Richard K. Morgan has made a career of taking the familar elements of science-fiction, breaking them down and building them into something that respects its past but it willing to challenge readers by trying something new. After a successful and award-winning run in sci-fi, Morgan is now turning to the world of fantasy to take the familar and make it new and fresh again.
“The Steel Remains” is the first of a new trilogy by Morgan. The story has the usual fantasy tropes on display–a hero with a glorious past, fuedal power plays, a new power from outside the kingdom that is slowly becoming a threat. But Morgan is able to take each of these and stamp his own signature on them, which is part of what makes “Remains” such a refreshing entry in the fantasy genre. Morgan pays homage to the roots of the genre, but doesn’t let them show when he colors them a different way.
One of the most interesting is how Morgan creates his charcters. Just as he does in “Altered Carbon,” his protagonists aren’t exactly the most loveable of people. Morgan’s strength is drawing characters who are shades of gray and having readers root for those people because they’re actually fully, fleshed out and realized characters and not your typical genre archetypes. On the surface, one character, Ringil, sounds like a typical fantasy hero. He’s had his past glories, he’s estranged from his family but he’s willing to do the right thing when push comes to shove. Morgan is able to subvert the usual expectations of the classic sword-wielding fantasy hero with the backstory of Ringil, including why he’s estranged from his powerful family and doesn’t get along with his father. I won’t tell you what that is here–Morgan tells you quickly within the first few chapters. But watching the flashbacks of the events will be far more entertaining and interesting for readers to discover for themselves.
Ringil is called upon by his mother to look into the disappearance of a cousin. The cousin was sold into marriage to pay a debt, but Mom thinks something more is going on. Ringil reluctantly takes the assignment and soon finds the world is changing and there’s some kind of threat from outside the realm that is slowly creeping into things. Ringil is joined by friends to look into this and Morgan slowly gives readers all the pieces of the puzzle. Satisfyingly enough, this novel can stand on its own with most of the central conflict wrapped up before you turn the last page. But Morgan is shrewd enough to offer hints of things to come that could be picked up in future volumes. It seems that just as he did with the “Altered Carbon” novels, he’s working on a continuing series that isn’t so interconnected that readers can’t drop in the middle and not feel hopelessly lost. You may miss some of the character development or some nuances, but overall you’re going to be able to enjoy the story a single novel is telling on its own merits.
It’s something I wish a lot of other genre publishers would realize fans want these days.
This is a mature novel–it deals with a lot of mature themes and it does contain Morgan’s signature coarse language. If you can’t wrap your head around fantasy characters prodigiously using the f-bomb, this may not be your cup of tea. But if you want something new, different and yet very much in the fantasy tradition of the greats of the genre, then “The Steel Remains” is definitely a must read