Synopsis: A dark lord will rise. Such is the prophecy that dogs Ringil Eskiath—Gil, for short—a washed-up mercenary and onetime war hero whose cynicism is surpassed only by the speed of his sword. Gil is estranged from his aristocratic family, but when his mother enlists his help in freeing a cousin sold into slavery, Gil sets out to track her down. But it soon becomes apparent that more is at stake than the fate of one young woman. Grim sorceries are awakening in the land. Some speak in whispers of the return of the Aldrain, a race of widely feared, cruel yet beautiful demons. Now Gil and two old comrades are all that stand in the way of a prophecy whose fulfillment will drown an entire world in blood. But with heroes like these, the cure is likely to be worse than the disease.
“The sun lay dying amidst torn cloud the colour of bruises, at the bottom of a sky that never seemed to end. Night drew in across the grasslands from the east, turning the persistent breeze chilly as it came. There’s an ache to the evenings up here, Ringil had said once, shortly before he left. It feels like losing something every time the sun goes down.”
Richard (K) Morgan is a well-known science fiction author, with this his foray into fantasy. I’ve owned Altered Carbon for longer than I care to admit & have yet to read it. Although I will. For sure. SOON! Especially after having read this. Truthfully, when I first discovered The Steel Remains ages ago, I didn’t realize it was the same author. Whether or not that is because it’s a different genre or the “K” is missing from this particular edition, who knows. It doesn’t matter! IT’S FINE! It was rad to find out that they are actually the same person.
The fact The Steel Remains first came out over a decade ago is fucking radical & I only wish that my ass had read it sooner! This series is often mentioned by knowledgeable people in the book world when recommending grimdark books, yet it is frequently overlooked when in lists with the more popular Abercrombie, Martin & Lawrence. Well.. it shouldn’t be! Add Morgan to the ever-growing list of writers who juxtaposes dark & grimy world-building with brutally beautiful prose. In many ways, his writing reminded me of one of my all-time favorite writers, Mark Lawrence. This delicious blend of poetic quality storytelling with horrific violence. Goddamn.
I’m not one to regurgitate the synopsis over & over, so I won’t. The quick & dirty is that this follows three protagonists – Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane & Archeth Indamaninarmal. Their stories are told separately for most of the book, but ancient demons have returned & are wreaking havoc, which eventually brings the trio together again.
This is pure grimdark. It will not be for everyone, which is understandable. Many fantasy fans loathe sex scenes & well.. there are certainly more than a few within this. Personally, I don’t mind sex in my fantasy! Sex scenes have a voice in the story, generally. Like with anything else. The main thing I’ve seen about The Steel Remains is that people were taken out of the story because of the sex scenes. I didn’t look into it any further because I planned on reading it anyway & as you know, I like finding things out for myself! But I’ll say now, dear reader.. after having read this, I wonder if those same people would have been complaining as much if all of the sex was hetero sex? Is there more focus on this because it features a queer protagonist? Some people just don’t like reading sex scenes, which is fine. Yet I feel as though consensual sex in fantasy receives flack, it’s perceived as gross or cringe-worthy.. yet readers barely bat an eye when it’s rape.
Which is something that I will never stop talking about – writers using rape as a plot device to propel the male characters narrative in the story. Gratuitous sexual violence with little to no attention paid to the victim. Authors that are too fucking unimaginative to give a woman strength in her role, without having to endure violence at the hands of a man first. She’s not allowed to be a victim, to mourn whatever tragedy she has gone through.. but she must go through this to become something of substance. FUCK THAT! I love dark & horribly violent things.. clearly. But I don’t need to read about rape & torture just for the sake of rape & torture. There needs to be something more.
In saying that, I wrote at length about Mark Lawrence & his character Jorg, who was fucking vile towards women. There is a difference between character voice & author voice, however. Lawrence isn’t using women in the wrong light, as characters. His protagonist is the one treating women this way.
The TL;DR version is.. The Steel Remains has graphic sex scenes, including rape. For me, I found that Morgan was careful to tread a fine line of sexual violence in the story by expressing that this is wrong. His characters committing the act are awful shitbirds, but as a writer he is showing us, the reader, the balance between the brutality & disgust of what is happening in this horrific society. A society so bad that homosexuality is outlawed, resulting in death.
So while there are a few things I could have done without (rape, secondary female characters seen as expendable, throwing around the word “faggot”) there were also many things I fucking loved about this book. Gritty, visceral, brutal as fuck.. The Steel Remains deals with subjects that are still sadly rare in this genre – two of the three main characters are queer & Archeth is a woc. GIVE ME ALL THE DIVERSE FANTASY! The central theme throughout is of intense homophobia within the society. Ringil is confronted with it incessantly at times. It’s powerful to see in this setting, as well as how he deals with PTSD. The pseudo-medieval world-building is fucking intriguing. It’s immersive & grim & complex. This is fantasy, but there are rumblings of science fiction & I AM HERE FOR IT!!
The brilliance cannot go unnoticed. The amalgamation of gorgeous prose with furious violence will polarize, without a doubt. But I was hooked from the first line!
Grim & dark, indeed.