Now, I read very little fantasy these days, and my knowledge of the genre is pretty pathetic. I can remember a couple of years ago when The Blade Itself came out I had a review that described the book as having a “Vancian reminiscence.” “Vancian?” I asked my editors, with one eyebrow raised. “That’s right, like Jack Vance.” “Jack Vance?” I asked with both eyebrows raised. They looked at me as if I’d asked who Elvis was. I’ve read Tolkien, course. Dragonlance, Eddings, bit of Jordan, guilty as charged. Martin, Moorcock, and LeGuin, yes. But more recently, you can pretty much forget it. Bakker, not a word. Erikson, not a peep. Mieville, not a sausage.
I believe if you’re going to be a serious critic, you need to know the genre you’re talking about pretty damn well, so you can see where a piece stands in relation to others. Furthermore, as a writer of fantasy myself, I find a) rating other people’s work is a bit close to the bone, since I know how it feels to be rated myself, and I don’t always enjoy it, and b) I find it very hard to get properly submerged in fantasy writing now – I’m always picking at it, thinking how I’d do it differently, and so on – like a glassblower looking at someone else’s beautiful vase and moaning that he wouldn’t have done the fluting just that way. Some writers are critics too, and the best of luck to them, but I’m not one, really, except in the “like arseholes, everyone’s got opinions” sense. But Simon Spanton at Gollancz asked me for mine (opinion, that is, not arsehole) on sf author Richard Morgan’s foray into the world of epic fantasy, The Steel Remains.
I will not presume to review it, there’ll be folk enough doing that shortly, I’m sure. I’ll just say how it struck me.
This is a good book. It may very well be part of a really great series. It’s an extreme book, a challenging book in all kinds of ways – themes, content, and style. It reaches the parts most epic fantasies don’t reach and many fantasy readers may not want to have reached. Morgan seems to say to them – tough shit, and you’ve got to greatly admire his bollocks in doing so. No-one could accuse him of moving into fantasy in order to take the easy commercial path. NO-ONE.
Larry from Wotmania was recently examining bad criticism in the genre, and pointing out that there’s nothing lazier than talking about one book by glibly comparing it to another. I will now, therefore, encaspsulate The Steel Remains by glibly comparing it to a whole load of other stuff that it’s only vaguely like. Observe me in action:
There’s not much Tolkien in the mix at all, not much epic massiveness, no good and evil whatsoever, just loads of evil, and boy is there no romanticism. But there’s not much Martin either, which surprised me, because that’s more what I was expecting – Morgan’s isn’t a low magic world really, in fact there’s quite a range of the wierd and wonderful in there. Elves (but messed up), Lizardmen (kind of), Dragons (of a sort), Magic swords (ish), sorcery (maybe). If I had to say what the world made me think of (work with me, Larry, work with me) it’s probably closest to something like the sweaty back-streets of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, with a bit of the endless steppe from the Conan the Barbarian movie, and the lost, ancient technologies of the Elder Scrolls computer games. A world full of the strange and unexplained, but also a very grim one, constantly in the shadow of old and terrible wars with lashings of religious bigotry, sexual oppression, messy executions, and slavery.
I’m probably doing it a disservice and making it sound piecemeal, which it isn’t really. In fact it’s pretty interesting with quite a few (to me at least) original notions in there, especially as the book goes on. A surprsingly tasty cocktail, for one with so varied a set of ingredients. Certainly the book doesn’t feel at all like some ham-fisted reaction against fantasy, just a very different take on it. Some would probably say it’s light on the worldbuilding, and be confused as to where x is in relation to y, but that suits me fine, as you can imagine.
What else can I compare it to? It has the explosive violence of, well, Richard Morgan (only about twice as explosive), the moral ambiguity of vintage Moorcock (but about three times as dark), with the explicit sexual content of Martin (only about ten times more explicit, and I’m not kidding), the harsh language of Scott Lynch (times about 1,000,000). If those things put you off, really, don’t bother. The first couple of pages will probably give you a bit of mouth sick. The lyricism of Patrick Rothfuss? Not so much. The languid descriptions of Robert Jordan? No. The charming rural laughs of Eddings? No. No. No.
Anyway, I was honoured to be asked for a line or two on it, so here’s mine:
“Bold, brutal, and making no compromises – Morgan doesn’t so much twist the cliches of fantasy as take an axe to them. Then set them on fire. Then put them out by pissing on them.”
I suspect the last sentence won’t make many press releases, but I like to think that Mr. Morgan would approve. I ended up liking The Steel Remains a lot, and I think a lot of other people will too, but I must admit it took me quite a while to get there.
