After a couple of attempts at science fiction, Richard Morgan has turned his hand to fantasy. His earlier works have been well thought of; frequently praised for bringing a touch of reality to the science fiction genre and his fantasy work promises to do the same.
Ringil Eskiath is a war hero, living in the small town of Gallow's Gap; the scene of his greatest moment in a war between humans and a lizard race. His sword hangs in a tavern where he spends most of his time, except when called upon to rid the town of minor nuisances. Although he's still killing things in return for money and favours, his role is now more pest control than protection. Until one day his mother appears and asks him to search for his missing cousin; a request which reluctantly takes him home and throws him into a situation far more serious than it first appears.
Archeth is one of the Kiraith, a race from another world who helped the humans in the last war. Archeth was left behind when her race returned home and she now acts as a reluctant advisor to Emperor Jhiral. She spends her life constantly at risk from the religious leaders who see her as an alien heretic and want her jailed or executed. When the port city of Khangset is virtually destroyed and she seeks to find out who or what might have caused it.
Egan is a nomadic shepherd, enjoying his retirement from fighting by taking advantage of the peace and quiet and the number of young women attracted to his position of clan master and his reputation as a dragon slayer. He has also been changed by his experiences in the war and has little time for his own religion, which sees him branded a heretic amongst his own people. This concerns his brothers, who are determined that he will not dishonour their family name any longer and mean to remove him as head of their clan in the most extreme way.
The story follows these three characters through their daily lives as they deal with the threats facing them and their livelihoods. Unusually for a story like this, we get to see their personal habits as well as follow the more exciting moments. So when Ringil is not dealing with threats to himself or someone else, we get to see him taking drugs and giving blow jobs to other men. We get a full description of Egan's sex life and hear about the casual bigotry that Ringil and Archeth have to deal with on a daily basis.
It is this aspect I enjoyed most. It is rare in fantasy novels that you get characters who swear or have lives outside the story at hand. Their casual use of krinzanz, which sounds similar to marijuana, is unusual and having a homosexual lead character is even more so; especially that we get graphic descriptions of his sex life. This made them feel far more real and made it a lot easier for me to get involved in the story and their lives. It also made completely clear which side of any confrontation the reader was meant to fall on, as whilst the supposed heroes may have been flawed, they were well drawn whereas no-one else had nearly the same level of detail.
Morgan is a fantastically descriptive writer and this helps to visualise many of the situations the characters find themselves in. The main thing he does better than most authors is describe sound. Many writers are good at visual description, but when Morgan describes the sounds of battle; the ringing of metal against metal, the screams of men and horses, he does it better than anyone I can recall and it's the closest thing I've ever come to reading in surround sound.
Morgan's pacing of the actual scenes is wonderfully done as well. He uses short, choppy sentences during action scenes which makes those paragraphs pass quicker than other parts of the story, giving a feeling of the character's heart beating faster with the exertion. This, combined with his special touch with sound, puts the reader into the heart of battle more effectively than many.
There are a couple of downsides, unfortunately. The characters have clearly been through a major war prior to the events of "The Steel Remains" and this is frequently referred to. This makes the book sometimes feel like the second part of a series and made me feel like I was missing out on something. The war seems to have been a major one and several times I found myself wondering more about previous events than current ones. I hope Morgan writes that story at some point, as it's going to be all action and a wonderful read with his writing style.
The other issue I found was that the pacing of this story was a little uneven. For the reader to have enough feel for our supposed heroes there needed to be a lot of character building, but it felt as if there was a lot more of this than there was a conclusion. After all the talk of Ringil as a great general, when the time came for this to be put to the test, that part of things seemed largely glossed over. Indeed, the events that the story seemed to be leading up to were over much too soon and, being as well written as they were, left me feeling unfulfilled and wanting more; like a gourmet meal, it was delicious, but there wasn't nearly enough of it, although there was a delightful little twist at the end, almost the equivalent of an after dinner mint.
One thing for sure, though, is that Richard Morgan is a name well worth looking out for. He adds a touch of reality to a genre where so much has been written that it's difficult to find a new angle and this provides a breath of fresh air. If his science fiction is written the same way, it's no surprise he is highly thought of in that genre and I predict that high praise will soon be coming his way in his new genre. With this book available from as little as 20 pence from eBay or £4.56 at the Amazon Marketplace, finding out for yourself how good he is presents pretty decent value for money.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk