Thursday, 8 May 2008

Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains (2008)

We all know that the American edition of Morgan’s last novel was renamed from Black Man to the less shocking Thirteen to avoid controversy. So I’m wondering what the USA will do with The Steel Remains. They can’t leave the title in that form, of course: what with the current dire state of the US Steel industry it would surely be too upsetting for an American audience. So I’m thinking they’ll go with Gay Elf Fucking. But there are various options. They could, for instance, rename it Brokeback Mount Doom. Or Hello I’m Julian And This Is My Friend Sauron. Or I’m the Only Gay on the Pillage. Or Elric of Meli-boner. Or Michael? More Cock! Or Robert Heinlein’s Glory Hole. Any of these would work.
Well. Maybe not that last one.
So here we have the first of a projected trilogy of sword and sorcery (via far-future SF) novels. and the first thing to say is that it's extremely good. Morgan is a gifted writer, and his gifts are lavishly on display here.
What's it about? It's about Ringil Eskiath, a warrior hero swordsman who is gay. Now, one way of writing that last sentence would be Ringil Eskiath is a warrior hero swordsman who happens to be gay, but I’ve never liked that locution—it’s a heterosexual code for ‘… which I’m totally OK with, actually’, which in turn is code for ‘although secretly I think it’s all a bit icky’. If you need to remind yourself that ‘there’s nothing wrong with being gay’ then you are still, to a degree, in thrall to homophobia (nobody beds down with their wife or husband thinking ‘you know what? There’s nothing wrong with being straight … I’m totally OK with that’). Besides which Ringil is not a character who happens to be gay. Ringil is assertively, even aggressively in-your-face gay.
He is a gay man living in a homophobic and persecutory society (Morgan puts this across well) and his sexuality is a large part of his being. He is gay, actually, in a 1980s stylee—I got the sense, actually, of a distinctly 1980s vibe to Morgan’s invented world, something I took to be a deliberate authorial strategy. What I mean is that, though set in the usual medievalised Fantasy realm, the novel seems to go out of its way to talk about how riverside warehouses have been converted to spacious apartments, or to mention patios [206] (this must surely be the first Fantasy novel to include patios) and merry-go-rounds and museums; to include wine-tasting (‘a dark Jith-Urnetil grape, late harvest pressing, of course, you couldn’t mistake that taste’, 197), and have a character go back to her flat where she keeps what amounts to an enormous, ungainly early-model computer. It’s like a Gay Fantasy Ashes To Ashes. (Asses To Asses, maybe). But this is not random. The point I'm making is that Ringil is not gay like the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae were gay; and he’s not gay like male lovers in the armies of the First World War (this isn’t a novel about the way societies at war become homoerotically obsessed with masculine strength and beauty, like Barker’s excellent 1993 The Eye in the Door and 1995 The Ghost Road). Ringil is gay in a loud-and-proud, vanguard 1980s sense. Plus he can chop your head off if you annoy him. Anyway, Ringil quests through Morgan’s fantasy realm to rescue a cousin who’s been sold into slavery, and along the way he fights, hacks and kills quite a few people, and has a certain amount of sex.
Ringil isn’t what you’d call a likeable individual. He kills a lot of people, for one thing. Also he spends a certain amount of time posing in a selfconsciously ‘I am a man whose soul has been bruised by the cruel world, see me toss my hair and gaze mournfully away to the left whilst simultaneously noting how fantastically handsome I look in my leather outfit’ way; which struck me as a pretty cheesy pick-up strategy. Still he gets to have sex with the devastatingly good-looking, thrillingly cold-hearted dwenda Seethlaw, so I suppose that works out OK for him. Plus he’s also got a really big sword. No, really. It’s a broadsword called Ravensfriend, a name which should endear it to the Velcro City Tourist Board.

