Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke’s much cited Third Law* makes a good starting point for a consideration of Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, let alone my love of the mutability of remains between verb and noun states – referring to the museum references for the former, and several pieces of Kiriath technology for the latter. The Steel Remains is a gritty fantasy world, but unlike the relative realism of worlds like Joe Abercrombie’s it is rife with the fantastical elements of explicit monsters and of magic. It’s an interesting blend, and one that works very well.
The story follows the lives of three veterans of the war with the Scaled Folk and explores the part they play in facing a new threat to the stagnating Yheleth Empire and the unconverted** Leagues. While the characters at first glance may appear to cohere to fantasy stereotypes, you’ll soon realise just how different Morgan makes his heroes. The brilliance of the concept and their execution are fantastic, and I am loath to repeat them here, because a lot of what makes Morgan’s writing so strong is in the pulling away of veils.
This is Morgan’s debut fantasy novel and has justly received high praise from well-regarded authors upon its dust-cover. I was first introduced to Morgan through his first Takeshi Kovacs novel, and swore to read further since then. What Morgan did for cyberpunk and future-noir in that book (tearing apart expectations and saying a massive fuck-you to convention), he attempts to do here. Indeed, on his website he says:
“If you had to – really had to – kill someone, which way would you rather they made you do it? With a pistol, or with an axe?
Exactly. So welcome to the brutal world of Ringil Angeleyes, scarred hero of Gallows Gap and death-wish-furious, semi-retired warrior aristocrat. I’ve been talking a good fight about fantasy noir for a while – now I’m putting my money where my mouth is. The Steel Remains is a grubby, blood-spattered trawl through exactly how unpleasant it might be to actually have to live in the average fantasy universe. Can you do noir in a fantasy landscape? You can certainly try…”
I think he manages it.
Which brings up an interesting idea, at least to me, and especially within my frame of mind as a budding writer: if your audience are unaware of the conventions, does circumventing them in such a manner as Morgan does prevent the full impact of the writing? I wouldn’t necessarily like to judge, at least at this point.
Either way, The Steel Remains remains fantastically strong through its sheer power, its fantastic characters and its brutal writing.
* See rule three.
** And the religious overtones of that word are most definitely intentional.