The Steel Remains: subverting fantasy tropes with glee (revisited)

A re-read for me, and my first dip into grimdark for quite some time. I have an abiding attachment to Richard Morgan novels, largely for the cynical, bared-teeth rage that blasts off the page. His unexpected turn from scifi to fantasy took me by surprise, but is entirely successful – if not to everyone's taste.

Grimdark is typically a brutal tapestry of antiheroes fighting the odds in deeply divided environments – often committing reprehensible acts along the way. The Steel Remains is different only in that Morgan attempts to subvert (some) grimdark as well as fantasy tropes. Don't expect much in the way of untarnished victories, however.

Three friends survived the war with the Scaled Folk. Outcast hero Ringil Eskiath is summoned home by his mother to find a cousin sold into a newly-legal slave trade, with family and old friends surprisingly unwilling to help. Skaranak clanmaster Egar Dragonbane is dissatisfied with his simple post-war life on the plains, his longing for the civilities of the southern Empire fomenting discord amongst his tribe. Half-breed Archeth, abandoned by her Kiriath kin, cautiously navigates the politics of the imperial court and the whims of a dissolute Emperor. But ancient powers are returning, and human politics will need to be set aside if they are to remain free.

The Steel Remains embraces ultraviolence and swearing (oh so very much swearing), takes place in harsh societies that place no value on the lives of the poor, and is powered by jaded heroes (anti-heroes only in the context of the societies they live in, and in which they are all to some extent outsiders). It's unusual for the mainstream genre in that 2 of 3 leads are gay, and the sex scene(s) and only (on-page) rape are between men.

This isn't to say women are well-treated here: far from it – they are the victims of much of the casual violence along the way. Ringil's investigation into the League slave trade makes it clear what women can expect; an early scene on the plains involves an assault on a prostitute; and the Yheltethi Emperor spends much of his day in his slave harem (so any consent is highly questionable). The misogynistic grimdark underpinnings are all in place, and reinforced with much of the language throughout.

In spite of Ringil and Archeth's preferences, the setting is also intensely homophobic. The only people not to punish homosexuality are the enemy dwenda (also the only egalitarian society) although it seems likely that Archeth's Kiriath kin would have been similarly open-minded. The message seems to be that humanity sucks (which is pretty much why the pure-blooded Kiriath left), and the often bitter POV we get from our heroes backs this up. Again – so far, so grimdark.

And I've generally run dry on grimdark (I failed to re-read The Blade Itself recently, which I enjoyed on first publication), but I still really enjoy this. I think what wins me over – aside from the biting humour – is that while the setting is oh so typical, the main characters' attitudes and actions consistently reject it. Consent – and the right to it (sexually and otherwise) – is implicit in their ethical framework, as is a rejection of warfare for political purposes. Our heroes (and the author) are conscious of the physical and psychological cost of violence – and who pays it, Morgan's regular anti-authority theme a constant bass note underpinning the narrative.

In a nutshell then, I think Morgan successfully plays with the tropes he adopts and delivers self-aware grimdark and concise, effective world-building on the back of it, rather than fiction that simply revels in the awfulness of it all. It's not entirely successful – Egar's narrative is rather slow with little pay-off for the mileage – but I still enjoyed revisiting it and will bound straight on to the sequel, The Cold Commands.