Maybe I made the mistake of wanting to read The Steel Remains again before reading its sequel, The Cold Commands. Then again, maybe The Cold Commands is not that good of a book.
We are talking about a trilogy. The name of the series is A Land Fit for Heroes. Now, The Steel Remains made for a pretty excellent standalone novel. It did not need a sequel. But fantasy lives and dies by the series, so there needs to be two more books to make the traditional trilogy.
My problem with The Cold Commands is that it is filler. And repetitious filler at that. The blurbs talk about the Ilwrack Changeling. Well, he does not appear in this volume. All that is accomplished is a messed up set up for the journey to find his Ghost Isle and the Kiriath city that serves as a sentry post.
What is accomplished in this volume? Every single protagonist does the exact same damn thing they did in book one. And the Dwenda are up to the same tricks.
While the elements that made The Steel Remains excellent are present in The Cold Commands, there is not enough to take away from the realization that so much of this middle book is filler that could easily have been cut.
This is a shame. I wanted to like this books, but I just cannot bring myself to. Instead, all that remains is bitter disappointment that this novel could have been better.
To continue my series of brief reviews, this time I’m taking on Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains. The Steel Remains is, at its heart, about the aftermath of a Great Epic War fought between a Last Alliance of Human nations and a race called the Kiriath (a more science fictional take on Elves) against a reptilianesque race called the Scaled Folk. The three protagonists won glory from the war, but feel that what they fought for has become a lie. For Ringil “Gil” Eskiath, he has become a tourist attraction in a hovel near his greatest victory, for Egar the Dragonbane, he has become the leader of his steppe clan, and for Archeth, she feels frustration at being in the court of an inferior emperor.
On the whole, I both really like this novel and dislike it. I’ll start with its strong points and then tackle the problems.
The best part of the narrative, in my opinion, is the writing. I like that Morgan utilizes contemporary speech for his characters rather than relying on cliched medievalisms or archaic English. This makes the narrative pop and speed along where otherwise, it would inevitably bog down. I also like the style that Morgan uses. Limitting the point of view to just five characters (Ringil, Archeth, Egar, Poltar, and Grace-of-Heaven), Morgan does not get bogged down and tells an effective tale.
I also like his deployment of non normative characters even as they fill in the archetypal role. Ringil Eskiath is gay in a world where being gay means that you are likely to be executed in a very horrific manner. He is a noble, a brusier, a not-so noble aristocratic warrior. He also acts as a gaze object. Archeth is a lesbian and half Kiriath. She is perhaps the coolest character out of the three protagonists. Egar is the most typical, being what you would expect from a steppe nomad. But he is attracted to civilization and wishes to return to it.
I also like his usage of science fictional tropes in a fantasy setting, but still keeping it Epic Fantasy. There are explanations for what the Kiriath and the Dwenda do, but it is far beyond the Human characters’ ability to understand.
My biggest beef with the narrative is that while Ringil and Archeth make sense as protagonists and fit seemlessly into the Coming Epic Struggle, Egar does not fit so smoothly. Egar, a very interesting character, only gets about less than ten chapters. Ringil gets (or stars/ features in) over half the chapters with Egar and Archeth sharing the other half every other second chapter (until the climax where Gil and Archeth switch off). And I’m not counting the two chapters that Poltar gets out of Egar’s section. To me, it feels arbitrary that Egar joins in the First Skirmish (it is in fact Deus Ex Machina).
Another problem I have with the narrative is the relationship (spoiler alert!) between Ringil and Seethlaw (the book’s main antagonist). Even though we are not told how long they travel to Ennishmin, their relationship (which is sexual) does not get much exploration. I don’t know if this is Morgan being okay with gay sex but unsure about gay relationships, or if this is more to do with Ringil’s character and a miscue in Seethlaw’s characterization.
Another issue, a somewhat minor one, is that there is a mild case of Trilogyitis. While the novel has a nice climax, the cliffhanger is a little weird and I would have liked to see more done with Egar’s problems back home.
In all, I enjoyed this novel and plan to buy it when I get around to it. The Steel Remains is not for everyone. There is a lot of violence, sex, and non heteronormativity. If you desire one of the crop of New Epic Fantasy, this is the novel for you. Be aware, there are two more novels to come, so you may want to wait for the end of the series. Or you could always reread.