There is a question that societies and empires must deal with when wars end: what to do with the displaced veterans. Often they return home as heroes, but that can fade. Just as often, they are left on society’s borders, dejected, with lethal combat skills. How do heroes protect a society that despises them? Do they even know why? How do they live peacefully when killing is all they’re good at? Richard K. Morgan’s the Steel Remains asks these questions brutally, with a challenging approach to adult material. Let me start by saying that is one is most definitely not young adult. It’s full on adult. Rated R adult. In some places it might be NC-17, but that’s a whole other debate that I’m not here for.
Let me also say that I’m not here to discuss “writing the other.” More influential bloggers and accomplished writers have discussed this in depth, to strong effect. There’s a lot of discussion swirling around this book’s main protagonist and since we find out he’s homosexual in the first few pages, I won’t consider telling you this a spoiler. He’s certainly a type we don’t see much in fantasy where homosexual men are portrayed as effeminate bards or predatory pederasts. A lot of the content surrounding the main protagonists is a challenging read, which seems to be Morgan’s main point: the book has been lauded for challenging fantasy conventions, but I found its plot to be comfortably familiar. There’s even a bit of deus ex machina at work as gods move their chess pieces about. It uses a lot of the regular trappings of fantasy: dual knife wielding dark “elves,” mysterious, miraculous blades with great names, religious zealots, other worlds or states of being reached through magic, and accomplished heroes. These elements get woven into a more embittered world, where good and evil don’t exist. Everything, and everyone, has a shade of gray to them. Slavery, drug use, hedonistic sexuality, and language I would not use on a regular basis are all on full display. The world is still reeling from a war, and in this the protagonists stumble. The world itself is a good one, well worth a side trip, but I’m not sure I’m ready to spend a full series there.
The ultimate question is of course, is the Steel Remains a good book? The story had me gripped at points, but the clear, open-ended threads left dangling signaled a trilogy or series. After Robert Jordan, I’m a little nervous about loose threads. A lot of build up was done without a payoff. Some important events were told and not shown. There are a few good twists, so the plot carried me, but I had a hard time accepting the characters’ motivations. I like what Morgan is trying to do, which is stretch the genre, but I think that aside from a few adult trappings, the book fails to do anything new.