually be a religion, but more a moral philosophy along the lines of Confucianism.  About the only concrete thing we learn about it is that it considers homosexual sex to be a crime worthy of execution by days-long public torture.  And they have the civil authority to carry it out.

 

Now, that really is the only thing about it that matters to the main character (one of three) that comes from this culture.  So talking only about this aspect can be considered extremely efficient storytelling.  But I think fans of intricate worldbuilding can be excused for wondering if that’s all the author bothered to come up with.  I certainly wouldn’t have minded a little more seasoning along the lines of Lovecraft’s cabbages of Ulthar. 

 

All of the priest(ly) characters are raving assholes out of Hawthorne novels.  At least two are vicious moral monsters. 

 

And just to completely drive a certain sort of reader screaming for the hills, the worldbuilding we do get is almost entirely designed to alienate our three protagonists from the cultures in which they live.  None of them are the Portlandia reader-insert cat-savers that the main character from Leckie’s Ancillary novels is.  For instance, all three are unapologetic (if sometimes angsty) killers who’d be right at home in a Brust novel or one of Wagner’s Kane stories.  But two of them come across as the only people in the entire world who feel slavery is so morally repugnant they want nothing to do with it. 

 

The book is fairly unrelenting in its darkness.  Everyone is morally soiled; there is no virtue in poverty, and civilization and barbarism are just different sides of the same debased coin.  The only moment of moral purity is held up as an unattainable slap-in-the-face to showcase just how ugly this world is. 

 

And yeah, I couldn’t put it down.  Discovering, at the end, that this was the same author who did Altered Carbon made me more interested in checking that out.  If you’re longing for a raw and gritty novel about killers wading ankle-deep in blood through battlefields and back alleys because godlike beings are moving them around like pieces on a chess board, you should absolutely give this novel a look. 

 

19 comments:

Kalyptein said...

I felt like there were a number of conscious inversions of Middle Earth in the book.

The kiriath (elves) are dark-skinned instead of pale, super-technological instead of nature-loving, and departed into the Earth in their fireships, leaving behind the lone half-elf.

The kiriath helped a virtuous human king (aragorn) found his kingdom (gondor), but its middle eastern flavored, instead of european.

It's also set in what I think is a mythic future (after the moon has broken up into a planetary ring), instead of the past.

There are plenty of things without parallels, and the story doesn't turn on these parallels, I just felt like it was a thing he was playing around with. Curious if you saw any of this, or if it's just me.

trollsmyth said...

Kalyptein: Well, he does mention Elric as an inspiration. And I saw the lone half-elf kinda like a socially broken Samwise, ever aching for what had been lost, but without family to help her through it. Very "Smith of Wootton Major" vibe.

Not sure the rest works for me. The "virtuous human king" in this case turns out to be a garden-variety empire-builder complete with mass slaughter and forced migrations. I was kinda surprised about the references to the moon; I'm not sure there's enough mass in our moon to create a ring like that. I'm still very open to the idea that this is happening on another planet and the "gods" are competing AIs whose CPUs are hiding in the ring.

But yeah, he's clearly tweaking High Fantasy expectations here.

Yora said...

Well, that sounds miserable. Is it grimdark?

trollsmyth said...

Yora: not yet. Again, it reminds me very much of Cook and Erikson in how it flirts with grimdark, but then people who are clearly heroes win in the end. So grimdark adjacent, I suppose?

That said, book 2 opens pretty ugly, so we'll see.

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