There are two other strands to the narrative. One concerns Egar the Steppe Nomad, who used to fight alongside Ringil but now has returned to the Steppes to rule his people, where he is having a sort of mid-life crisis. The other is about Archeth, a half-human half-Kiriath woman acting as a sort of technical adviser to a very central casting Decadent Hedonistic Young Emperor. I took the Kiriath to be sort-of-elves, but this may not be right. Anyway these three strands come together, as we know they will, and the three former friends reunite to fight off an incursion by the Dwenda, superpowered fighters from another dimension. I took the dwenda to be sort-of gods (in the logic of the novel, I mean). Or maybe another kind of elves. This may not be right either.
This is what I liked about the novel: I liked its excessiveness. I liked its edge of strangeness, something not easy to achieve in a genre as clotted with priors as heroic Fantasy. It’s as well-plotted, well-written and well-conceived as any Morgan novel, which is saying a lot. That said, I didn’t enjoy the first half of the novel so much as the second: there’s too much shuffling of narrative feet, and setting of scenes; a sense of Ringil and Egar being giving things to do (which is to say, given monsters to fight) to keep them busy whilst the novel beds itself in; and Archeth’s third of the book never really gels, since she mostly spends her time in lengthy plot- and background-expository conversations with her Decadent Emperor. But once we meet the dwenda things improve enormously. I particularly liked Ringil’s prolonged visit to Fairyland, a sort of ‘what if our world were their hell’ trope which works brilliantly.
Here’s what I didn’t like. The tone has a sort of uncertainty to it. Don’t get me wrong here: Morgan is an excellent stylist, and his overall approach to the book is fine. What he tends to do, as a writer, is to work a sort of Velvet Underground or Pixies loudQUIETloud aesthetic: layering nicely understated pastels:

The sun lay dying amidst torn cloud the colour of bruises, at the bottom of a sky that never seemed to end. Night drew in across the grasslands from the east, turned the persistent breeze chilly as it came. [17]

with more crashing sections of scarlet and black:

The first runner took the lance full in the chest and fell back … scrabbling and spitting blood. Egar reined in hard, twisted and withdrew the lance, quadrupled the size of the wound. Wet, ropelike organs came out on the serrated edges of the blade, tugged and tore and spilt pale fluids as he ripped the weapon clear. [22]

Speaking generally, this is a very canny stylistic strategy. But as the book goes on I felt the crashing starts to drown out the crowded moments, and by the time of the climactic battle I felt a little numbed to it all.
Of course Morgan is an extreme writer, and objecting to the extremes would be to miss the point of what he’s doing: if you don’t like ultraviolence, ultrasex and ultra-swearing maybe you should think about reading another novel. Nevertheless I thought his extremism wasn’t as well handled here as it was in Black Man/Thirteen. The swearing grates; instead of creating an emphatic and aggressive idiom of its own, after the manner of (say) Scarface or Deadwood, it feels forced, and overused, and on occasion even wincingly adolescent. The violence is very full-on all the time, which erodes its capacity to shock us with its visceral intensity. The sex, on the other hand (and despite what I’d heard by way of rumour before actually reading the book) is a more contained portion of the whole, and works much more effectively.
But in places I wasn’t sure of the tone. The naming seemed a little off. So, Ringil fights hideous monsters called corpsemites, which I kept reading as corp-semites, which struck the wrong note with me (and wouldn't endear the book to the Jewish Chronicle). And then there’s Dwenda. I couldn’t work out if Morgan had picked that name precisely because it has a girly, Wendy or Glinda vibe to it: which is to say, because it sounds a bit Friend of Dorothy. Which I could understand, in a book like this, although tonally it seems wrong to me.
It could be that I wasn’t tuning-in to the author’s sense of humour, my own sense of humour having, I regret to say, largely atrophied. When Ringil fights an urban thug who is armed only with a fruit knife, I wondered if it was a deliberate allusion to the episode of Blackadder 1 where Brian Blessed uses just such a utensil to fight his way back from the crusades, and if so, to what end. Is that funny? I don't know. I do know that the novel isn’t above channeling Calculon:

Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!!’ [217]

(Really? All those exclamation marks?) And I also know that occasionally the novel succumbs to a key danger of its genre—namely that individual sentences start out in English but end up sounding like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets:

Ringil thought back to the Kiriath he had known; Grashgal, Naranash, Flaradnam, Kalanak. [105]

Bork bork bork. Morgan goes to such lengths to subvert the clichés of Heroic Fantasy that the ones that still remain (‘a dark lord shall rise’) jolt a little. What else? Here’s how milkmaids talk in actual folk art:

‘Oh don’t deceive me.
Oh never leave me.
How could you use a poor maiden so?'

