Lists: all the rage on the internet these days.
1. A relic from the Age of Grimdark
The whole Song of Ice and Fire-emulating gritty grimdark thing is by no means over, but I feel like it saw its most intense expression in the 2007-2013 period and is now somewhat on the wane (although it lingers on in the form of book titles and back cover synopses seemingly designed to be read through clenched teeth). As such, reading The Steel Remains is like opening an unpleasant, sweaty time capsule: it takes place in a setting divided between a brutal, violent theocratic empire, a brutal, violent alliance of mercantile city-states, and a brutal, violent society of steppe nomads. The laws and customs of these cultures are brutal and violent, and the characters alternately do brutal, violent things and have violently brutal acts done to them.
For example, it’s not enough that the protagonist’s home city executes people for homosexuality; they have to do it in the most spectacularly unpleasant and stomach-churning way possible. The part of the book I read was filled with rape (more on that in a second), torture, mass slaughter and slavery, to an extent that would come off as black humour if the story was taking place in a Warhammer 40,000-esque over the top hellscape and not a fairly mundane cookie-cutter fantasy world (more on that in a second as well).
Ages ago, I said that authors who go in for this style feel like they’re rebelling against Tolkien and other classic fantasy authors, in a decidedly adolescent manner. The Steel Remains feels like it’s trying to impress a clique of older cool kids by smoking weed and wearing baggy pants and wallet chains; you can almost hear Morgan saying “Oh, you thought Martin’s books were violent and edgy? Well get a load of this shit!”
2. Stop with the rape already
One of the big complaints I and many others have about “dark” fantasy books (apart from the fact that they’e stupid and childish) is that they frequently seem to dole out their misery disproportionately. Specifically, they often seem to go out of their way to victimize women. Even more specifically, they do it with rape. It’s the go-to way to make a world seem more violent and depressing, or to add a bit of extra grittiness to any situation.
The Steel Remains is possibly the worst offender I’ve ever seen, bringing up rape at pretty much any opportunity. There was a war? Lots of women got raped during it. Refugees fleeing the destruction of their village? Soldiers raped the women. Hell, men get raped as well–the main character went to a military academy where it’s implied that literally every student gets gang-raped by his students and/or molested by the faculty more or less as soon as they set foot in the door (this is the point where I decided I wasn’t going to finish the book, incidentally).
A large part of the plot revolves around the main character’s home city legalizing slavery in order to pay off war debts. Under this system, citizens who get themselves into financial trouble or other sticky situations can be seized by the authorities, then sold to slave traders who sell them on to customers. In the real world, the chief motive behind acquiring slaves has usuallu been for the purpose of labour, and in a pre-industrial setting like this book takes place in, that would likely be the case as well. Therefore, you’d expect that able-bodied men would probably be in the highest demand.
But that’s not the case. Instead, in the part of the book I read the slave trade seems to be more or less entirely focused on sexual slavery, and every slave either seen or mentioned is a woman, alongside a smattering of young boys (EDGY). In fact, I might be mis-interpreting this, but the book seems to imply that if a man fucks up to the point where the legal slave traders get involved, it’s common for them to take female members of the household instead of the actual perpetrator, since they’re worth more on the market.
This makes no sense, and is extremely skeezy and distasteful. It’s like Morgan thought run of the mill back-breaking labor or forced servitude wasn’t shocking enough.
3. Two out of three protagonists are boring as hell
There are actually four viewpoint characters in the book, but one of them is a villain who I expect probably doesn’t live much longer beyond the point where I stopped reading, so I’ll stick to the main three.
First up we’ve got Ringil, the main-main character. He’s a former soldier who made a name for himself as a legendary badass during a near-apocalyptic war between humans and dragon-wrangling lizard people, and when the book opens he’s languishing in obscurity in a small town, living off his reputation and occasionally acting as a sort of monster-slayer for hire (there’s another wrinkle to this that I’ll get to later). It’s a sort of Kvothe situation where he secretly yearns for his old life of adventure and derring-do.
Second up to bat is Egor (which I kept pronouncing as Igor), a Majak nomad who fought beside Ringil and became famous for killing a dragon. He’s currently serving as leader of his clan, but he secretly longs to return to the wider, cosmopolitan world he left behind at the end of the war.
You may have noticed that these two characters are very similar.
In fact, they’re even more interchangeable than that description makes them sound. They’re both former warriors stuck in dull lives they don’t really want, they both secretly love fighting and risking their lives even though they pretend not to, they both spend a lot of time ruminating grimly on their lost youth, they both to varying degrees put up facades of being heartless bastards even though they actually Care. Pretty much the only real difference between them is age (although Ringil acts like he’s going through a mid-life crisis even though he’s only thirty-two) and the fact that the root of Ringil’s Angst is a lot more compelling.
