Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Steel Remains review

    One of the more interesting problems of science fiction and fantasy is a lot of people are more interested in the war than the peace. It's a conceit of the majority of novels that everything will roughly end like WW2 where one side is dismantled completely or outright destroyed. One of my favorite early aversions was the Star Wars Legends universe where it took a couple of in-universe decades for the New Republic to make a treaty with the Empire because destroying it turned out to be harder than they thought.

    The Steel Remains is the first book of The Land Fit for Heroes trilogy which is about the aftermath of a massive fantasy war. We get frequent reference to the war against the Scaled Folk, battles where dragons were slain, and all sorts of tales which indicate they had a very typical conflict between "Good and Evil." This book is not about that war.

    Instead, The Steel Remains is about the aftermath of said war. The poverty, the classicism, the social changes, and the other consequences from a massive fantasy war. Ringel is a legendary military hero from the war as well as a nobleman but he's a homosexual and that puts him on the outs with the rising fundamentalist streak of society following the conflict. Egar Dragonbane is a barbarian hero in the Conan mold who finds exposure to civilization makes him ill-suited to return to his people. Archeth Indamaninarnal is a half-kiriath champion who finally answers, "So what happens when the elves finally DO leave?"

    In a very real sense, The Steel Remains is a deconstruction of the Happily Ever After trope and I can say I'm inherently biased towards it because that's a premise which I've tinkered around with myself (Wraith Knight). Real life is complicated because there's no such thing as a happily ever after. World War 2 was a defining moment for the Greatest Generation but they continued their lives for decades thereafter, shaping society and themselves in ways both great as well as bad.

    I've been informed by fans A Land Fit for Heroes is one of the holy trilogy of grimdark. After you read George R.R. Martin you need to read Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercombie, and Richard K. Morgan to consider yourself an "expert" in the subject of grimdark. Given I've written plenty of essays on the subject, I naturally disagree but I've got to say their recommendation here is spot-on. Richard K. Morgan is definitely an author who deserves to stand with the others as well as gives a sense of what the aethstetics for a grimdark world should be. Indeed, using those books solely as a guide you can get a functional guide to the genre as: "What happens when classical fantasy stories function more like real-life history with all the ugliness and ambiguities?"

    Indeed, a big appeal of the book is how it displays individual people being washed along with the tide of history. Ringel is a character not defined by his homosexuality but when dealing with many of his fellow warriors, that's the only thing they care about. Egar Dragonbane finds the simple noble savage life of fiction to be boring as well as offensive while they hold their ignorance as a badge of pride. Archeth's lesbianism doesn't come up nearly as much as her race because of her political ties but the very person who protects her from persecution is a selfish monster. Like if you were friends with Aragorn but his son was Joffrey yet Joffrey was the only one who actually listened to you.

    That's a special kind of hell.

    The story itself isn't complex: Ringil is hired by his mother to recover his cousin, who has been sold into sexual slavery because of her husband's debts. Egar is, meanwhile, being plotted against by his jealous siblings who consider him a disgrace to their religion as well as culture. Archeth, meanwhile, wants to investigate reports of an ancient godlike race of fairy-like beings who are apparently returning after the abandoning of the world by the Kiriath. The plot is really just an excuse to explore the wonderfully dark and gritty world the author has created.

        Of the three major characters I have to say I approve of Ringil the most. Not the least because it's a good thing to see a complete badass who is also gay in fiction but also because he's such a complicated nuanced character. A nobleman who has embraced every nasty gritty stereotype because if he's going to be treated like dirt by his family, he might as well be dirty. He's a delightfully anti-patriotic character as he comes to hate what his country has done to its citizens. Honestly, a few centuries later and he probably would have been an outlaw biker. I also love Archeth as she struggles to reconcile the fact the perfect Kiriath didn't accept her but the human race (mostly) does despite them being a murderous bunch of ignorant savages.

    Is the book perfect? Not quite. I was taken out of the story a few times by the way the characters moved from somewhat old timey and formal talk to guttural modern world swearing. Real life people in the Middle Ages were as, if not more, foul-mouthed than Modern man but the dialogue did seem to switch between types a bit too much. A graphic sex scene between Ringel and a villain also slows down the narrative, though I suspect complaints about that may have more to do with the nature of the pairing than the fact it just occupied too much of the book. There's also the fact Egar's plot seems to be somewhat half-finished by the time he joins the rest of the group as with the events with his people seems like it should have had a bigger consequence than it did.

    In conclusion, this is a great book and I have to say it's must for grimdark readers. It's a dark and seedy story with the backdrop of a war which should have initiated them all into everlasting glory but, instead, just meant they have to live in its shadow as what they fought for becomes unrecognizable.


1 comment:

  1. The effects of war on the culture is very interesting. The puritanism and 'everybody needs to be normal' is a reaction to the horrors of WWII. Of course the Outlaw biker gangs were made of people who after combat couldn't see themselves rejoining normal society.

    After WWI you had of course the lost generation, more so in Europe than the US, of people who simply saw no point in life and were listless or simply drowned themselves in drink.