For one thing, I’m not used to reading other people’s manuscripts, and since it looked kind of like one of mine, it took me a while to just read it without thinking stuff like, “no, no, wrong adverb.” Setting and binding definitely helps to give books authority – I find reading proofs a bit odd, in fact, so this was quite weird to begin with. Also, Morgan’s approach to fantasy feels somewhere in the same ballpark as mine. I mean, it’s not actually alike in any meaningful way, far further apart than a whole host of writers are to Tolkien, say. But close enough that I felt not just like a glass-blower assessing someone else’s glassware, but a maker of little glass unicorns looking at someone else’s glass unicorns. A pathetic metaphor. What I’m trying to say is it drops you in at the deep end, in the middle of the action, and lets the reader sink or swim. It’s harsh, with some occasional black humour, has used-up, world-weary, semi-likeable characters, some heavy violence, a very modern sensibility and a feel of edgy realism. Probably it was that much harder for me to achieve “submersion” in it, if you like, than it will be for most, because it’s my cup of tea, and I was therefore tasting it with much greater and more critical discernment than usual. It’s my cup of tea, only a lot stronger than I usually take it, I must admit. Real brown and soupy. Like the bag’s been left in overnight, or something. This is some strong medicine, and as I was going through, I must admit that I found myself often wondering – how extreme, in all sorts of ways, is too extreme?
It’s not that I’m a prude (he says, loosening his well-starched dog collar by just the tiniest fraction that strict social decorum will allow), and often I got caught up in it all and the heart would be pumping, but sometimes I’d wipe the latest explosion of gore, shit, or spunk from my face and just think, “must we? Must we, again?” It occasionally gave me that feeling of, “if you’re playing on 10 all the time, and you want that little bit more, where do you go?” Some will definitely love this book and some will definitely hate it, but a few may reasonably think it could have been just a tad less lurid at times and gained punch as a result…
also an unremitting grimness that makes it all pretty heavy-going in places. Ariel coined the term “Brutalist Fantasy” and I think that’s very apt. Everyone is in fear, in danger, alone, oppressed, hated, self-loathing, tortured by their pasts, and the result is that it feels, at least for the first half, perhaps a bit one-toned. The upside is that a couple of deft touches of humanity later on, from some of the places you least expect them, shine brightly against the grim backdrop, and when the central characters finally come together for the finale, the bond between them is surprisingly effective and really quite touching.
But probably the biggest problem I had with the book, and this is a personal reaction rather than a general criticism, is its utterly unflinching modernity – in the prose, and in the dialogue. No doubt it’s entirely intentional, but I did find it jarring. Barbarians use phrases like “back in ’55”, everyone from swineherd, to knight, to emperor, says “yeah,” frequently, and everyone, and I mean everyone, says “fuck.” They say it a lot. They say it a fucking lot.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I despise faux victorian romanticism in prose and dialogue as much as the next man. A lot more, in fact. I’m not asking anyone to go all “prithee”, “pon mine honour” and “ifaith, my liege”, but at the same time I feel the words you pick are very important, and for me some of the language didn’t necessarily communicate much about the characters and the settings in question, in fact it conflicted with them quite badly, at least at first, and gave it all an oddly schizophrenic feel. An epic fantasy with the prose of … well, of a Richard Morgan dystopian sci-fi. The issue of what is or is not anachronistic is one we could spend a great deal of time discussing, so I’ll duck it like the coward I am. I must say I got used to the unflinching, unapologetic modernism over time, but I never quite liked it. I would not be at all surprised if Morgan has used the word “fuck” more in one book than Scott Lynch in two and me in three all put together. In fact I’d be surprised if he hadn’t. He may well have used it more than in all of his previous books put together. I love a bit of swearing, I’ve written empassioned defences of its use in fantasy but there definitely is such a thing as too much. I wouldn’t consider it an anachronism, but in the end, five times in one paragraph, it just gets repetitive, boring, ineffective. Obviously, everyone will have a different threshold there, but for me, there was waaaaaaay too much, at least early on.
Now I know what you’re all thinking. “Joe, you hypocritical bastard, these are just the same criticisms you’re constantly and shrilly defending yourself against!” Ooops. You’re right. Modern verbiage. Too much swearing. Too much dark. Over-the-top violence. I can only scratch my head and say, it’s all a question of balance, and every reader or writer will find theirs in a different place, and if you think my stuff is in any way extreme, then think again, rapidly, because fantasy just got a whole lot more extreme, guys. I am proudly middle-of-the road, now. I am made bland, and inoffensive, and believe me, so is everybody else.
Anyway, these are details, really, which made me struggle at first, but that generally fell away as the book went on and I got drawn into the setting, and the people, and the unfolding of the mystery. By the last hundred pages or so I was properly gripped. It’s a slow builder, and takes a bit of time getting there (another criticism everyone always has of my books), but has a cracking action finale, and an ending that would seem to promise some very interesting developments as the series goes on. It also strikes a nice balance between resolution of a book and setting up of a trilogy, something that’s harder than you might think. I hesitate to say, “if you like the works of x, y, or z, then give The Steel Remains a try,” because really it’s pretty much unlike anything else, and that’s why you should give it a try. You might love it, you might loathe it, but you’ll certainly find it difficult to ignore…