The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan

This book is all about the execution. Maybe you read other reviews, the common theme you find is that this novel was expected to be revolutionary or innovative, or at least overthrowing some cliches and conventions. Instead it is all about the execution. And the execution is excellent.

Richard Morgan was, to this year, known as a science fiction writer. I haven’t read any of his books yet, but know something about the reputation. He has a kind of “modern” writing style and approach. His stories aren’t of the fancy kind with space ships or alien races, they are tightly rooted to the modern world and sensibilities. Some politics, some personal character struggles. Maybe closer to cyberpunk if you want to have a vague idea (and the vague idea is all I have since, once again, I only read “of” Morgan, and not read his books myself). When you have this type of writer brought to fantasy you at least expect… something. An original note, a particular point of view, some spark of originality, of invention. Some nonconformism.

The book doesn’t exactly delude on that front. It CAN delude if you come with specific expectations, but if you let it drive you, then you’ll have a satisfying experience. In truth I don’t think Morgan here tried to be revolutionary, so I can’t even say he wasn’t successful because it’s more an expectation I see coming from the readers than the writer himself. To me this book reads a bit like a “classic”. Not a kick in the nuts of a genre. But an homage. A tribute.

There are aspects of it that clash together. While the plot and abstract themes tend to be within the genre (so it’s all already seen), it’s the execution to be brilliant and follow that “modern” thread and intent. Something like a “what if”. What if classic fantasy, with all its tropes and cliches, was invented today and written with today’s sensibility? That’s what this book is, and if it’s not about rabidly original ideas, it has a wonderful execution that makes it a wonderful book to read that I absolutely recommend.

“Fantasy”, as a genre, has its own role. Like a sociological, descriptive purpose. The way societies work, some visceral themes about humanity and its meaning. Steven Erikson said that he likes fantasy because it allows him to make a metaphor real, with all its strength. The symbolic power. So fantasy has a role today. This books just drags all of this closer. It’s “aware” of the distance there is between certain fantasy and the way we know and perceive the world today, and becomes an attempt to look at the same things that make fantasy “classic”, and see, describe them with the new set of eyes we have today. So, in a way, this book is actual. Both in the way some thematic aspects rise to the surface, and the way IT KNOWS it is entertainment, and goes for it without fears. It uses hands down all the tricks known for the effect, and absolutely succeeds. If you aren’t a purist.

I loved the book. It’s extremely readable and gripping, the kind that makes you sink in and turn the pages. You think that you are going to just finish the chapter, then read the first lines of the next and can’t put it down. It’s fun to read and really well written. The characters are good, the story mainly revolves around three protagonists, even if it always feels like the other two are a bit less prominent and less realized. Probably Morgan’s more obvious skill is also the one that could be seen as a weakness here: the dialogues. Personally it’s what made the book work for me. The dialogues are probably the less conventional part if you think of the genre, but if you accept the style it’s also where Morgan shines. The characters come trough, they become real. The way they talk to each other comes out of the page. You don’t feel like reading a book, but as if you are really there, listening to real men who really know each other. True friendship and complicity. On this particular aspect is as if you never feel that the characters are talking to the reader, but really talking on their own. Their feelings, their relationships, feel true.

On the other side the prose seems to go in the opposite direction, and probably as a choice. It’s “warmer”, there are some major infodumps here and there that feel even too heavy and clunky. The writer weighs in with comments and observations, becoming more a subject of the writing, more “talking-to-the-reader”. But it seems more a choice, as it offers the possibility to make the hidden parts more explicit and so “care” more for the characters and what they are. Morgan always seem to know exactly what effects he wants to obtain in the reader, and so uses all the tricks he knows to make it happen. Something like means to an end. Maybe, if I nitpick, too gimmicky, but it’s what I mean when I say he knows the book is also entertainment and is not ashamed of it. It’s not pretentious and comes out as better realized than most.

It also feels like he’s cooking. At various moments in the book I felt as if he was restraining. Like building things in potential. He shows you something, just the possibility of it, he hints at some crazy, unexpected twists, then steps back as if he didn’t want to rise the stakes just yet. He just shows, tells you he can do it, but not just yet. Before the book is over he already built various threads and possibilities that will flow on with the series, yet the story has its conclusion and feels realized on its own.

It’s so involving and well written that you can glide over some possible flaws. Possible because they are flaws as general rules, but I think here have an interesting role. For example the deus ex machina.

There are three HUGE ones in the book. The first is pointed by the characters themselves and laughed at, one is openly referenced, and the third comes last like a FREAKING epiphany and kept well hidden. Usually deus ex machina are proofs of a bad plot, here, similar to Erikson, the deus ex machina are subjects. In the sense that one main, but slightly shaded, theme in the book is the way all the story is piloted by some unknown hand. So not only there are deus ex machina in the book, but they are actually a part of the book, contained with it. And that probably will have a leading role for what comes next (since this is going to be a trilogy).

In particular the ending of the book is great. I actually found the “last battle” a bit underwhelming. I wouldn’t know what else to ask. It’s absolutely accomplished, but I kinda knew where it was going. I felt like I fell again in the trap. Because in the aftermath of the battle you have those ten pages left in the book, you read and expect to read just about the last salutations between the survivors. Yet, in the last FIVE pages, exactly when you don’t expect anything anymore from the book, it sends chills down your spine with a series of both implicit and explicit revelations that work a bit like Fight Club, making you revisit retrospectively the whole book under a new light. That was quite awesome and felt again as if the writer always had a very tight control on the book and the effect he wanted to have in the reader, even when you thought he missed.

It wasn’t a miss, it was a feint.

Morgan is like that. The pied piper of Hamelin. He seems to know exactly where your attention is, how you’re feeling, and so he is a successful manipulator. A trickster. He fixes your attention on one hand, while the other does the trick. As I said, sometimes this may feel gimmicky, but if you let yourself enjoy the book then it’s just a pleasure.

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