Richard Morgan exploded (in many sticky ways) on the science-fiction scene with Altered Carbon in 2002. The book introduced readers to the bad ass-and-world-weary Takeshi Kovacs, and, more importantly, to Morgan's unique voice. Through his three Kovacs novels, two stand-alone novels and two graphic novels, Morgan has carved out a niche of cinematic violence and grim-outlooked protagonists operating on the edge of society. When you're reading Morgan, you know you're going to see shit get blown up, people get laid and whiskey get drunk.
(Full review - and no spoilers! - after the jump)
If anything, this commitment to unflinching brutality and warts-and-all character development comes through even more in The Steel Remains, Morgan's first fantasy effort. Even within the recent (best-selling) sub-genre of character-focused, low-Fantasy epics (George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie,...), Morgan's style stands out as particularly aggressive.
The three main characters are all blatantly and exceptionally flawed, at least by the standards of the traditional fantasy epic. The fantasy genre is littered with 'outsider' heroes (who, you know, are actually destined to be the High King/Archmage/Dragonslayer/etc.), but very rarely are they self-loathing, abandoned, half-alien lesbians. Or pot-bellied, homosexual has-beens. Or even the adulterous, Epicurean clan chief - leveraging his position for milk maids and silk sheets. Initially, this feels like a stated challenge from Morgan to his audience - Well, are you going to follow me or not?
A second challenge is the unexpected reliance on fantasy elements. In the Kovacs books - especially Altered Carbon - the balance between the 'science' and the 'fiction' is well-maintained. The technology is there to support the story, and no more. The speculative elements are a 'black box' (literally, actually) that quietly do their thing to support the noir-ish, character-driven story. The Black Widow comics are also great examples of using the world/technology/super-heroic silliness to support the story, not steal it.
In The Steel Remains, the fantasy does steal the scene at times. Possibly the most jarring segment is a long, multi-dimensional wander. Although it attempts (I'm assuming) to build an awe-inspiring sense of grandeur into the story, the meandering, descriptive prose feels at odds with the otherwise earthy, snappy, dialogue-driven story.
The Steel Remains excels when Morgan steps back from the challenges to the reader, and the world-building, and really lets loose and has fun. Even at the bleakest moments in the book, the crisp, earthy dialogue between the characters never feels forced. Similarly, the action - sometimes quick and deadly, sometimes lavishly detailed - is always sleek, cinematic and brutal. Like rubber-necking at a collision of F1 cars
I must admit, I did struggle through the first part of the book. However, about two-thirds of the way through (exact moment in non-spoiler terms - "Ringil's speech"), I was ready to stand up and cheer. Blades sang, blood flowed, dialogue snapped and all was right in the world. Putting the book down was no longer an option.
The Steel Remains feels like it is about as far as an author can stretch the darker aspects of fantasy without it becoming unreadable. The despairing emotional landscape and the 'This one goes to 11' approach to sex/language/slaughter will certainly dissuade as many people as it will attract. In both the good and the bad, it is a difficult act to follow - both for Richard Morgan and other authors occupying the same literary space.