That leaves our third protagonist to do all the heavy lifting, and she nearly succeeds. Archeth is another one of Ringil’s war buddies, and the last remaining representative of the Kiriath, an advanced race of dark-skinned beings who are thought of both by themselves and others as non-human, but who might actually just be technologically advanced people from another universe. She was left behind by the rest of the Kiriath when they vanished at the end of the war due to having a human mother, and as the book opens she’s reluctantly investigating some spooky shit for the emperor of the dogmatic Yhelteth Empire.
Archeth’s story is vastly more interesting, for a number of reasons. The Kiriath are waymore original and novel than anything else in the book (they have AIs and inter-dimensional spaceships!), and Archeth’s status as standing in an uneasy void between the human and Kiriath wolds–identifying as Kiriath and thought of as one by humanity, but abandoned by them due to her human blood–is, while not the most original character situation in all of fiction, still leagues ahead of Ringil and Egor’s generic old-man grumping and Angst. Her narration also has a semblance of actual wit and levity that’s tinged with the bitterness of her situation, but not buried under it the way Ringil and Egon’s are.
Unfortunately, her storyline is also the slowest-paced and least exciting. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was the sole focus of the book, bus since it’s scattered in among the other three it feels like it moves at a snail’s pace. In other words we’ve got two dull protagonists in story-lines that can get quite exciting on the slashy-stabby front, and one interesting protagonist stuck in a mystery plot that’s bogged down by the rest of the book.
4. A squandered setting
The talk of parallel dimensions and AI-driven spaceships might have tipped you off to the face that The Steel Remains has a distinctly science-fantasy bent to it. The “magic” and sorcery that the Kiriath are known for might actually just be advanced science across the board, the antagonistic Dwenda introduced later are even more ridiculously advanced, and the planet the story takes place on has a Saturn-style dust ring.
This is both the book’s biggest strength and its biggest missed opportunity. Morgan clearly put a lot of thought into some aspects of the book’s setting, such as what the dust ring would look like from the planet’s surface and how it might factor into various cultures and religious beliefs, but in other regards he totally whiffs it. For example, the technology level of most of the setting seems to be modern (in the historical sense of post-Renaissance), yet there’s no hint of firearms or cannons, because I guess it wouldn’t be fantasy enough if people weren’t using swords and crossbows. The idea of the Kiriath’s advanced technology percolating out into the low-tech setting and being reverse engineered is an intriguing possibility, but it only ever manifests in the form of cool unbreakable swords.
5. Have I told you my protagonist is gay
I fully admit that this criticism might be entirely false and unfair to Morgan. But it’s my blog, so I’m going to say it anyway.
So Ringil is gay, and a lot of his Angst stems from the fact that his home city (as well as, apparently, every other location in the world) doesn’t exactly react well to this, to the tune of horrible, violent execution. His first boyfriend was killed in front of him while he was forced to watch, he only escaped the same fate because he’s of noble birth and the city officials aren’t shy about reminding him, his heroic military exploits weren’t recognized after the war, and he and his family barely tolerate each other.
The book has no qualms about depicting Ringil’s sexuality frankly and openly (which has apparently earned it a measure of backlash over the years). Normally, I’d be fine with this. But in this case, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the frequent depictions of sweaty, manly, bodily-fluid-soaked gay sex weren’t in the book because men having sex is a thing that happens and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be in a book that also features straight sex, but because it’s just another thing, beside all the rape and violence, that’s meant to blow the reader’s tiny mind. Ringil spends a lot of time shocking the socks off his straight-laced social peers by talking about blowing dudes or the extent to which he appreciates penises, and eventually I started to wonder if the intent was for the reader to be shocked as well.
Archeth is also gay, and while the book doesn’t shy away from her sexuality, in the part I read it’s not shoved into the reader’s face in as visceral a manner as Ringil’s sexual exploits are. Since I didn’t finish the book, I can’t say that it stays that way, but the difference in how these characters are portrayed comes off like Morgan thought (almost certainly correctly) that uncompromising depictions of man-on-man action would shock your average fantasy reader more than sex between two women.
Again: I might be totally off the mark here, but that’s how it came off to me. If the rest of the book wasn’t trying so god damn hard to be edgy and offensive, I don’t think Ringil’s sexuality would have come off this way, regardless of whether it was intentional or not.
6. It’s really stupid
There’s a scene about a quarter of the way through this book where the POV villain–an evil, conniving Majak shaman–is having rough kinky bondage sex with a prostitute when one of his religion’s goddesses possesses her. This manifests as a hand emerging from her vagina to crush his ding-dong.
Yes, this is hard to take seriously. It would be absolutely hilarious, if not for the fact that the prostitute gets her neck snapped as part of the possession process (EDGY).
7. In conclusion
If you’re looking for lots of rugged dudes staring ruefully at things and having Agnst in between occasional bouts of violent carnage, The Steel Remains will probably be right up your alley. Personally, it just felt like wasted potential to me.