Or why you should read The Steel Remains
by Richard K Morgan
When I was in high school I read a ton of Epic Fantasy. Paperback after paperback of D&D inspired adventures with Wizards and Barbarian Warriers and Elfin Rangers confronting monstrous hordes, fighting evil masterminds, hefting tankards, and falling in love. Action! Romance! Adventure! For a teenage dork, even one who has never rolled an unexpected-sided dice in his life, these were the books for me.
The trouble with this seam of the genre is that it started to feel largely formulaic and inauthentic. Quests and legendary journeys and epic battles all started to follow certain predictable shapes and the simple moral systems and the lack of reasonable consequences started to barge with the more nuanced, cynical, and complicated world experience was teaching me about. Things aren't unicorn goddesses and healing spells and quietly perfect heroes and a fictional universe that operates along these lines doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
The Steel Remains is an Epic Fantasy novel for the cynical, lapsed Epic Fantasy fan.
The Steel Remains begins several years after a great human victory. Almost a decade before, standing together with the advanced Kiriath, the human nations of the world united to repel an invasion of the Scaled Folk from the sea in a war that reshaped the world. But that was years ago and glory is fleeting. Now Ringil Eskiath, a champion swordsman and hero of Gallows Gap, lives in a hamlet, exiled by his "deviancy" and disgust with the powers which emerged after the war. Now Archeth Indamaninarmal, a half-Kiriath sage, is abandoned by her father's people when they departed the world and advises the mercurial son of the Emperor she respected. Now Egar Dragonbane, a barbarian hero who killed dragons, has returned to his Majak homeland to raise cattle on the steppes. Things are a little shit, basically. That is until Ringil's aristocratic mother turns up, imploring her son to rescue his cousin, legally sold into slavery to pay for her husband's debt. Which sends Ringil on a quest into the darkest corners of the world and exposes an ancient evil returning to the world. An ancient evil that will awaken and drag all of these heroes back into the world.
The Steel Remains is exactly the kind of morally complicated Epic Fantasy I crave these days. The heroes of the story aren't fated, simple heroes doing things out of loyalty or honour, they are complicated individuals who have been shaped by ideals and greed, tragedy and glory, and a rich constellation of motivations like real people. They are all laudable in some ways and despicable in others. But mostly they are interesting: the complexity and nuance of morality to the core characters of The Steel Remains lends them a depth of interest that is often lacking in the characters of more conventionally written Fantasy. It jives so much more with my view of the world and feels far more authentic. The Steel Remains is also interesting in that it is a story that comes after a moment of traditional Fantasy glory and is about heroes living after this and dragging themselves back to it, which as a mostly lapsed Fantasy audience I found a compelling tact. If you used to like Fantasy, and stepped away from it, The Steel Remains may be a vehicle to bring you back to the genre.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who kind of misses Fantasy and cringes at the idea of reading a good-old-fashion pulpy swords and sorcery adventure. If you crave gritty, nuanced Fantasy this is a very good book. That said, it is DARK. There are some properly fucking awful things that happen in this book and a lot of the development in the book is pretty bleak. If you are someone who doesn't like Grimdark or graphic depictions of human awfulness, avoid The Steel Remains, it is not the book for you. That said, The Steel Remains, despite the aforementioned awfulness, is also a pleasantly progressive book featuring a gay protagonist and a lesbian principle character. If you crave well made genre fiction with queer characters, this book may be worth a try. Just, remember, know it is going to be problematic and challenging at times. It is certainly not for everyone, but I really enjoyed The Steel Remains.