And here’s how milkmaids talk in Morgan’s universe:

‘Fuck it, I was on my sky-fisted way to your fucking yurt when I passed him. And, like I said, he just fucking shoves right past me. Face fucking screwed up like he’s pissed off about something.’ [152]

Which has, perhaps, slightly less charm. Plus I was puzzled by the way Ringil flourishes his broadsword like a fencer’s foil. [My puzzlement may be a simple expression of ignorance; check out the comments below, after which you may prefer to disregard the following sentences] Broadswords are very heavy objects indeed. They were used in battle as, in effect, big clubs, for battering more than chopping; and just being able to lift one up takes considerable strength. There’s some chaff about how kiriath blades are lighter than regular blades, but it didn’t persuade me. Gene Wolfe talks about how Severian’s broadsword is hollow and filled with mercury, to facilitate it being hefted and swung about. But this is to grumble unnecessarily. None of this detracts from the impact the book makes, which is considerable.
The Steel Remains is not the first Fantasy book to make a big deal out of the homoerotic, homosocial and homosexual aspects of the genre. Delany’s Nevèrÿon books are more radical in their excavation of the sexual politics of Fantasy. Barker’s Eye in the Door, as I mentioned above (not a Fantasy novel, of course) does a better job of anatomizing how a society at war is inevitably interpenetrated by homosexual fascination and desire in ways it, or portions of it, cannot be comfortable with or acknowledge. But The Steel Remains remains a powerful turn-everything-up-to-eleven reading experience. It’s the most impressive Fantasy novel I’ve read in a very long time: a big, brave, bollocks-out and often brilliant novel. It’s not perfect, but it’s a major novel for all that. I can’t wait for vol 2.


Markus said...

"Which has, perhaps, slightly less charm. Plus I was puzzled by the way Ringil flourishes his broadsword like a fencer’s foil. Broadswords are very heavy objects indeed. They were used in battle as, in effect, big clubs, for battering more than chopping; and just being able to lift one up takes considerable strength."

I'm sorry, but have you ever actually held a the real deal? Because that's pretty much incorrect. "Broadswords" weight 0,9kg (one-handed) to up to 1.6kg (two-handed/Bastard swords). The blade is rather thin (4-7mm tappering out for the last third to 2-3mm) and flexible - you can bend it sideways and it will return true instantly if it is well-made. Something you can swing all day long (modern rifles weigh 5-8kg for comparison). They were designed as cutter swords and thus not "clubs" but sharp as your average knife, quick and nimble although with a point of balance farther out than later thrusting swords (the point of balance would be about 15-20 cm in front of the hilt instead at 2-10cm with thrusting swords) which does not make them as nimble as a thrusting sword, but a far better cutter. Still, you can swing and parry with such swords with an surprising speed.
Battering with a sword? That doesn't work except with Hollywood-swords like Conan's club.

Markus said...

Argh, I shouldn't write that early in the morning, sorry for the errors (it's of course "weighed 0.9kg" for example).

Some links for a good overview over swords and some historical examples:

Adam Roberts said...

Markus, you could very well be right. Certainly my comment on Morgan's sword is nitpicky.

Have I held a broadsword? I've held a Claymore, which weighed considerably more than 1.6kg; nearer 3kg if I remember, and with a big, rigid blade. It felt very ... heavy. I accept modern rifles weigh more, but you lift and aim a rifle, you don't wing it to and fro, block and parry and all that Douglas Fairbanks palaver.

I'm certainly happy to take correction from somebody who knows more about this subject than I do.

David Moles said...

With Markus: if we're talking about something like the medieval German langes schwert it doesn't sound unreasonable. I haven't used one myself but from what I've seen of the techniques (search "arma longsword" on YouTube to see reconstructions from the 15th-century manuals) they look substantially similar to the Japanese techniques I do know, intended for swords with a 70-80cm blade and weighting say 1300-1500g. Not Renaissance-rapier-fast, but quick enough.

If Ringil's got a five- or six-footer like Stormbringer or Terminus Est then I agree it's a bit silly. :)

David Moles said...

(I should note that 1300g also gets plenty heavy, especially when you're used to 450-900g practice weapons, but I expect Ringil's in better shape than I've ever been.)

Nasuhorn said...

Severian, of Gene Wolfe fame, carries an executioner's sword (called Terminus est), a completely different kind of beast compared to normal swords and a type of weapon which no normal person would ever carry to combat.

Broadsword is not a type of giant combat shovel but it's not a rapier either. I risk degenerating into terminology but it is a bit confusing that "broadsword" may refer either to a single-handed medieval sword (the classic knight sidearm) or the scottish super-heavy (less than 3kg still) claymore of 1700s - or, actually to many other sword types too!

Weapons make men (that would be me) such geeks! Otherwise, a brilliant review I much enjoyed reading.

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