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Review: Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains

I really rather wish I'd been able to lay my hands on this back in the days when it was first published, all of two years ago; as it is, I'm coming at it with some more experience and the works of authors like Abercrombie, Martin (well.  A Game of Thrones, anyway), Rothfuss and (in this context, perhaps a little oddly) Miéville under my belt. As it were. In this context, that, I think, is a strength more than a weakness; Morgan knows how to do "fantasy noir" or gritty fantasy with style, panache, and more than a light touch of brilliance.  He even wraps the story up in less than 400 pages, only the epilogue giving rise to the need for a sequel (well. Light hints here and there, but really it's the epilogue) - but don't dodge it for that reason; it's stunningly well done, one of the biggest plot twists in the novel, perfectly done.

So let's start with plot.  It's fast paced and fast moving, everything coming together and coalescing into a single beautiful piece, coming together to form a powerful whole as it moves towards the ends; characters are chess-pieces, but they're chess pieces with motivations of their own, and most of the moving of those chess-pieces is done indirectly by the being(s?) directing that end of the game and it's their reactions to these motivations and external forces that gives the plot an air of plausibility and power.  Given that this is fantasy and involves magic, dimension-travelling, and Clarke's Third Law, making it plausible? That's what I call achievement, man.  That the plot takes place in a world that is, itself, plausible (painfully so, at times - homophobia being a mainstay of religions, slavery introduced for economic reasons, church-state relations... it hits hard) helps this plot work; the world's well-constructed, if occasionally a little basic, with rich history and depth to it.

That depth and history extends to the trio of central characters (two of whom are queer.  Best line? "I'm with the faggot!".  As a way to rally troops) who are sympathetically portrayed, but not perfect - the 'hero' of the novel especially has clearly drawn flaws, and has made mistakes in his past, done things he's ashamed of.  In fact, they're all real people (I hesitate to say human) skilfully depicted and fully rounded out with a deft eye for a character and a personality.  Their interactions are different and, in fact, every single character major or minor has their own style of speech, though there are universals (oooh, sweary!).

The writing style is also fast-paced, without the clumsiness or choppiness that sometimes characterises pace, and yet Morgan knows how to slow down and write lusher, fuller descriptions - there's a chapter (25, for the curious) that could almost have been ripped straight from the pages of a Miéville novel in its weirdness and its lushness of description; he uses his writing style in conjunction with the plot with consummate ease.  There are times (again, 25) where it can let him down somewhat, but it's never truly bad, just occasionally a little problematic; it's also rather a slow read at the start, not in terms of the prose, but because Morgan doesn't seem to have settled fully into the novel.

So, once you're stuck in, this is a really brilliant novel; amazingly well done. Gritty fantasy done right, surpassing all the other writers in the style I've read to date.

Warning: It does, yes, contain reasonably graphic sex scenes of a homoerotic nature.  And a couple of a heteroerotic nature, too.

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