Richard Morgan – The Dark Defiles

Another year down the line, and our so-called heroes are flailing around the far north failing to find King Arthur's grave the grave of a long-dead Dark Lord fated to return, or the Kiriath fortress that supposedly guards it to ensure he doesn't. When war erupts along the border, their carefully-negotiated terms of passage are ripped up and Ringil's status as the most wanted man in Trelayne comes back to haunt him. As his mastery of the ikinri ska matures, has he become the new Dark Lord prophecied or do the dwenda, the Helmsmen and the Dark Court have a few tricks left up their sleeves?

I found this less challenging than the previous volume. Whilst still soaked in bloody violence, I was less appalled – although it's worth noting that Morgan has form for subverting my ethical sensibilities (see Takeshi Kovacs in Woken Furies) and Ringil's return to Trelayne is monstrous in terms of collateral damage. Perhaps appropriately then, this volume is also less funny (Bulwer-Lytton court bard versions of the story at the start of each chapter aside) as the trilogy gets down to epic confrontations and (un)just desserts.

The split narrative slows things down again here – while Egar and Archeth remain together, their story becomes so divorced from Ringil facing down the threat to the world that it's almost on par with Brienne's wanderings in A Feast For Crows (thankfully it's more interesting). While Ringil has the core narrative, Archeth gets all the character progression – it's an odd split, however realistic it may feel (or familiar to those who have ever annoyed their storyteller by splitting the party).

However, it remains gripping entertainment if somewhat drawn-out and the tale is heavily laced with mythic back story for the reader that worries about background detail. Morgan has subsequently come out and said he doesn't have all the answers, which if true makes some of this world-building a little lazy – although I suspect trolling, as he has also ranted elsewhere about the death of nuance much as his gods rant about their worshippers wanting all the answers. Whether you can join all the dots and come up with a satisfying narrative is up to you as reader.

This bears most on the deliberately suggestive relationship between Ringil, dark god Takavach, and wandering minstrel Hjel, although some readers have also spotted the similarity between the names of the Dark Court and their name for themselves (An Foi) and asked just how far in Takeshi Kovacs' future A Land Fit For Heroes takes place. I'm happy to go with authorial coincidence for his own entertainment or echoes a la Kay's Fionavar, but I'll accept that most readings make some sort of twisted sense. This makes the rather meta Book-Keepers offering Ringil a choice of heroic outcomes (and how these are later worked into the narrative) either the ironic commentary on authorial hand I took them for or back up various theories about virtual realities… It's all good for pub and forum debate, but ultimately has little bearing on the outcome.

All in all, good stuff, but arguably less interested in challenging grimdark tropes than adopting them as the focus shifts to resolution. Expect blood, guts, swearing and mixed feelings about representation.