Richard Morgan erupted onto the SF scene six years ago with his blistering debut novel Altered Carbon, a hard-edged thriller set in the 26th Century. Morgan has made his name with intelligent, intrguing ideas about science, technology and sociology, based around unflinchingly violent protagonists and often withering analyses of the human condition. The Steel Remains is his first foray into fantasy, the first book of a trilogy with the unofficial name A Land Fit For Heroes (which I assume is ironic, because this land is very definitely not fit for heroes, although it desperately needs them).
This world is a harsh, dirty and grim place. Some years ago a race of sentient lizards - the Scaled Folk - crossed the western ocean from a dying homeland and attempted to conquer the lands of humanity. The forces of humanity - somewhat reluctantly - banded together under the leadership of the Yhelteth Empire and their Kiriath allies and destroyed the invasion at great cost. After four thousand years amongst humanity, the Kiriath finally abandoned this world, fleeing in their vast fireships back through the subterrenean portals leading to other worlds. Humanity has been left to lick its wounds and rebuild.
Ringil Eskiath is the famed hero of Gallows Gap, who led the heroic defence that finally broke the back of the Scaled Folk's invasion. However, his temper and his sexuality have led to him being outcast from his homeland and he now makes his living as a glorified tourist attraction, showing gawping spectators around the legendary battlefield. However, when his cousin is sold into slavery, he is called home by his mother and asked to rescue her. Ringil's journey leads him back into the shadow of his old life and to the realisation of a devastating new threat that is arising now the one thing it feared, the Kiriath, is gone.
Archeth is a Kiriath half-breed, left behind when her people left. Now she serves the Emperor as his advisor on Kiriath technology, but her presence is anathema to the increasingly fanatical religious leaders and she survives on the Emperor's sufference. The devastation of a coastal town leads Archeth's research to the horrific conclusion that an ancient force, powerful beyond measure, may be poised to return to this world.
Out on the windswept steppes, the barbarian warrior Egar finds life back among the clans unbelievably dull after he fought for the Empire as a mercenary, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ringil at Gallows Gap, where Egar earned the name Dragonbane. When Egar's position in the clan comes under threat, he is rescued by a most unlikely patron and whisked into a battle he barely comprehends, alongside some old allies...
The Steel Remains is a pretty dark, full-on and - to use a cliche, gritty. Those easily offended best stay away, especially if you found GRRM too explicit for your tastes as Morgan goes way, way past anything that GRRM has ever done in a book. The violence is visceral, bloody and painstakingly described. The sex is full-on and explicit. To be honest, the levels of sex and violence are somewhat higher than the plot demands. Whilst Black Man was similarly explicit, at least there it could be said that it was only done when necessary for the plot. The Steel Remains is, at heart, a gratuitous story which I suspect a lot of people will be put-off by.
Those who can stomach those elements will find all of those things that have made Morgan one of the most striking authors of his generation: deft characterisation, increasingly accomplished worldbuilding and a fiendish plot which seems to dance out of reach just as you think you've got a handle on it, replaced by something even more cunning than you previously thought possible. Here Morgan takes on of the biggest cliches in fantasy history and turns it on its head in a manner which is probably not quite as original as he thinks (unless he's read Scott Bakker recently) but nevertheless is deftly executed, leading to a powerful final scene that leaves the reader demanding more.
The Steel Remains (****) is dark, brooding, bloody, visceral and absolutely takes no prisoners. But the story it is telling is compelling, the characters are well-defined and the world throws up some refreshingly new ideas and concepts (some heavily influenced by Morgan's SF background). Some may find it all a bit too much, some may find this world too full of pain and darkness to actually be worth saving, but amidst the gloom Morgan carefully plants a few seeds of hope and optimism which the reader can cling to.
The Steel Remains will be published on 21 August 2008 by Gollancz in the UK. A US release from Del Rey is apparently on the cards, but no date has been set as yet.